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13 Signs Your Parents Were 'Medically Irresponsible' When You Were Growing Up

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Few kids would honestly say they enjoy going to the doctor or taking medicine, but it’s the responsibility of any parent to make sure all of their child’s medical needs are cared for. If a parent is “medically irresponsible” and doesn’t take their child’s health needs seriously or give them the level of care they require (and deserve), physical and emotional consequences can linger even when you’re old enough to make your own health decisions.

Jodi Taub, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in New York, told The Mighty medical irresponsibility can range from nuances in parenting styles, to cases of medical neglect, which could involve legal ramifications.

The reasons a parent might not adequately provide for their child’s medical needs are similarly broad, but common reasons could include lack of education, not understanding the severity of the illness, distrust of medical professionals and being overwhelmed by the healthcare system.

If you have a parent who has other life stressors, such as caring for other children, limited financial resources for childcare assistance, complications with other interpersonal relationships or life issues, managing a child with medical needs may not be something that they can adequately manage,” Taub said.

As adults, people who were raised in an environment where their medical needs were not taken care of may find that they struggle with their self-esteem, sense of self, and feelings of shame and loneliness, Taub said. Parents model how to emotionally respond to an illness, so if parents don’t provide their children with the tools to cope with an illness, they might be fearful of disclosing their illness to others, make comparisons to healthy peers, and struggle with body image issues.

Taub further explained:

Children may contemplate the following questions: Is this something that I should hide, and are my parents embarrassed about me? Is it appropriate to tell others? If I do, will my peers reject me? Am I a burden to my parents? Will I be a burden to others? Am I capable of caring for myself? These questions may linger into adulthood, as our childhood developmental experiences influence our sense of self and having an illness adds an additional layer.

Thinking back on your experience with medically irresponsible parents, you may realize there are certain “signs” that provide a clue as to the challenges you faced — habits, behaviors and attitudes you recognize now as symptoms of the lack of support you got from your parents. We asked our Mighty community to share signs that their parents were medically irresponsible. Check out their responses below, as well as Taub’s advice for coping with the negative impact of medically irresponsible parents.

Here’s what our community told us: 

1. You were told to “walk it off” or “suck it up.”

“In my childhood, I was always told to ‘walk it off’ anytime I was injured in sports or dance. I never went to specialists for any of my ongoing joint problems, and just kept taking more over the counter NSAIDs all the time. I’m certain this ushered in my GI issues, as well as delaying a proper arthritis diagnosis/treatment that could have prevented much of the damage I now have to deal with. It’s not that they intentionally didn’t care for me, but more that they didn’t understand the severity of what I was living with.” — Maddi L.

“I love my mother, but she has an ‘offer it up’ philosophy on pain: if you’re not dying, suck it up. My first semester of college, she tried to convince me that having violent diarrhea multiple times a day for three months was perfectly normal and that it was fine that I was underweight because she was underweight for most of college too. Yeah… that was irritable bowel syndrome. It isn’t normal.” — Kate

2. Your health kept you from participating in activities and school as a child.

“I’m 39 now and getting my master’s, finally. My parents did not listen to me when I said I couldn’t concentrate in school. They told me I was lazy and I should work harder. All my teachers told them I was very intelligent and a pleasure to have in class. I love learning! I only wish they had listened so I could’ve completed my education earlier in my life, and had the meds I needed to help me concentrate.” — Pauline A.

3. You grew up in a time when health information wasn’t as readily available or understood.

“Their generation was different from ours; they learned to hide their emotions instead of speaking out. My mom is 69 now and has learned a lot from me especially about speaking out loud her emotions.” — Maria Y.

“Let’s not forget different generations have markedly different levels of health literacy. It was only 50 years ago that the entire female reproductive system was referred to as your ‘down belows’ by anyone that wasn’t clinically trained, and a whole host of issues like endometriosis and prolapse of the uterus were called ‘a woman’s curse’ and just not talked about. Medical knowledge and treatment options have advanced further in the last 30 years than the 200 before that.” — Kate M.

4. Your teachers at school became concerned about your health.

“I don’t blame people for not wanting to go to the doctors because it’s expensive, but it’s a sign when teachers at school get concerned and your parents ignore said concern.” — Jojo S.

5. You weren’t taken to doctor’s appointments regularly.

“I never went to the doctor unless I was sick and needed antibiotics or if I needed to get the required vaccines for school. Went to a dentist for the first time when I was 24. Never knew that you are supposed to see a doctor every six months to a year. Now, me and all of my siblings have some type of health issue or another.” — Jen R.

“I haven’t been to an eye doctor in six years according to the records and I just found this out as a new adult who’s just recently became responsible for my own medical care. Goodness gracious who knows what else was put off for a long amount of time.” — Autumn G.

