Healing your inner child after childhood neglect. What helped you?
December 17, 2013 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I have long-running case of depression and generalized anxiety disorder, with plenty of childhood triggers. I do see a therapist but due to the holiday schedule, I won't be seeing my therapist for a few weeks. I want to do some work by myself, because crying to sleep nearly every night is getting exhausting. I want my subconsciousness to chill out and be less triggered. I want tips, stories, and resources. Difficulty: I live with my parents, and I get triggered by them.

Childhood --> Overwhelming Anxiety and Helplessness
I've been seeing a therapist but it hasn't been long, so I'm still at the stage of "everything makes me feel raw and weepy" and less healed. The therapist has been using insight therapy and it seems like that the root of my anxiety is in my childhood, my parents having been emotionally/socially absent, and feeling like I have to fend for myself and having a great fear that I can't.

Even until now, many daily challenges cause me stress, because my emotional self sees it from the lens of "Can you take care of yourself? Or is this the point where you're going to die a horrible death?" I'm in my 20s, finished university, have lived alone and held down plenty of jobs. So yes, this framing is ridiculous, but that's how my emotions see the world and hence why I am stressed all the time.

I used to see another therapist where I did some CBT. My thoughts are a lot more realistic and helpful than they used to be, but I don't think it's my consciousness that's the problem--it's my subconscious. My emotional reactions are still overwhelmingly of the life-or-death variety. I used to take meds but currently am not on any, and I'd like it that way for now. I still can go to work and have fun once in a while, so while this emotional volatility isn't as paralyzing as it was before, I can't live like this and I'd like to heal my damage however I can outside of therapy too.

I'd love to hear advice, and any resources that you can provide me.
1. How to re-parent your inner child?
2. How to make your emotional reactions match up with reality?
3. How to deal with your parents, without expecting them to change?

More About the Parents and my Childhood
Part of the complicating factor is that I am currently living with my parents. Strangely enough, my depressive episodes happen just as often as when I was living alone and worrying about whether I can fend for myself... so I don't think it's necessary for me to move away from them. I actually think it is a great opportunity to slowly repair our relationship, especially since they were absent for so long. The difficulty is that both parents don't seem to understand emotions (which is why I never quite learned to manage mine), and one parent has the tendency to minimize my problems through the use of humour/teasing at my expense, and the other parent is of the "suppress your emotions, understanding them is useless" variety.

They still think that just because they were able to provide for my physical and financial needs that it makes them blameless, and it's a puzzle to them why I am dealing with mental health problems. Their childhoods weren't typical and certainly lacked supportive parents, so in a way, they couldn't provide me with what they didn't have. But outside of providing food and shelter, they didn't do much else, and I had a very isolated childhood (plus immigration woes) while being expected to raise myself.

Many social skills, coping skills, and learning experiences that other people had at a younger age, I had to learn by myself just in the past couple of years. Consequently, whenever I think of my years prior to adulthood, I feel great sadness at all the time wasted, especially since I had to deal with so much unnecessary difficulty that is invisible to others and to my family. I'm only learning how to blame myself less for my childhood, and that I really shouldn't have been expected to parent myself. The book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect really helped me acknowledge these facts and allow more compassion for myself and others.

It's ridiculous to expect to put child-rearing on autopilot, never make lunch ("you were too picky"), never help with homework, missed out on all but one of the parent teacher conferences, only provide criticism and never constructive feedback, criticize child for lacking emotional stability instead of teaching skills or sending the child to a professional, rarely bring the child to a medical professional, never bring the child to anywhere outside of the same supermarket, and yet expect the child to grow up to be a emotionally healthy and successful adult. I think I turned out reasonably well not because of what they've done, but despite what they didn't do. I don't expect parents to provide all of the care work, but I didn't have a trusted adult or an extended family to turn to either. I was literally by myself with some absent anti-social parents. The internet was my parent.

Reconciling with parents?
My parents weren't abusive, we had a mostly cordial relationship, but they just were barely there. They were socially and emotionally neglectful. They couldn't do better because of their own blind spots, financial and personal pressures, and probably their own mental health problems. I don't expect them to fix me or themselves, but should I expect them to acknowledge their responsibility and stop minimizing my current mental health problems? How can I repair my relationship with them regardless of how defensive they get? I'm only learning how to trust them again. Again, I'm interested in patching things up instead of leaving. I put them out of mind for the past several years and lived far away from them, and it didn't fix things. I'd say the avoidance and distance made things worse, because I began to imagine them to be malicious rather than the ignorant and socially-challenged souls they are.

