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How To Recover If You Had To "Raise Your Parents" As A Child

"Children shouldn't have to sacrifice the quality of their lives so that their parents can have the lives that they want."—Unknown

Love & Relationships

The place where I typically go to see movies is inside of a mall. Well, as I was walking towards the theater on opening weekend of The Photograph, I saw something that immediately brought tears to my eyes. First, I noticed a Black man with some long beautiful locs that were pinned up. He had on a coat like my New Yorker great-grandfather used to wear, so that already brought a smile to my face. But as I passed by him, about 15 or so feet away, I then noticed a little girl who was around 4. She was absolutely adorable but what especially caught my attention was how she first jumped up and down in one place, then she clapped her hands and laughed, then she ran as fast as she could. When I turned around to see where she was going, guess where it was? To the arms of the man with the beautiful locs. A few feet behind her was a pretty Black woman with a grin on her face. When I asked if the man was her husband, she proudly nodded. I looked her dead in the eye and said, "That is so dope." She smiled, said, "Thank you", as I replied, this time with more intention, "No. It really is." She smiled even bigger.

When I turned back around towards the little girl who was still safely in the arms of her father—who is married to her mother—he was kissing her all over her face, she was giggling, and they were laughing together. Oh. Even as I am typing this, tears are welling up. Every time I've told the story since, it has emotionally resonated with the listener. I'm not sure if it's due to how sacred and special Black love is, because those of us who really "get it" know that that little girl is off to a great start when it comes to having healthy relationships with Black men…or because how so many of us wish that moment in time could've been a part of our own childhood experience. Not just one part of what I shared either; all of it. Maybe it's a little bit of everything I just said, wrapped up into one.

A few days later, as I watched episode three of Cherish the Day, and it unpacked how both love interests had so much dysfunction to deal with when it came to their parents, in many ways because their parents acted like children, I reflected on how so many of us can relate to what it's like to have to deal with the PTSD that comes directly from feeling like we were more mature and self-aware than our own parents were while growing up. And so, I thought it might be helpful to offer some tips on how to heal if you felt like you had to "raise your parents" as a child. I pray that it will.

Does It Feel Like You Had to Raise Your Parents As a Child? Here's How to Get Through It.

Be Clear About What You Were Deserving Of

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I've got a male friend who, on so many levels, is pretty damn awesome. But when it comes to matters of the heart, he absolutely sucks. On the surface, people would probably chalk it up to him being a selfish commitment-phobe, but I know more of the backstory. Even though he is pretty much a middle child, he is honored as the patriarch. His father is the epitome of being a rolling stone. His mother has some deficiencies that has caused her to be way too dependent on my friend, all throughout his life. His siblings basically treat him like an ATM guru. As a result, he doesn't really see having a family of his own as being a blessing; it's more like a burden. And so, he keeps a wall up to prevent having one from ever manifesting. What's really sad is when I try and tell him that he deserves more than what he is settling for, he doesn't truly get where I am coming from; that's because he didn't grow up understanding what parents are supposed to do—and not do. Not fully, anyway.

If reading all of that just triggered you in some way and you're looking at your monitor or cell phone screen like, "I'm not sure I know either", allow me to provide a brief rundown.

Children deserve:

  • To feel safe and protected
  • To have their needs provided for
  • To have their feelings validated
  • To not be violated, in any way
  • To receive unconditional love and support
  • To be respected as individuals and human beings
  • To not be abused, in any way
  • To not have to compensate for where their parents are lacking
  • To know, and hopefully have a relationship with, BOTH of their parents
  • To be raised in an environment where they can thrive, comfortably, in the stages of their development

Hmph. I don't know if it's a "good" or "bad" thing that I didn't have to look any of that up. It flowed naturally because, some of this, I didn't have myself. Lacking these types of things forces children to, not only grow up faster than they should, but to a certain extent, have a warped perception of reality. Why? Because, while in some areas, they are probably wise—or at least knowledgeable—beyond their years, as a direct result of not receiving these things, they are emotionally stunted as well. If they don't get a hold of this reality as adults and do some of the following steps, it can create a vicious cycle of attracting someone similar to them and then doing to their own children what was done to them—even if every fiber of their being swears that they won't. That's why it's so important to pinpoint where you didn't get what you needed from your parents and then do the next step.

Tend to Your “Inner Child”

You can read articles like "Childhood abuse may stunt growth of part of brain involved in emotions", "Sexual and Emotional Abuse Scar the Brain in Specific Ways", "'You grow up hating yourself': why child abuse survivors keep – and break – their silence" and see, just how damaging child abuse is.

