“For years I’d been trying to change the situation with my mom instead of changing myself…I’d get sucked back in….I’m done giving all my emotion and time to it…I cry over it a bit, then I suck it up and go on. You realize that the same problems that were there are still there.”

            -Brooke Shields

The above quote comes from an interview featured in the February 2010 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. The thoughts and feelings it expresses may sound familiar to you if you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, particularly if she, like Brooke Shields’ mother, is an alcoholic.

Brooke Shields is a lot like many Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs)*, Adult Children of Narcissists (ACoNs), or others who grew up in families in which the parents’ needs were met at the expense of the children’s needs.

For ACoAs, during the time when kids are supposed to be kids and parents are supposed to be parents, the roles get reversed; the kids end up taking care of the parents (physically and/or emotionally) instead of the other way around. These children learn to take on adult responsibilities and can become quite skilled at functioning in the world. Unfortunately, they don’t grow up emotionally because their parents never grew up emotionally, either, and weren’t able to model emotionally healthy behavior for their kids.

These kids’ lives are often unpredictable and frightening. They never know what to expect from day to day. Will Mom be happy and take me out for ice cream, or will she be angry and send me to bed without dinner? Because there is essentially no rhyme or reason to the parents’ behavior, the kids live in a constant state of anxiety, walking on eggshells, hoping to escape negative attention, wishing for positive attention. They feel like it’s their job to make their parents happy, but they have no idea how to do it.

As adults, ACoAs continue to care for others compulsively, hoping that they will be taken care of in return. They often end up resentful when this doesn’t happen. Add this to the resentment that comes from never really having had a childhood, and you have the recipe for low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and a host of other issues.

It can often be difficult for people who grew up in a family like this to believe they have a right to be upset about their childhoods. If they weren’t abused physically or sexually, they often don’t feel like anything really bad happened. They tend to compare their childhoods to others and decide that their childhoods were just fine, thank you very much! They ignore the feelings of sadness, anger, and loss because they assume that these feelings are useless and unjustified. And even if they think their feelings are justified, they figure nothing can be done, since it’s not possible to go back and change history. But although it’s correct that no one can change the past, it is possible to change the future.

So, what do I suggest that you do? 

Learn to set boundaries to protect yourself, as Brooke Shields learned to do. Realize that you cannot change another person; you can only change yourself. And find other people who can understand you and support you because they’ve been there themselves.

Then learn to acknowledge and accept your feelings rather than just trying to ignore them and “get over it.” Honor and accept the ways you learned to survive as a child, even if they’re not working for you any more. Be willing to listen to that part of yourself that’s still a child, and let that child feel and express her feelings without being ridiculed or told to be quiet. You don’t necessarily need to blame your parents for how they raised you; chances are they did the best they could. You do need to accept that you didn’t get what you needed, though, and then accept the fact that you are the only one who can give yourself those things now.

If you recognize yourself in what I’ve said here and would like to make an appointment, please call me at 410-888-0590 or email me at jenniferbeall.lcpc@gmail.com.

*For simplicity’s sake, I will use “ACoA” to refer to all of the groups mentioned here.