I'll bring this all up in therapy, but yes, I'd like to hear your experiences and suggested resources. Oh internet, please teach me important life skills.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
First: None of this was your fault, in any form or fashion. I really do think you have done a great job with the crap they gave you (and this kind of neglect is crappy parenting, however- holding your breath for an apology, reconciliation, or the merest glimmer of emotional awareness is a VERY losing game. If they had that kind of capability, they wouldn't have put you in this spot to begin with!)

1. How to re-parent your inner child?
Time, love, therapy, and every time you feel something negative or thats cause of the parental neglect/incompetence, acknowledge the feelings, but refute it with something true. You ARE capable. You ARE lovable. You CAN understand this emotion and healing and stuff. You DID do very well to graduate, and get therapy, and so on.

Assure the inner child that you, the capable adult, CAN and WILL be there for said child. They put way too much responsibility on a kid, and that's sucky. You CAN AND WILL love and support the child, and take care of the hard things.

2. How to make your emotional reactions match up with reality?

Keep re-building those foundations. Every day is an improvement. It is ok to grieve the losses from childhood: Parents that should have loved you, taught you things... enjoyed you. It is ok to be angry about this. This was not good parenting, or decent humans. The intellectual knowledge of why they may have fallen so very short can help, but really internalize that this wasn't your fault; this was sucky parenting, it does cause issues today... but, just keep improving. Keep telling yourself the truths about your strengths. Because, you can do it.

3. How to deal with your parents, without expecting them to change?

Minimize the damage. In an ideal world they would apologize. This is not an ideal world. Odds are against them acknowledging any wrongdoing, in fact. Here: I'm sorry this happened. It was wrong. You deserved better. I believe in you.

Comfort the inner child; remind him/her frequently that you can handle this and will protect and love them. If you actually visualize this, it can help it be more effective, too.

Set boundaries with the parents, if you can. If they do something that is particularly triggering, say mom or dad, please do not do X. If you do, I will leave the conversation. Thank you. If they push those boundaries, be sure to politely enforce them.


This kind of healing is very rough. Like healing a broken bone or a long illness, it does take a lot out of you. It will pop up at odd times. But you've made huge steps, already. Congratulations, and I am proud of you.
posted by Jacen at 1:48 PM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Even until now, many daily challenges cause me stress, because my emotional self sees it from the lens of "Can you take care of yourself? Or is this the point where you're going to die a horrible death?" I'm in my 20s, finished university, have lived alone and held down plenty of jobs. So yes, this framing is ridiculous, but that's how my emotions see the world and hence why I am stressed all the time.

My brain was exactly like this for a very long time. Dealing with emotional reactivity and interpersonal skills (and to help preserve or repair relationships) are jobs for DBT. You can find many self-help resources, online and in book form, that include ways to soothe and calm yourself, and how to tolerate distress, which I suspect will teach you to treat yourself with kindness and affection that you may have lacked in childhood, and eventually work up to skills for interacting with your parents in a way that will get your needs met. It can also take care of that "EVERY FEAR IS A LIFE-OR-DEATH FEAR" thing.

http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/
http://www.reddit.com/r/dbtselfhelp
http://www.amazon.com/Dialectical-Behavior-Therapy-Skills-Workbook/dp/1572245131/

You can also look into finding a DBT skills group that you can attend while you do therapy. Some community health centers run them for free or reduced cost because they are so effective for so many people struggling with mental health issues. They are meant to supplement individual therapy, which you are already doing.
posted by Ouisch at 1:54 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK, I can't answer the first two, but for the how to deal with parents - well, it's going to suck: You have changed, and you are beginning to recognize that you are a person worthy of love and all those good things. But that doesn't mean your parents have changed. Maybe they will. But probably they won't. It is incredibly hard but you need to stop looking to your parents for validation. Find people who are capable of giving you the love you deserve and invest in those relationships instead.
posted by mskyle at 1:58 PM on December 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


I actually think it is a great opportunity to slowly repair our relationship, especially since they were absent for so long. The difficulty is that both parents don't seem to understand emotions (which is why I never quite learned to manage mine), and one parent has the tendency to minimize my problems through the use of humour/teasing at my expense, and the other parent is of the "suppress your emotions, understanding them is useless" variety.

The difficulty is that you can't do any of this on your own. Your parents need to be on board; otherwise, you're just going to be repeating the patterns of your childhood, where your need for caretaking or emotional validation goes unmet by them.

It's ridiculous to expect to put child-rearing on autopilot, never make lunch ("you were too picky"), never help with homework, missed out on all but one of the parent teacher conferences, only provide criticism and never constructive feedback, criticize child for lacking emotional stability instead of teaching skills or sending the child to a professional, rarely bring the child to a medical professional, never bring the child to anywhere outside of the same supermarket, and yet expect the child to grow up to be a emotionally healthy and successful adult. I think I turned out reasonably well not because of what they've done, but despite what they didn't do. I don't expect parents to provide all of the care work, but I didn't have a trusted adult or an extended family to turn to either. I was literally by myself with some absent anti-social parents. The internet was my parent.

You say that they weren't abusive, but some of these seem plenty abusive to me--particularly failing to feed you or seek medical help for you. You may not be comfortable with that label, though, or comfortable with that label yet. I know it took me a long time to be comfortable with calling the emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse of my childhood "abuse"; this was in a large part because I'd been taught that talking about it was being a traitor to those who abused me.

No matter what else, I think living with your parents is really, really unhealthy and causing you to be triggered. You once again need them--now, not for care, but for them to get on board with your plan for granting them forgiveness. There's no indication in your post they will give that to you, though. And that's one of the hard parts about navigating these relationships as an adult. You still can't make your parents who you want them to be, no matter how hard you try, no matter how good you are.

You might find this reddit community helpful.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:00 PM on December 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


How can I repair my relationship with them regardless of how defensive they get?

Put this as far down the to-do list as possible (like, move out again if possible). You need to be putting on your own oxygen mask first and foremost, and that will be so much harder to do if you're trying to fix something that is really not solely or at all your job to fix. You have to be your #1 priority right now.
posted by rtha at 2:04 PM on December 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


should I expect them to acknowledge their responsibility and stop minimizing my current mental health problems?

No. Look, it sounds like there is a significant aspect in your AskMe about not wanting to re-parent your inner child yourself but wanting your parents to re-parent you. And that's not really going to happen. You and your parents had one go at your childhood, and now it's done with. And you seem to have figured out how to take care of yourself despite it all!

My advice here would be to stop asking for validation from your parents about your current and future mental health treatments and how you are dealing with it. All of that stuff is really outside the range of their experience and understanding, and you're just going to frustrate yourself trying to share it with them. I myself am under regular care of a mental health professional, and that's just not something my family needs to know or hear about, any more than they need to hear about internal work politics or the like.

It is good that you are trying to get yourself back on your feet and make a better life for yourself, but as far as your parents are concerned (who probably had almost an identical upbringing to you!) both you and they are doing fine.

The best thing you can so is work out your issues and then lead by example, having a personal living and a family life that was different than the ones your parents shouldered you with.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 2:35 PM on December 17, 2013 [15 favorites]


You'll feel better when you quit lying to yourself and your inner knowledge and your outer world are in alignment.

- Stop investing in the fantasy that they are keen on repairing the relationship. Believe them when they get defensive. That's their bottom line on your position, accept them at their word.

- Stop investing in the fantasy that they are "clueless," "can't give what they did not get themselves," or any of the other garbage you are parroting in this question. When you twist yourself into knots trying to give the other guy the benefit of doubt, you end up crying yourself to sleep every night while the person who hurt you blithely goes about their business.

Again... I believe you'll feel better and find emotional stability when you quit lying to yourself. Your inner knowledge and your outer world need to be in alignment in order for you to truly heal and feel whole.

I can't say what form of action for you creating this alignment takes, but personal experience tells me this is where you're going wrong right now.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 2:36 PM on December 17, 2013 [18 favorites]


PS. I apologize for my tone in the comment above.

I'm angry on your behalf. I'm angry that I went through circumstances similar to yours, and it took me until my late 30's to free myself.

The day I accepted that my father simply didn't care that deeply for me, such that all manner of tragedy plagued my childhood and 20's, was the day I my nightmare ended. I haven't been depressed a day since, or felt significant anxiety or despair, or any of the other serious emotional challenges that held me back my entire life. That was 6 years ago now, and my life is drastically improved.