But here's the thing—even if your parents didn't physically or sexually abuse you, if you had to nurture them more than they ever nurtured you, that is also a form of abuse. And, if you don't acknowledge that within yourself, there can continue to be areas where you are not as developed as you should be, even now. Why? Because, while you were growing up, you were so busy trying to "take care of your parents"—whether that was emotionally, relationally, financially or otherwise—that you weren't able to fully evolve into a whole being.

I can totally relate. Aside from the abuse that I experienced (not every day but consistently, if that makes sense), I was constantly my parents' on-call therapist. Always listening to their problems and, quite frankly, hearing about stuff that was absolutely none of my business. That puts a weight and burden on children like no other. In hindsight, I think I was able to handle it because I was born to counsel. Still, that doesn't mean I was supposed to do it for grown ass people when I was still a little person. Tending to whatever their "emotional emergencies" were caused my own needs to get neglected and invalidated—a lot. And so, I've had to spend quite a bit of time learning how to tend to the areas of me that were neglected. In fact, something that my season of abstinence has taught me is some of my destructive relationships were all about looking for men to "tend to my inner child" since my parents didn't do the best job at it.

The little girl still needed to be tended to, even as an adult.

That's why I think it's important to remember that, where you feel ignored, dismissed or lacking—don't ignore those spaces. Listen to her. Tend to her. Love on her. Those areas don't exist for no reason. Know what else? They won't go away simply because you want them to.

Do a Little Family History Investigating

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Something that has been both painful and intriguing to watch is this season of Growing Up Hip Hop. What has kept me tuning in is actually tied into this article title—"Damon Dash Storms Out After Heated Therapy Session with His Kids Goes Off the Rails (Exclusive Video)". We all know that reality television is, well, reality television, but I personally believe the wounds and pain between Damon Dash and his kids runs deep. Very deep. When I put my life coach hat on, I think that Damon is still so pained from the rejection and disrespect that he felt during his Roc-A-Fella Records days that his perception of respect is extremely skewed. He pops off. He doesn't listen. He disrespects in the process of trying to get respect; even his own children. But you know what? A lot of parents are like that. And it oftentimes has little to do with their kids; they are simply their sounding board—or punching bag.

For years, I used to wonder why my parents said and did some of the things that they did. But when I climbed up the family tree a bit and also did some relative interviewing, have mercy, did some things make sense. It's hard to be a functional parent when your own parents, grandparents, etc. were dysfunctional. Knowing some things about your family history won't justify your childhood, but it can help to explain some things. It can give you insight that may grant your own parents a little mercy while also helping you to be clear on what to do, and not do, in your own life—and with your own kids.

Confront Your “Demons”

Suffering in silence. Is that not what a lot of us, especially within the Black community, have been taught to do? Yeah, don't do that. Pain isn't meant to be suppressed.

That's why, whenever I read a news story with a (in this case, I'm being hypothetical) headline like, "A man kills a woman for cutting him off in traffic" or "A woman kills her child for eating too much cereal", I tend to be like, "Yeah, that's clickbait." It has nothing to do with traffic or food; it's about years of pain that has gone unaddressed that has finally hit the surface.

Sometimes, after sharing some of what I've been through, folks will be like, "It's a miracle that you're sane." Indeed, it is. But a part of the "miracle" is that I call the ish out. I talk and write about it. I've confronted the ones who've wronged me so that, again, my "inner girl" knows that she was not overlooked.

Listen, I'm not saying to call your mom after reading this and cuss her out. All I'm saying is if, when you think about your mom (or dad), there is some resentment, a conversation should probably be had at some point. If you don't address what you're feeling or thinking, there is a huge possibility that you're going to take it out on someone—or many people—who have done absolutely nothing to you. And that is not right. Or fair. Confrontation is like an exorcism for childhood demons. It's a way to keep them from ever haunting you. So is this next step.

Seek Therapy

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There is a Scripture in the Bible that says, "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise." (Proverbs 12:15—NKJV) When I watched Joe Budden and Big Sean's Pull Up interview and they touched on the importance of therapy, it was evident that they both have gotten some. While I am fully aware that there continues to be a stigma when it comes to the importance of therapy, it's imperative to remember that the word not only means "the treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process", it also means "a curative power or quality". Y'all, therapy is powerful.

