Navigating Relationships with Parents During Recovery

You’re in therapy, and you’re starting to get into reality about your caregivers and your home environment. With the help of your therapist, you start to connect some dots, and the story that you’ve adopted about your family of origin begins to unravel.

At this point, my clients often ask me what in the heck they’re supposed to do about their relationship with their parents. Most have mixed feelings about their parents, which makes it hard to be around them. Some don’t want to be around them at all.

So, what do you do with all of that? How do you navigate your current relationship with the people that wounded you? Like many questions about recovery, there isn’t one answer.

This is a common conundrum, yet there’s not a straightforward answer. It’s extremely nuanced for each person and their situation, but I’ve gathered some considerations to help you navigate this experience: 

1. It’s an individual decision. You may need boundaries that are different from your friend’s. You may need boundaries that are different from your sibling’s. No one is right or wrong. Your reality is just as valid as theirs.

For example, if you experienced childhood trauma but you still want to be around your parents, that’s OK. If you experienced childhood trauma and you aren’t sure if it’s “bad enough” to merit not seeing your parents, but you still don’t want to be around them, that’s OK. If you don’t want to see your parents but aren’t able to make that choice yet, that’s OK.

2. It depends on what you need, but also with what you’re ready for. As you move forward in your recovery, check in with the boundaries you need with your parents at any given time. Ask yourself, what am I ready for right now? Then honor what you’re ready to do.

I do want to note an instance where you may set boundaries with your parents before you feel ready. If it isn’t safe for you or your children to be around one or both of your parents, your timeline may move a little more quickly. 

3. Your boundaries aren’t static; there may be some ebb and flow. This usually is based on a combination of what you need and what you’re ready for. For example, you may have a period when you’re dealing with trauma related to your mom, so you have less contact with her for a while. Or you may have spent most of your adult life not talking with your dad much, and later realize you want to spend time with him. 

4. There’s no rush. You don’t have to have it figured out right now. If you’re new in recovery, I suggest waiting a beat before you make any major changes unless you or someone else is in danger. Don’t worry about figuring out what changes you may want or need to make down the road. As you move forward in your healing, you’ll begin to get clarity on what you need. 

5. You may or may not have to end contact with your parents. I often get asked about this, either, “Will I have to end my relationship with my parents?” or “Is it OK if I break contact with my parents?” 

My response to this is essentially everything I’ve previously mentioned. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. I’ve had clients who stay in contact with their parents all throughout their trauma recovery and folks who’ve had periods of no contact. I’ve had a few clients who have ended their relationship with their parents, but that has not been the norm in my experience. The most important thing to remember is that it’s a very individual decision.

6. It’s crucial to have good support as you navigate these waters. Guidance and support from your therapist, sponsor, and healthy friends are crucial. Not only do you need folks to help you think through your relationship with your parents, but you also need support from them.

Knowing how to relate to your parents while you’re in the middle of childhood recovery (or anytime, really) can certainly feel tricky. But if you check in with yourself, what you need, and what you’re ready for—and honor that—it will unfold as it needs to.