Picture this. Your kids are grown and have moved out. They’re living life to the fullest. Maybe they’re married and have a few kids of their own, or perhaps they’re pursuing a degree, or traveling. You’ve done it! You raised children who flew the coup with the emotional intelligence and practical skills they needed to navigate the world on their own.
This is the goal, right? Home run.
Then, one day, while they’re back home for a visit, they say they want to have a talk with you. You sit down with your mug of hot coffee resting on your knee while you smile adoringly at your now grown kids. How lovely to get to have grown-up conversations with the people you taught how to use a spoon.
“Mom,” they say, “we wanted to talk to you about some things we’ve realized in therapy that we’ve been discussing among ourselves. It’s about our childhoods.”
Your smile slips away and you shift in your seat, putting the coffee down on the table beside you to get cold. You won’t touch it.
This is that terrible moment you secretly feared through all their childhood years. The moment they tell you all the ways you messed them up; all the times you failed them. You have your own list of things you regret, and you’re pretty sure they’ll have those things on their lists, too. But you’re also reasonably sure they’ll have some surprises—maybe even some things you thought you did really well that they’re about to tell you were a problem for them.
You grit your teeth, smile, and wait for them to begin.
It’s a funny thing about parenting. We know in the dark places in our souls that our kids will have things to say about how we raised them. We can see for ourselves all the ways we aren’t showing up the way we had hoped, and we know they can see it, too. But even though we acknowledge these things in the quiet of our hearts, we are mortified by the idea of them talking about these things with a stranger. A therapist. Someone who doesn’t know us, our intentions, or what kind of parent we wished we had been. A therapist who knows nothing about our internal battles, the struggles that affected our parenting but that we never spoke to our kids about. A therapist who is only getting one side of the story.
So, we fear it. We brace ourselves for it like the gut-punch we know it’s going to be. No parent wants to hear from their kids that they screwed them up somehow, that we are the reason they are in therapy. And yet, in all likelihood (if we are lucky enough to have kids who will seek therapy for themselves), we will be the topic of at least one or a hundred therapy sessions.
We are pivotal in the development of our kids’ personalities and personhood. Everything we do, the big and the small, shapes them into whom they will eventually become. Like the gentle beating of a butterfly’s wings that stirs the waters that create a tsunami, our actions as parents set big things into motion for our kids. Since all of their experiences during their most formative years are filtered through us, we will naturally be the people they “blame” for any distortions, maladjustments, or emotional hangups they have as adults.
And, I think an important practice for us as parents is to simply learn to embrace that.
It’s not easy. Who wants to be the villain in your own children’s stories? But I think that, with a little re-framing, we can get there. This reframing looks like this:
(1) I acknowledge that I am doing my best to raise my kids with the physical, emotional, mental, and financial resources I have.
(2) I also acknowledge that I am human and I am going to make mistakes.
(3) As the main figure in their lives during their most formative years, it is natural that they will have strong feelings about the ways I let them down.
(4) They will have memories of things that I won’t remember and that may even seem implausible to me. That’s because, for me, it was a Tuesday, but for them, it was the day they really needed my love and attention and I was too busy to give it to them. These things stick with our kids because they are emotionally salient. We can accept them as true even if we don’t remember.
(5) It is healthy and normal for people to discuss their childhoods in therapy. We should be proud to have raised kids with the emotional intelligence and self-respect to seek therapy when they need it.
(6) The point of therapy is to resolve conflicts and mend relationships — both with the self and with others. Unless we have been outright abusive (overtly or covertly, physically or emotionally) to our kids, their therapist’s goal will likely be to help them process whatever pain they carry from their childhoods so that they can move past it. The goal is for them to have a better relationship with themselves and a better relationship with us. We should be supportive of that.
(7) Making mistakes that our kids have to talk about in therapy doesn’t make us bad parents. The fact that we are worrying about this while they’re still at home with us demonstrates how seriously we take our role as their parents. Good parents will make mistakes. Even ones that have to be brought up in therapy.
(8) I can ease the guilt of my kids having to discuss my mistakes in therapy one day by talking to them about it now. My kids are five and seven. I already talk to them about the fact that one day they might see a therapist (just like mommy does) and that they might need to share some mistakes I made. I tell them that I have to talk about Mimi and PopPop in therapy, and that doesn’t make them bad parents, and doesn’t make me love them any less.
I am one of the lucky ones who had (has) incredible parents. They were loving, devoted, doting, and kind. They steered me in the right direction with compassionate correction when I needed it, and made sure I was equipped with all the things I needed to become a successful and regulated adult. And yet, I still have to talk about stuff from my childhood in therapy. When your parents are your entire world, even the tiniest of infractions feel enormous. We sometimes forget about the infraction, but we carry the feeling it caused with us in our subconscious as we navigate adulthood. We find our relationships with ourselves and with others being strained and difficult, and we can’t understand why. Often, it is through discussing our childhoods in therapy that we begin to uncover the root cause of the strain in our relationships. Then, we heal. We become better people, better able to have healthy relationships.
I will consider it to be an honor if my kids talk about me in therapy when they are grown. It means they love themselves enough to work through the unintended harm I caused them while I was trying to parent them while also parenting myself. It means they love me enough to want to process those feelings so that we can have the best relationship possible. And, it means I have raised kids who are grounded enough to seek therapy without any sort of weird hangups or biases about what it says about them to be in therapy.
I call that a parenting win.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.