Family

Why I Won’t Talk To My Parents About My Childhood Trauma

Photo: Africa Studio / Shutterstock
sad woman

Using the keypad, I open the garage door and let myself into my parents’ place.

It still smells new in here. They bought this townhome, new construction just over the border in New Hampshire, last summer. Their express reason for moving was to be closer to my family, though we haven’t spent much time together since then.

My mother’s unexpected sickness, the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, and the arrival of our newborn offer good cover, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story.

I’m not confronted with them today, because they’ve taken a trip back to the Midwestern town where I was raised; I’m just here to water the plants while they’re gone.

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It’s a raw day for me. I’m tired and emotional, anxious and sad. The huge iced coffee I nursed on the drive up sits, sweating and impotent, in my car’s cupholder. Rather than waking me up, it’s somehow only accentuated my unpleasant emotions.

I walk into the sunroom where my parents’ plants are housed and my eyes are drawn around the room. Photos line the wall, the desk, the table, the filing cabinet. Photos of my parents and of various concerts they’ve attended, yes, but mostly — photos of me.

Photos from my wedding and my first pregnancy. Christmas card family photos, cropped so they’ll fit into a standard frame. A printed photo of my newborn son. Collages I only vaguely remember having made for them. There’s hardly a surface free of a family member grinning in two dimensions.

The thought occurs to me: Family is the most important thing to them. They love me and my family so fiercely they surround themselves with our likenesses, even while our relationship is stilted and murky.

That’s one interpretation, anyway, and it’s the one that sets me over the edge.

Relationships are complicated

I love my parents. Our relationship is complicated, but it’s important to me and especially to my children. My daughter calls my mother at least once a week, just to say hi.

My parents have moved three times in the last five years (including a move from their home of 22 years in the Midwest to the Northeast), solely to be closer to me, their only child, and by extension their only grandchildren.

I also feel guilty. Guilty for harboring negative feelings toward them. Guilty for writing about the unfortunate events of my childhood and how they scarred me into adulthood. Guilty because they did the best they could. Guilty for not giving them the opportunity to know all the above.

I used to think I needed to come out to my parents about the trauma of my past

Much of what I went through as a kid, if not caused directly by my parents, happened when I was in their charge.

I’ve long resented the fact of their emotional unavailability and their substance use while caring for me. I’m upset that, as an only child, I was left to fend for myself in many matters.

I wish they’d noticed the many, many warning signs I was suffering. I wish when something was called to their attention, they’d dug deeper and really tried to help me heal. I wish I’d not been left thinking I should have known better when I was far too young to know much of anything at all.

As I immersed myself in the therapeutic experience, years after the last of my explicit traumas, I began thinking about how to tell my parents about all this. About my sexual abuse at the hands of my cousin and how it set me up for a cascade of negative sexual experiences. About how my mother’s narcissism and my parents’ substance use affected me. About how much I struggled growing up feeling completely alone in the world.

For a time, I was really anxious about this conversation. How would I initiate it? I needed to make sure they were sober, or it would devolve into a name-calling session. I probably needed to talk to each parent separately. My dad, while he would take it hard, would help soften the blow to my mother. My mother, on the other hand, would resist and likely shame me for not knowing better. They would both minimize my feelings.

And, of course, I couldn’t do it over the phone. It needed to be face to face. Or maybe a letter. I’ve had success with writing them in the past; it gives me time to craft my words and them time to process.

My parents weren’t the only ones responsible

The thought of confronting my parents really ate me up inside. But at least they’re around. All the other people who traumatized me are long gone.

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My cousin is in prison. He has been for years, and at any rate, I haven’t talked to him in decades except for at our grandmother’s funeral in 2003 when, upon seeing my tears, he asked me, “What’s wrong?” We lost touch long before the age of text messaging and social media, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

The girls who tormented me are likewise out of my life and have been since I was a pre-teen. Same with the men who took advantage of me as a young girl.

How unsatisfying would it be if I thought my healing needed to involve confronting every person who contributed to my trauma?