Case in point. I used to be a house poet at a venue here in Nashville. When I read the article, "Why the Black Community Has a Fraught Relationship with Therapy", I recognized someone who was also a house poet there. Her name is Monica A. Coleman. Back then, we were in our 20s (which automatically comes with various emotional roller coaster rides), yet while Monica was always brilliant and kind, there were oddities about her that didn't make sense (to me). I read the article and realized that she battled with depression. She even wrote a book entitled Bipolar Faith. Therapy is a part of what helped her get to a place of clarity, hope and healing.

No one is weak for going to therapy. Reputable therapists, counselors and life coaches can provide tips, tools, advice and insight from an "outside looking in" perspective that you might not reach any other way. If you know that you keep hitting mental, emotional and relational roadblocks that are directly tied to your childhood, seek help.

Remember, therapy is a CURATIVE POWER. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed or fearful of when it comes to doing something that is designed to empower you.

Forgive

Whew. I say it often because it's the truth. I am still working on what forgiveness is all about. It's the late writer Oscar Wilde who once said, "Children begin by loving their parents; after a time, they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them." Hmph. There is some truth to that, I must admit. But I think a big part of why that is the case is when you forgive but you keep having to forgive for the same offense, it starts to make you hate forgiveness as much as you hate what you are forgiving someone for. It's like it sends the message that forgiving the "offender" is giving them permission to offend you again (make sense?). And so, we figure that if we don't forgive, we won't be hurt or harmed (because those two words are not exactly the same thing) anymore.

From a spiritual standpoint, that's dangerous because the Bible tells us that, in order to be forgiven by God, we must forgive others (because a lot of us forget that we "offend him on the regular" too—Matthew 6:14-15). Yet, deeper than that, I think it's important to understand that forgiving someone is not about surrendering to their abuse, offenses or dysfunction. Forgiving them is about releasing them from what they have done and not damaging yourself by harboring ill-will about it. Reconciliation, however, is another matter entirely.

As a child, when you had to act as the parent, you had no choice but to keep taking…and taking…and taking whatever dysfunction that came your way. Now, when your mom says, "I'm sorry you had to listen to all of my drama" or your dad says, "I'm sorry that you were left to figure out things that I should've handled for you" and you respond with, "I forgive you"—what you are essentially saying is, "For both of our sakes, I'm not going to hold that in. But what I am going to do, that I couldn't do at the time, is set some boundaries." As you should.

Set Firm Boundaries

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An article that I wrote for the site last year that was like a shot heard around the world is "Why You Should Be Unapologetic About Setting Boundaries With Toxic Family Members". Boundaries are limits and any parent who acted more like the child than the adult while they were supposed to be actually raising their kids mostly definitely needs limits. Limits simply convey that you can't do whatever, whenever—just because you think that you can. Or should. A good parent knows that being older than their adult child doesn't give them the right to control or be overbearing. Toxic parents on the other hand? They totally don't get this point. Hence, the need for boundaries with them…right? It's kind of like what a wise person once said—"If someone throws a fit because you set boundaries, it's just more evidence the boundary is needed."

That Cherish the Day episode that I talked about earlier? There was a scene where Gently's (the female lead) mom called and told her to give her money for a bus ticket. How twisted is it that Gently's mother thinks she is "grown enough" to tell her daughter to pay for her travel but she's not grown enough to pay for the ticket herself? A healthy parent would ask for help, not demand it. And get this—if Gently said "no", she would be well within her rights. She's an adult now. Adults can say "no". To any other adult. Again, healthy people know that. It's toxic ones who don't.

Break the Cycle

Aside from the fact that all of these steps can be liberating for you, it can also spare your own family (or future family) a repeat of your upbringing. After all, it's hard for any adult who is still an emotional child due to their own trauma to "train a child up in the way they should go" (Proverbs 22:6). How can they, when they don't know how? When they say, "hurt people, hurt people", it rings so true when it comes to generational curses. Heal yourself, not just for you—but for the ones who will come after you.

If you feel like you had to raise your parents and no one acknowledged that fact, I do. I am so sorry that had to happen to you. Trust me, there is a way to go from merely being a survivor to thriving. Take the time needed to heal. So that your little girl can grow up in every area that she deserved to. That you deserve to.

Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:

The Relationships In Your Life That Are Desperately In Need Of Boundaries

What If It's Your Parents Who Happen To Be The Narcissists?

We've Said A Word About Toxic Fathers, But Who's Talking About Toxic Mothers?

Healing Toxic Relationships: Tiffany Haddish Says Forgiving Her Mom Gave Her The Closure She Needed

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