Viewing Your Parents as People: A New Perspective for your 20's & Beyond

In the wildly transitional decades of your 20's and 30's, you may be grappling with difficult career choices, struggling to decide whether to stay in relationships that aren't fostering growth, or feeling overwhelmed with endless options on which city, which state, or even which country to reside in. Your view of your family may be the one thing that feels stable - the one and only constant in the ever-changing equation of getting older. My apologies, but here's another curveball to add to the list of transitions in this time of your life: Your family system is actually changing, too. 

This is because you're no longer a child - you're the adult child of two adults in a universe full of other adults. Many people take their family dynamics or their relationship with their parents for face value: "We just are the way we are, and that's how it's always been. Nothing to see here!" But digging more deeply may actually help you weather the inevitable life transition that every single adult goes through at some point in their lives: Realizing that our parents are people, just like anyone else. 

If you picture the family system that you grew up in as a set of hierarchical levels, you will likely notice that your parents sat at one level, and you and your siblings were on another level, unified with each other, but below your parents' level. In the beginning of your adulthood, It might still feel very comfortable there...you know this system and how to operate within it. Your parents have designed the system based on what feels right for them, and then passed values, virtues, and absolutes down to your level as they saw fit. They also had the power to keep certain things out of reach, hidden up at their level, when it didn't feel comfortable for them to share with you. This fits into our childhood acceptance that, generally, "Parents know best," and we may continue to operate within this system into adulthood, without ever challenging that, as a full-fledged adult, sometimes it's now you who knows best. 

There's a shift that occurs in families when children grow up, gain awareness of the design of the family system, and take on the primary role of "independent adult" rather than "so-and-so's child." The adult child can join their parents on the same level, right alongside them, and suddenly, the "child" can see everything on this level - flaws and all. Your parents may have noticed this, too: They may now chat with you about finances, their own new relationships, or share more of their joys and triumphs with you without censorship. It may provide you with a new sense of closeness. It may also make you feel uncomfortable, particularly if your level in childhood was quite protected or far below your parents'. 

This change in the family system is worth examining, because once we understand and begin viewing our parents as people - not just "parents" - we can understand more deeply that the design they created for our families was based on the design they grew up in, as well as their own insecurities, fears, hopes, expectations, support systems, and beliefs. Parents* (*People) can be wonderfully supportive, function as role models, and continue to help shape us in our adult lives. Parents* (*People) are also fallible, deal with their own struggles on the day-to-day, and carry baggage from their pasts that may have factored into the design of your family system. 

Exploring this system is one of the most important parts of therapeutic work as a client and growth as a human being. As a therapy client (and as a human being!), you may have some resistance in this area: "My family was fine; I'm mostly seeking therapy to figure out career stuff," or, "My childhood was awful. I don't need to explore my family of origin, because I've done everything in my adult life to create something totally different for myself" This may be true, but there is a limit to growth in areas that we haven't worked to fully understand. Family systems are complex, messy, and emotionally charged, and having an extra set of eyes and ears may help you make sense of the very first - and in some ways, perhaps the most impactful - system you were ever a part of in this world.  

You have the autonomy as an insightful adult to explore your family-of-origin with a level of insight that isn't possible as a child: Cherish this growth opportunity to explore the system, deepen your understanding of it, take what works, and leave behind what doesn't. 

First we explore, then we understand, and then, we grow.