It's WONDERFUL to accept the truth. You'll get your life back - I swear.

Try it (start in therapy, I'm thinking.) Go ahead and say The Truth out loud, then see what happens, what possibilities open up for you.

Apologies, and again, good luck!
posted by jbenben at 2:54 PM on December 17, 2013 [20 favorites]


> I actually think it is a great opportunity to slowly repair our relationship

I strongly disagree with this. I had a very similar childhood to yours, and the possibility that you can get better while/by living with the very people who so horribly failed you -- when they are continuing to gaslight you and minimize your feelings even now -- is slim-to-none.

I am angry on your behalf, too. Trust you inner voice and know that you see things very clearly -- that even though it was not intended, you were given a very shitty deal, you deserved so much better than you got, and -- as others have mentioned above -- that YOU are the only person that can reparent/heal you. They can't be bothered to do it, and I feel that your clinging to the possibility that they can be the parents you need them to be is your avoiding fully feeling the pain.

You are feeling sad, but still directing way to much of it toward yourself. Get out of that house if there's any way you possibly can, even if you have to have roommates and live a reduced standard of living. The move will help support your healing, but staying with your parents NEVER, EVER will.

Take care of yourself -- you deserve it.
posted by ravioli at 3:38 PM on December 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


I know I've linked to this before but I find this site to be a good reference on how to deal with emotionally neglectful parents:
The Invisible Scar. One of the most important things I've seen on this website is to have "realistic" expectations. IMO your parents (and many other crappy parents) think that providing the basics let them off for all sorts of indefensible behavior. You need to realize for your own well-being that they did not raise you with the love and support that you needed and they do not (or will not) understand why you're depressed because of it. You must understand that they probably won't ever change. That was one of the hardest things I ever learned. It was both painful and freeing. I'm not sure that living with them is the best idea but if that's where you are in life so be it. Consider them nothing more then older roommates who have different ideas on what loving, stable relationships are. I wish you all the best going forward but above all if you do anything in the future do it for yourself.. Forget about them, I believe that will save much time looking for any justification for their behavior.
posted by lasamana at 3:42 PM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


You can't heal abuse when you're in an abusive situation. Your (formerly?) abusive parent minimizing and denying your feelings and reality is an abusive situation.

Please just think of ways that you can keep yourself emotionally safe for a few weeks, and then work with your therapist on this. While in general it's great to do work on your own, this is not a situation in which it's likely to be super-helpful and it's definitely a situation where there's the potential for a great deal of harm.
posted by jaguar at 5:07 PM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


While in general it's great to do work on your own, this is not a situation in which it's likely to be super-helpful and it's definitely a situation where there's the potential for a great deal of harm.

I agree.

I'm interested in patching things up instead of leaving. I put them out of mind for the past several years and lived far away from them, and it didn't fix things. I'd say the avoidance and distance made things worse, because I began to imagine them to be malicious rather than the ignorant and socially-challenged souls they are.

This is going to sound harsh and condescending. That's not because I don't respect you! I do respect you; actually, it sounds like you're further along on figuring all this out than I am, and I'm anxious to hear everyone's answers to your question. But there is one thing that I've learned the hard way (over and over and right now over again), and I don't want you to have to do the same. And maybe we're not similar in this particular way, but for me, unless I *have* to hear something, I will not hear it. So I'm just going to write this how it would have to be for me to take it in, OK?

You're trying to do too much. You *cannot* fix this. Time didn't change this, moving didn't change this, almost certainly *nothing* will ever change this. You are still the same exact person who is "literally by [your]self with some absent anti-social parents," that is who you are and the situation you're in, that has not changed. Don't piss on your leg and tell yourself it's raining.

If you're scared of even being able to get through these weeks, *listen* to that. You're correct! It will be difficult to even get through these weeks. This idea of getting through these weeks *and* trying to heal and fix everything in the meantime is a complete fantasy. You *cannot* heal and fix everything. Or maybe anything! And you definitely can't right now. By trying to do so, you are setting yourself up to fail.

Don't set yourself up to fail. There are probably a million, billion fascinating and personal reasons why you might feel an impulse to do so (and by all means, bring up those reasons to your therapist later). I can guess at a bunch now. But they don't matter right now! What matters right now is that you DO NOT set yourself up to fail.