6. You grew up in a home that was neglectful in other ways, too.

“I think for some of us who grew up in abusive/neglectful homes, far more than just a sign, our parents being ‘medically irresponsible’ was par for the course.” — Annie

7. Your parents pushed you to do things you weren’t able to do.

“I was very shy when I was a little girl (which would later be diagnosed as social anxiety) and my mom would often volunteer me to do things like sing at church or stuff that would make me feel anxious or scared and when I told her I didn’t want to do those things, she would get mad at me and punish me and ultimately I would end up doing the thing I didn’t feel comfortable doing or flat out didn’t want to do. In her defense, she probably thought doing those things would make me less shy. I wasn’t officially diagnosed with anxiety until I was 16.” — ChelsNicMac

8. Your parents brushed off your concerns because you were “too young.”

“Constantly being laughed at and being told I was way too young to be in this much pain. My mother continues to this day to belittle and dismiss my disability. She will tell me, ‘Oh that’s just a part of growing old’. Like no, that is a part of turning 50, not 26.” — Aflekia K.

9. You often had common childhood illnesses.

“I was sick a lot. Whether it was a manifestation of anxiety or actually my autoimmune disease they just ignored it. I always had sinus infections, UTI, ear infections, stomach problems. Granted we were poor, they tried and they both worked but I didn’t have medical insurance most of my childhood. I can’t imagine how much healthier I may be had I been diagnosed sooner or been to therapy. I’m not angry just hoping to do better.” — Stevie L.

10. As an adult, you now don’t go to doctor’s appointments when you should.

“I don’t go to the doctor when I need to. I basically have to be almost dead before I go.” — Jaymie B.

“I grew up thinking ginger ale/Sprite and ibuprofen would fix anything. By the time she would finally take me to the doctor my eardrums would have burst from infection or I had pneumonia. As an adult, I feel tremendously guilty for calling out sick and I usually wait longer than I should before going to a doctor.” — Arene D.

11. You learned as an adult that your childhood health issues were actually a chronic illness.

“My family thought I was just lazy, a hypochondriac and had low pain tolerance. It wasn’t until I thought I was dying when I was 21 that I forced myself to go to the hospital. Them constantly telling me that I have low pain tolerance and need to suck it up made me scared to seek help for fear they were right. Turns out I have endometriosis and the pain I was experiencing was far worse than anyone imagined and my pain tolerance is actually real high.” — Angela B.

“My height. I was well off the bottom of the growth chart for height and weight, sometimes even underweight for weight vs. height. This was never investigated. When I was in my early 20s, I was diagnosed with a heart condition and Turner syndrome, which I’ve had since conception and should have been diagnosed in infancy or early childhood when appropriate treatment could have been provided (growth hormone).” — Amy L.

12. You were treated using “home remedies” instead of going to a doctor.

“We didn’t return to doctor offices. Example: My aunt took stitches out with a pocket knife and using vodka to sterilize the whole thing.” — Weird Warrior Woman

“I broke my wrist playing squash at school and I told her how much it hurt and she just put a Tubigrip bandage on it even though I couldn’t move it at all without pain and I thought it was broken. This was in the U.K. with free health care. A month later I had a bone lump appear from the healing and I showed her it and told her ‘See? I told you it was broken!’ And her only response was to say ‘Oh well, too late now.’” — Fiona N.

13. Your parents let you make decisions about your health care when you were too young.

“Due to trauma when I was a kid, I needed therapy. My parents took me to two people who I didn’t like so I never went back. They should have kept trying new people until I found one that I could talk to.” — Cate M.

“I was 10 and my [mom] asked if I wanted to keep taking my epilepsy meds. Of course like any kid I said no. So without doctor’s advice she took me off them. My seizures came back worse.” — Anita F.

Coping With Medically Irresponsible Parents

How you choose to cope with a medically irresponsible or neglectful childhood may depend on your current relationship with your parents. First, it’s important to validate your own pain and recognize how your parents’ behavior impacted you. You’ve experienced pain, and it’s OK to acknowledge that.

Then, if you still maintain a relationship with your parents or want to, it can be helpful to understand the circumstances that led to your parents’ caregiving decisions, Taub suggested. Having a conversation with your parents, sharing how their behavior negatively impacted you, and letting them explain the context around their parenting choices could lead to an apology and improvements to your relationship.

Managing a chronic health care condition requires a tremendous amount of emotional bandwidth, and letting go of some of these resentments may open up your emotional reservoir to focus on some other aspects of your current emotional health,” Taub said.

However, whether you maintain a relationship with your parents depends on if you feel physically and emotionally safe and stable with them, Taub noted. Depending on the health consequences or emotional abuse you went through as a result of your parents’ behavior, as an adult you may choose to maintain an emotional distance as self-preservation and protection, and that’s OK.

“Finding a place to heal from this emotional trauma is vital to the adult patient’s mental health and stability,” Taub said.

For more insight on healing from childhood trauma, check out these stories from our Mighty community:

Originally published: October 28, 2019
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