Getting it off my chest would come at a cost

I’ve fantasized about giving it to my parents straight, pulling no punches, and just getting out all the fear, anger, sadness, and despair from the years.

It’s easy to see how that particular avenue would be unproductive. It would only serve to hurt them, increase my guilt, and damage our relationship.

But what would be the purpose of coming out to my parents about my childhood trauma at all? What did I hope to gain from it? What good would it do?

There was a possibility they would gain a better understanding of me and an awareness of their part in my struggles as a young person, thus strengthening our relationship. Maybe they’d even develop a healthy dose of remorse and the ability to be kinder and more understanding with my children.

But.

I know my parents. A much more likely scenario is that they would feel attacked, minimize my feelings, blame me for what I went through, and then one or both of them would cut off communication with me and my family.

After so much time sorting through my own trauma, one of the many things I’ve learned is that these two humans, while I love them dearly, are so entrenched in their own behavior and beliefs that they are unwilling and unable to reflect and recognize their role in the mess that my life ended up being. In fact, if I suggested my life had been difficult to begin with, I know I would be met with swift denial.

And, the events that hurt me so much back then are over now. My parents couldn’t take them back now if they tried, and I’m pretty positive airing my grievances would have a net negative effect on our relationship.

Why give myself ulcers worrying about the logistics of a confrontation with my parents, as if it’s a foregone conclusion? I can do the healing on my own.

Setting boundaries moving forward is more important than rehashing the past

The day I decided not to talk to my parents about my traumatic past was the day my mother called and let loose on me about my husband.

Next time she tries to berate me and transport me back to the helpless, lonely child I used to be, having set boundaries means I’ll know how to respond as an adult.

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As I listened to her hissing account of what she believed was my husband’s sense of superiority over her and my father, I was transported back to my childhood. She professed invented narratives that had no basis in reality. She used me as the punching bag upon which to release her frustrations.

She told me not to mention our conversation to my father, because he didn’t know she was calling. She talked and talked, and didn’t let me get a word in edgewise. She wouldn’t listen to reason.

Just like when I was a kid.

At that moment, I knew. Nothing I said or did would reach her. Or if it did, it would come at such an expense as to not be worth it. That call hurt me. Her words, her behavior, her callous disregard for my feelings while she dumped on me — I was a mess for days. A few hours later, she texted me with a question about my children, as if the conversation had never happened.

I wasn’t just upset. I was furious. Furious with her for daring to pull this shit again, and furious with myself for allowing her to walk all over me as no time had passed.

I thought through this and talked it out several times, with my therapist and with my husband. And what came out of those conversations was that I didn’t need to rehash the past in order to heal from it. What I needed, instead, was to decide whether I wanted to maintain this relationship (I do) and figure out how to move forward.

I needed to establish boundaries for how my mother is allowed to behave toward me and what I will not tolerate. For example, she’s not allowed to let frustration fester until it explodes, and I will not keep secrets for her.

It doesn’t matter as much that I called and told my mother exactly why her behavior had been out of line and what I expect from her in the future, though I did do that.

What matters is that next time she tries to berate me and transport me back to the helpless, lonely child I used to be, having set boundaries means I’ll know how to respond as an adult.

In the end, the relationship is more important

I take one last look around the sunroom and turn to leave. The plants are watered, the doors are locked, and I’ve stowed in my car the gifts they left for my daughter’s birthday next weekend.

Tears well in my eyes as the garage closes behind me. I still feel guilty, but I know that will always be part of my struggle. That’s how this relationship was designed.

My husband reminds me later, “Just because those pictures are there, doesn’t mean all that other stuff didn’t happen.”

A reminder that my feelings, and the dysfunctional ways in which I chose to process them, are real and valid. A reminder that I don’t need to open myself up to people who have shown, time after time, that they can’t give me what I need.

I still have plenty of feelings about what I lived through as a child, how alone I felt, and how that affected me. The difference is that now I’m an adult and I’ve got plenty of people with whom I can process those feelings.

And I don’t owe it to anyone else to include them in my healing.

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.