Your Parents Were Responsible for Their Own Emotions


You walk in the door after school and can tell by the sounds your mom is making in the kitchen whether you need to go quietly to your room or go in and make her laugh.

Dad gets a dejected look on his face if you say no to a hug, so you quit saying no.

Dad is feeling down, and you know how to brighten his day. He tells you (again) that you’re the only one that can make him feel better.

You learn early on that if mom explodes in anger, it was because of something that you did or didn’t do.

Somehow you know that the responsibility for your mom’s overall well-being is in your hands.


Do any of these scenarios sound or feel familiar?

Many of my clients have some version of this story. In most unhealthy family systems, children are given the message that they are responsible for their parent’s emotional state (and in some cases, for their overall well-being). 

But that’s not true—a child cannot cause their parent to feel a certain way. Children don’t have that kind of power. Your parents were adults responsible for their own emotional experiences (and still are). If they were sad, angry, or overwhelmed, those responses were theirs and theirs alone.

But children aren’t able to comprehend this. If your parents gave you the sense that you did have the power to make them feel a certain way, you believed it. You believed it not because you were foolish or not smart enough to figure it out. You believed it because that was your only option. You were a child. On some level you trusted that your parents must be right as a matter of survival. 

In order to survive, you took on the belief (consciously or not) that you had the power to affect the emotional state of one or both parents. So you comforted Dad when he was sad, you made Mom laugh when she was anxious, and you took on the belief that it was something about you that made your parents ignore you.

That sense of responsibility is a heavy weight for a kid to bear. Think about that for a minute. As a child, you were holding the weight of the emotional energy of your mom or dad’s fear, pain, shame, and anger. As a child, you were holding the weight of your mom or dad’s well-being

What’s that like as you think about it now? Sit with it for a moment and notice how it feels in your body. 

Now think of your little child self feeling that same thing in their body. It was a lot. It was too much for you to handle. But you figured out a way to bear it. We all do.

Most of us carry this weight of responsibility into adulthood. I certainly did. The same scenarios listed above play out as adults. So even though you’re an adult, living on your own, making adult decisions, there’s a part of you that still feels like the child who’s the only one that can make dad feel better, and if you don’t, he won’t be OK. 

The good news is that we aren’t stuck operating this way. It can feel like there’s no other option, but that’s not true. 

I had therapists and recovery friends who helped me disentangle from that burden. They helped me get clarity and perspective on the dynamic that had been playing out since childhood. They helped me connect with the felt experience of carrying the weight of my mother’s well-being—and the pain, sense of overwhelm, and grief that came with it.

The process was scary and painful and happened incrementally over time. But it did happen. I am now free of that burden, and I am grateful. My hope for you is that you’ll experience your own version of freedom from it as you walk your journey of healing.

Peace on the journey,


Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash