How To Respond When Your Adult Child Recounts Their Childhood As Traumatic
The transition from childhood to adulthood, especially the shifts in relationship dynamics between a parent and child, is incredibly unique. Your child is establishing independence and differentiating from you, and learning about . What you may not expect is when your adult child tries to talk about their childhood with you, how it may have been difficult for them, and your role in it. It can be very shocking when your adult child has a different perspective than you do. You may be feeling hurt, confused, and wondering how to respond when what you recall may seem drastically different in relation to your adult child. Though every situation and family is different, here are a few tips that may help.
Listen without judgment.
If what you are hearing is not blatant hatred or disrespect, then allow yourself to hear what your adult child has to say. They are bringing this to your attention for a reason, and this is an opportunity to find out what that reason is and if it can bring a new dynamic or richness to your relationship with them.
You don't have to understand, nor even share perspectives in order to apologize and acknowledge what they felt and experienced.
It is normal to want to defend ourselves or explain ourselves so that someone we care about isn't hurting, but it's important to apologize in a way that is validating of the experience your child had. There's a quote by Louis C.K. that reads "When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don't get to decide that you didn't." Regardless of our intentions, our impact may be different. An easy way to think about this is that intent is how we may think or feel, whereas impact is how our actions influence the feelings of another. You may not have intended to hurt your child, though your actions impacted them differently. Both of you may have differing perspectives on the past and that's okay; learning to acknowledge and respect those differences is crucial.
Don't interject with changes to their story.
Connection vs. correction. This isn't the time to default to reminiscing on the "good times." Your adult child may or may not have fond memories, for many different reasons. Our brains tend to remember events that are signficant, therefore a child may not remember every day of middle school math and TV dinners. What they remember is what made them feel deeply, or what left a lasting impression. There very well may be good moments and those can be reflected on during a different context. It's important not to invalidate what your child is trying to share with you or to make statements of "I don't remember that" or "that didn't happen." This will only push your adult child farther away. If your adult child feels heard and understood, they may be more open to hearing about your experiences and perspective.
By your adult child addressing these things with you, they are actually making an attempt at having a deeper and more meaningful relationship with you. It is a difficult and brave thing to share our wounds with another, and by doing so they are inviting you to know and understand them more than you have before. As humans, we share our hurt, anger, and frustration, because we care about the relationship, ourselves, and the other person. It may sting to hear that your actions or inactions have impacted someone you care deeply for, but it may be worth pondering why they might be sharing this with you and what it means for your relationship.
Navigating any relationship can be tough, especially if we have not been equipped with the tools in order to do so. Consider reaching out to a skilled relationship therapist to begin deepening your relationships with yourself and with your children.