How do we stop being emotionally triggered by a parent? Can’t we just pump the brakes on that wide eyed, reckless inner force that drives us straight through the eye of the storm every time? What is it in us that continues to feel unworthy, unfavored, and uncelebrated, even after years of therapy and self-help interventions? And why doesn’t “reduced exposure” serve as the fail-safe modus operandi for all adult children of toxic parents?

One of the most challenging things about adulthood is redefining and reshaping our relationship with parents, especially for those with childhood trauma.  And yet learning to navigate these murky waters is an invaluable part of our soul’s evolution, as it helps us reclaim and cultivate the most authentic parts of ourselves. Wrestling with it forces us to develop our own moral compass unscathed by our personal past.

In every other way, you may be incredibly evolved or enlightened and easily able to attract healthy and positive outcomes in relationships personally and professionally. You may see in yourself the gift of discernment: the ability to distinguish between harmonious, nourishing relationships and destructive, parasitic ones and the confidence to make needed adjustments.  We intuitively understand that sometimes people grow apart, require different things, or experience changes in beliefs, lifestyles or core values that feel incompatible.  Although these shifts and changes may feel initially uncomfortable, over time, new people enter our circle and propel us forward in our growth and development.

So why, as adults, can’t we apply this kind of emotional buoyancy and mental flexibility to our relationship with parents?  Is it our guilt or fear of abandonment that keeps us locked in old patterns? Or some kind of arrested development resulting from a tumultuous upbringing?

Let’s think about this. As a child our world is narrow, insular, and myopic. We have so few tools for understanding parent’s behavior or protecting ourselves from emotionally unsafe situations, and few ways of managing conflict. As an adult, if we continue to relate to our parents as if we are a child, pining for some sort of (unlikely) positive outcome – approval, compassion, or loving guidance – we are placing the trauma-self or less evolved part of ourselves in a perpetually unproductive situation. And we are reinforcing an imbalanced relationship pattern by allowing parental queues (or lack thereof) to determine how we feel about ourselves.

Throughout our adulthood, a whole new world of choices begins to materialize, as we gain intellectual, emotional, and spiritual depth from life experience. We simply need to apply this wisdom and maturity to our relationships with parents and stop returning to the dry well of disappointment. Most of us can get so many of our needs met by dipping into the abundant fountain of cherished friendships and surrogate families. And this alone helps dismantle the parts of ourselves that feel overly needy, vulnerable, and unsatisfied, as these relationships gift us most of what our head, heart, and soul need to thrive.

Here are a few more healing guidelines for redefining and reshaping relationships with emotionally unhealthy parents:

Draw from your own insights and emotional intelligence. What would it be like to live inside your mother/father’s head – needing to be judgmental, perfectionistic, angry, ingenuine, emotionally absent, etc.? Where does this way of thinking or being come from? Perhaps their own childhood trauma? Even if understanding doesn’t deepen our compassion or help us forgive the behavior, it may inspire and motivate in us a higher standard of living. There is much to be gleaned even from poor role models.

Give yourself the gift of emotional freedom. There is nothing inherently wrong about having expectations of our parents. It is healthy, valid, reasonable, and well founded. The fact that we have any expectations at all is a clear sign our higher selves are at the helm. However, here’s a shift in thinking that may be helpful. What if you let go of the needing anything specific from your parents and met your needs independently or within the context of other healthier relationships?  Think about the quality of people you’ve attracted who align well with your core values and see the world in a similar light. Consider using hypnosis, meditation, yoga or meditation to facilitate the release of lower frequency energies and attune to the energy of the higher self.

Break the cycles of victimization:  Feelings of anger, frustration, resentment come from the disappointment of unmet expectations. When we are children, our parents are the center of our universe. They influence our habits, schedule, feelings, moods, beliefs, perspectives – and in a perfect world they help create an environment that is safe, unconditionally loving, and supportive. Yet, in the absence of this, we venture out as adults finding clever ways to build our own tribe which makes us less vulnerable and more resilient. When we focus on not repeating unhealthy patterns from our childhood, we are following a model of empowerment.

Look through a spiritual lens. Our neurotic, masochistic human side will try to inspire some sort of apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing from our parent. But what happens when they are not far enough along in their growth and healing journey? What if they are not open to listening or changing?  Do we then tether ourselves to this kind of emotional unrest? Or can we focus on what each soul in our family taught or learned from each other? Maybe our soul is here to model unconditional love and forgiveness to a parent? Maybe through us, they learn to live more authentically? When we focus on the lessons and teachings that serve to strengthen our soul, we are less bogged down with unnecessary distractions, old baggage, and conflicts.

Ultimately, each one of us must decide for ourselves whether to keep a toxic parent in our life and to what extent. Open your mind to the possibility that all of us can grow and change, but it cannot be forced by our personal timeline or agenda, nor elicited through shame. Consider the fact they may be a better version of themselves as a grandparent and operate on a higher level. And brace yourself for some possible resistance, if having a relationship with an unhealthy parent is contingent upon an apology, personal changes, or ground rules. Keep in mind the end goal is inner peace and harmony, and it may be an ever-evolving process.

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Amy Marohn
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