What You Need to Know about Your Parents

By: Dale Atkins, Ph.D.

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?--Cicero

The key to handling your parents is understanding them. Sometimes, especially when they are annoying you, the very idea of that is repellent. You don't want to understand their motives; you want to grumble about them, shrug your shoulders helplessly about how impossible they are, assure yourself that they're crazy.

That's a completely natural reaction, but it's not useful. The only way for you to improve your chemistry with them is to know what forces shaped them. Just as you are shaped by your past (the humiliation of having your heart broken by that achingly beautiful girl in junior high school, the jubilance of overcoming a learning disability, the pain of your parents' divorce), so too are they people with a past every bit as poignant, surprising, and important as yours. You need to know that history in order to:

How to Dig Up the Dirt

It Can't Hurt to Ask

As you read this, you may be thinking, I couldn't possibly just come out and ask my mother about her childhood. That would be too embarrassing for her . . . and for me. But you may be dead wrong. Your parents may be much more open to direct questions than you think. Many of my clients judge their parents' approachability by their own childhood standards of privacy, fear, and taboo. Because their childhood was scary and full of family secrets, they assume that their parents will be shocked if asked about their childhood.

But these two things are not necessarily related, especially not in your parents' minds. Many parents enjoy answering questions about their childhood. To begin with, they're getting older, and as the human brain ages, it tends to favor long-term memory. That means your parents may now remember, perhaps fondly, details of their childhood that they thought they had forgotten. Also, if your parents are the types who demand a lot of attention, asking them these questions will help satisfy that need. They probably enjoy talking about themselves (Who doesn't?) and will be flattered by your interest. You may be surprised at how quickly and fully they open up -- provided that you deal with them skillfully.


How to Get the Ball Rolling

Always begin with a neutral, nonthreatening observation or question. Then steer the conversation toward the topic you're interested in.

Here are a few opening gambits you might adapt to your situation.

You may find many keys in their childhood. Perhaps you don't have the expertise to analyze all their answers like a trained therapist (Her mother yelled at her a lot, so that's why she sometimes pulls that martyr crap with me), but you can reflect on their answers, and that may give you innovative ideas on how to deal with them. Many clients who delve in earnest into their parents' pasts find a cache of unrealized dreams and aspirations: a father who dreamed of being a professional athlete until a knee injury sidelined him forever; a mother who wanted to go to college but wound up pregnant at seventeen. You may think that you're the only one who had your dreams thwarted, but maybe that's not true. Be careful -- you may discover that your parents are much more like you than you think.

Here's a good example from my life. My father was a navy pilot during World War II, stationed in the Pacific. After the war, he and two friends wanted to stay in Hawaii and start a small cargo-shipping company, but my mom, who'd been raising my older sister at her parents' home on the mainland, didn't want to move that far. Dad was an easygoing guy and agreed to come back to New Jersey, but I know he always wondered what would have happened if he had stayed in Hawaii. That little company his pals started became one of the biggest in the Pacific Rim.

Disappointment colors people's lives and can have a profound effect on their families. It can be painful to find out about such things, but it's crucial that you do so if you ever hope to see your parents as fully realized beings.

Knowledge of their past will give you empathy for them. You may find that their childhoods were much more similar to yours than you thought, that they echo the chilliness in your youth or the overpowering expressions of concern that made you feel smothered.

Or you may be surprised to find that their impressions of their own childhood are in direct conflict with what you've heard from other family members or what you experienced in watching them deal with your grandparents. (I've had many clients whose parents describe their own childhood as idyllic, though the clients themselves remember volcanic fights between the parents and the grandparents.)

This is all grist for the mill of your empathetic imagination. Remember, just as you want to be respected for your memories of childhood, they too are heavily invested in their childhood stories, despite the fact that those memories may not be entirely accurate.

As you explore the past with them, you may even find buried clues that will help you help them get in touch with some of their more tender, vulnerable memories and experiences.

(Excerpted from the book I'm OK, You're My Parents: How to Overcome Guilt, Let Go of Anger, and Create a Relationship That Works by Dale Atkins, Ph.D.; Copyright © 2004 Dale Atkins and Nancy Hass; Published by Henry Holt; April 2004; $24.00US/$34.95CAN; 0-8050-7353-1)

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