Relationships

How To Deal With Your Parents' Mistakes And Failures As An Adult

By Keelia Clarkson··  6 min read
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Part of growing up is realizing that our parents didn’t know it all — and they even messed up sometimes. So how should we handle the mistakes our parents made when raising us?

As kids, many of us grew up looking at our parents with blind trust; they were the adults, and we were the kids, after all. We automatically assumed they knew exactly what they were doing with every moment of discipline, with every word they spoke to us, with every rule they set in place, taking their years of life lived before we came along as an indication that they were wise and therefore never felt lost.

Then, we grew up. We hit our twenties and thirties, moved out on our own, maybe even had children of our own, and suddenly it dawned on us: our parents didn’t totally know what they were doing when they raised us – and they even made glaring mistakes, hurt us deeply with their words and choices, and made decisions that we don’t agree with when we stopped to consider them.

We can rest assured knowing this is a normal part of becoming and being an adult, but understanding this doesn’t take away some of the issues we see and the pain we still feel from our parents’ mistakes and failures. So how do we go about healthily handling our parents’ mistakes?

First, Don’t Buy into the Lie That Perfect Parents Exist

We probably all have that family we saw growing up, whether at school or church or anywhere else – the one with the pretty parents who looked perfectly in love, whose children were all friendly and did well in school, whose house was clean and inviting, and whose dog was definitely a golden retriever.

We all thought this family was just perfect, in every way. Most importantly, though, the family was perfect because the parents were perfect, setting the standard for the rest of the family to live by. We imagined these parents would always have a tasty dinner and a tidy kitchen, never fight with each other or their children, and couldn’t help but just always know the right thing to say or do.

It’s easy to buy into the idea that there are perfect parents out there, we just didn’t luck out and get them. But this idea is a fantasy, a lie. There are better or more well-equipped parents, but perfect parents simply don’t exist. And this isn’t something to mourn or feel defeated by, but something we can take comfort in as we attempt to come to grips with our own parents’ failings.

Look at Them in Context

It’s hard to see our parents as people – they’re mom and dad to us. But to them, they’re me; to our grandparents, they’re kids; to their boss, they’re an employee. Before they were our parents, they were just people, and they lived a lot of life before us, and inevitably learned bad habits, struggled with insecurities, got knocked around by life, and were hurt by their own parents.

Our parents were toddlers being disciplined once, perhaps unkindly. They were kids being told off by a teacher, maybe even made to feel dumb. They were teens struggling to find their identity, battling anxieties. Maybe they had an alcoholic father or an emotionally abusive mother.

Whatever pain our parents didn’t transform, they transmitted.

Whatever pain our parents didn’t transform, they transmitted, as said by Richard Rohr. The habits, insecurities, and troubles they faced but failed to deal with continued to present themselves in their parenting – as if our parents just handed off their issues to us, without even realizing.

It’s important that while we’re beginning to discover why we’re upset or how we feel failed by our parents, we look at them in full context.

Raising Kids Isn't Easy

We’ve all met those siblings who couldn’t be more different, who are so unique from one another that it’s hard to believe they grew up in the same house. Maybe we’re the ones with those siblings, and getting along with them growing up was difficult for us.

We have to remember that our parents were surprised with how different we and our siblings were too. What had worked well for one kid didn’t work for the next one, and even if they’d had a few kids, they were left figuring a lot out for the first time with each new child. Give them grace here — raising several children, all of whom have different personalities and needs, can’t be easy on anyone.

Remember What They Did Right

It’s easy to hold everything we feel our parents did wrong against them and allow these realizations and feelings to poison our relationship with them. Uncovering their shortcomings inevitably leads to us also uncovering how our lives today are still impacted by their decisions and faults, and how we might’ve been held back because of them.

And while being honest about our parents’ shortcomings is essential to our growth, it’s equally important to remember what they did right – the values they instilled in us that we still hold to this day, the good habits they helped us form, and the support they offered us. 

Our parents assuredly messed up, but don't discount the good, loving, selfless things they did for us.

Our parents assuredly messed up, yes, but don't discount the good, loving, selfless, admirable things they did do for us. Remember those things and acknowledge all the ways they gave us their best efforts.

Learn How To Forgive Them

Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to any of us. It can feel unfair, forced, or dishonest when we compel ourselves to forgive without actually wanting to forgive someone. That being said, forgiving our parents for their mistakes is the only way we can rid ourselves of resentment and hope to have a healthy relationship with them. 

But ultimately, we have to want to forgive them. We have to weigh whether or not we can healthily interact with our parents (as there are unfortunately situations in which being in contact with our parents isn’t a good option), and then choose to forgive them.

This may involve going to counseling to work through these issues with a professional, and even opening up a conversation with our parents about what we’ve been feeling, not for the purpose of laying blame, but repairing the relationship. Forgiveness will feel more natural to us the more we’re looking to restore. Keep in mind that forgiveness likely won’t be a one-and-done experience. You’ll have to forgive and forgive and forgive again as you sift through your memories of growing up.

Closing Thoughts

Realizing our parents messed up is a natural part of growing up. It can feel like a rude awakening to recognize these mistakes for the first time, and may even call for professional help as we sift through them. But having a healthy relationship with our parents is possible for many of us, and it’s worth pursuing.

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