Instead, make a list of your *concrete* responsibilities (ex: go to work, pay X bill, fix flat tire, etc) and pay close attention to that list. Do not take on *anything* else. If you start adding things to that list it's going to spiral out into a list of everything in the world.

You're not responsible for everything in the world. You're only responsible for that list. Make sure you do the things on that list. If you don't, then you know that nobody will -- but you're someone who deserves to have those things done! So you're going to do them.

You are not a screw up for not doing everything else. Just make sure that you're taking care of your list, everything else in the world is somebody else's problem. I'm not even telling you who's problem anything else is, because I know someone just like you (myself) and I know that as soon as you see a burden on another person's shoulders, you're grabbing to take it onto yours. STOP. I don't know why you're doing it, and it doesn't matter because you *can't* do it right now. You can't handle taking on everything for everyone, or anything for anyone really, and if you try, you're just going to collapse under the weight of it all and not even going to be able to do the stuff on your list. Which is what setting yourself up to fail is, and you're *not* going to do that.

Cry yourself to sleep every night if you need to. You're not exhausted because you're crying, you're crying because you're exhausted. And you're exhausted because you're trying to do *much* too much.
posted by rue72 at 6:06 PM on December 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


All I can say is that every moment I spent in the presence of my mother for 50+ years was destructive as hell for me. My father died when I was in my 20s after sincerely apologizing to me for the years of hurt and battering, but my mother lived into her early 80s and never slacked off on the hateful meanness that tore me to pieces, even when she was very ill and I was there for the sole purpose of trying to get her well enough to live on her own again. I gave and gave and lost so much of my own life to her undermining - I don't know how I survived it, to tell the truth. With the help of inpatient hospitalization in a psych unit after the last round of this, I did survive, and even got on top of it well enough to let go.

I'm sorry to say that my advice would have to include getting the hell outta' Dodge. Get away from the center of your distress, away from the recycling of resentments, away from all the junk that makes you constantly sort out and analyze how today went compared to how yesterday went. Set about making a plan to move out of state - as far away as you can - so you can begin the rest of your life under your own power (you'd be surprised how much you have when it's not being drained away by all the unplugged holes in your family relationship).

I'm sorry to be harsh, but do you want to feel this way for the rest of your life or do you want to get off that wheel and get away from the pain? I think you need medication because you're oh-yes seriously depressed (it may take several tries before you find the medication that works for you, but you need medication); I think you need less therapy rehash of the reason you feel so sad and more encouragement - even if you have to be pushed to set goals and meet them; and, again, this sounds harsh, but it's important: You ARE raised - your childhood is all over, for whatever it was worth - it's done. You've graduated college, which means you have the wherewithal to accomplish hard work, to set goals and move along. What you need is to get out of your parents' house, and far enough away and busy enough with a new life that your parents aren't even a daily thought in your world.

I wish you the very best, courage and strength and hope and faith in yourself - I wish you a quicker solution to your leftover childhood pain than the 50 years it took me to get free of it.
posted by aryma at 9:19 PM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Okay, so there's a lot to unpack in your post. I can't begin to address everything in an online forum. A couple of things I noticed...

They still think that just because they were able to provide for my physical and financial needs that it makes them blameless, and it's a puzzle to them why I am dealing with mental health problems. Their childhoods weren't typical and certainly lacked supportive parents, so in a way, they couldn't provide me with what they didn't have. But outside of providing food and shelter, they didn't do much else, and I had a very isolated childhood (plus immigration woes) while being expected to raise myself.


This is my experience with my parents as well. Totally sucks. But it will never change. So if your parents are anything like mine, they probably will never change either. So you gotta accept the situation as it is. Someone already mentioned upthread that you can't continue to try to get love and support from parents who can't or won't give it to you.

1. How to re-parent your inner child?

It's not just about parenting your inner child, but learning how to parent yourself in general. Taking care of yourself in every way (e.g. eating well, exercise, having a healthy social life, etc.) all contribute to being a good parent to yourself. Learning how to not neglect yourself when you come from a background of parental neglect is paramount.

Healing from this stuff takes time. It's not easy. But it's so worth it. Hang in there.

There really is life and love after childhood abuse and neglect. :)
posted by strelitzia at 9:00 AM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


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