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5 Healing Tasks for Anyone Who Was Under-Parented

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There are so many of us out there who could identify as un- and under-parented.

Whether it’s because one or both of our parents died when we were little; or whether it’s because one or both of our parents abandoned us by physically leaving or estranging themselves from us; or whether it’s because we had one or both parents who, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t show up for us emotionally, logistically, physically, mentally and spiritually in the ways we needed, we the un- and under-parented are indeed a large collection of souls.

And for us, the un- and under-parented, there are five specific and key tasks that we are called upon to face on our own individual healing journeys as adults.

Today’s blog post is dedicated to exploring what these tasks are and dedicated further still to letting you, my fellow un- and under-parented sojourner, that you are not alone and that there is hope, opportunity and strength in your healing process if you’re willing to explore it.

What does it mean to be un- or under-parented?

The experience of being un- or under-parented is a complex and subjective personal experience for each of us.

For some of us, it may mean that one or both of our parents died when we were young. For others, it may mean we were abandoned by a parent to an orphanage or foster care system. For others of us, it might mean we had parents with very limited capacities, mental health challenges or addictions. And so on and so forth.

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While the specific circumstances will vary widely, at its root, to be un- or under-parented means that, for whatever reason, you didn’t receive the developmental nurturing, guidance and protection that you — as all children and young adults do — needed so very much when you were younger.

And it’s worth noting that by this definition, we are almost all under-parented to a certain extent because, let’s face it, no parent is perfect. The best we can ever hope to receive and to be is a “good enough parent,” a term coined by famed psychotherapist Donald Winnicott.

But with that said, in some cases, there are those of us who didn’t experience good enough parenting (or any real parenting at all), and those gaps and lacks may impact us and our development more significantly. And if you identify with this scenario, there are five key tasks that you are called to do upon your own unique healing journey.

  • Bring awareness to what is.
  • Grieve what you didn’t receive.
  • Cultivate reparative relationships.
  • Cultivate reparative moments and experiences of healing.
  • Become your own “good enough” inner parent.

1. Bring awareness to what is.

The first task in your healing journey as one who has been un- or under-parented is to bring your awareness to the fact that you were indeed un- and under-parented in some way (or many ways).

By bringing your awareness to what it is you did and did not receive and coming to terms with the reality of how you were un- or under-parented, you actually begin the process of change and transformation for yourself.

This sounds simple and perhaps easy, but, for those of us just starting out in our healing journeys, often this first task — bringing awareness to what is and what we did not receive when growing up — can be a bit like asking a fish, “How’s the water?” To a fish, the water is the only thing he has ever known and so this question absolutely baffles him.

That’s why I think it’s critical in this stage and task of your healing journey that you learn different perspectives about what functional, good-enough parenting actually looks like to help you, the proverbial fish, actually wrap your head around the concept of “water” and actually bring your awareness to what it is you didn’t receive as one who was un- or under-parented.

Working with a skilled therapistreading books like the ones I list in this prior blog post, joining a women’s or men’s group where you can listen to, resonate with,and learn from the stories of fellow un- and under-parented sojourners, all of these are helpful in helping come to terms with what is and bringing your awareness to the ways that you lacked the parenting you actually needed.

And in bringing your awareness to this, you will encounter the next, critical task of the un- and under-parented: Grieving what you didn’t receive.

2. Grieve what you didn’t receive.

All of us on our individual healing journeys must ultimately grieve what we did not receive.

Often, people associate grieving with more concrete, “tangible” losses like the death of a loved one and are confused about the concept of “grieving” what was lost or not received in childhood.

But make no mistake, in the course of our own recovery and healing, it’s critical to recognize that you actually do get to grieve and mourn complex, subtle losses like the ways in which you weren’t parented and the ways in which your parents couldn’t (and perhaps still can’t) show up for you.

  • You get to grieve the fact that your parent had a substance abuse issue and couldn’t be there for you;
  • You get to mourn the fact that your parent had a mental illness that meant he or she couldn’t emotionally, logistically,or financially support you;
  • You get to grieve that one or both of your parents were not capable of parenting because they were still child-like in so many ways themselves;
  • You get to mourn that one or both of your parents unconsciously or consciously expected you to parent them;
  • You get to grieve that one or both of them expected you to mold to their idea of who you should be versus who you actually were/are;
  • You get to mourn all the ways in which your precious, child-self longed to be protected, taken care of, and shown up for and yet, sadly, were not;
  • And so on and so forth…

You get to grieve all of your losses and unmet longings in whatever ways this shows up for you. And your grieving and mourning process will take as long as it takes; there is no timeline for grieving, especially for complex, subtle issues like mourning the ways in which you were un- or under-parented.

But even in your grieving and mourning, you can begin the next stage of your healing journey by cultivating reparative

3. Cultivate reparative relationships.

The reality is, you may not have been mothered or fathered in the way(s) you really needed or wanted when you were a child, but that doesn’t mean it’s not too late to seek our reparative experiences of re-mothering and re-fathering from different sources.

What is a reparative relationship? A reparative relationship is one that heals, amends or helps nourish and support us in subtle or large ways which we possibly missed out on while growing up.

When it comes to seeking out reparative relationships for the un- and under-parented, this means cultivating relationships with those who could specifically help heal gaps in our childhood development.

I’ve written about re-mothering more in-depth in this post and more about re-fathering in this post so in addition to the ideas I list in there, consider these other ways you could imagine cultivating reparative relationship experiences:

  • Seeking out mentors — whether in real life or from afar like personal growth teachers, spiritual and clergy members, or anyone who you admire — who can guide, inspire, educate and help counsel you;
  • Form friendships with nourishing, supportive, present people who can emotionally show up for you in ways that your parents perhaps could not;
  • Work with a skilled therapist to help you receive more of the deep emotional attunement and mirroring you didn’t get when you were young;
  • Read the books, attend the lectures or study with people who are child development experts;
  • Choose a romantic partner who shows up for you in ways that are genuinely supportive;
  • And so forth.

You can seek out and cultivate reparative relationships that provide what it is you have longed to receive from your parents and perhaps never did. Whether this is empathy, nurturance, guidance, support, inspiration, protection, etc., it is still possible to get some of these needs met by people who are, perhaps, more equipped than your parents were at providing this.

And when you experience this from them, it becomes a reparative relational experience for you that helps “fill in the gaps” of what you did not receive as one who is un- or under-parented. And this can be so very, very deeply healing.

But healing doesn’t just have to happen in relationship with another person: it’s important, too, that the un- and under-parented seek out and create reparative moments of healing.

4. Cultivate reparative moments and experiences of healing.

I believe one big and creative task of the un- and under-parented is to notice, seek out, and cultivate reparative moments and experiences of healing — literal actions, tasks, opportunities and experiences that provide some of what we may not have received in childhood.

From the small to the large, these reparative moments and experiences of healing are vastly unique, creative and ever-evolving for most of us. Some ideas include:

  • Maybe you were never provided a calming, regular and reliable bedtime routine and tuck in as a child. A reparative experience for you now as an adult in your healing journey as one who was un- or under-parented could look like: Giving this to yourself! Create a calming, regular bedtime routine and literally tuck yourself into bed (or maybe have your partner do it for you if you feel comfortable with them doing this).
  • Maybe you were never taught how to manage, budget and plan for your financial future. A reparative experience for you now as an adult in your healing journey as one who was un- or under-parented could look like: Taking a money management course, reading books on this or subscribing to some good budgeting software to help you get a handle on your money.
  • Maybe you were never given the opportunity to feel safe, secure, protected and defended by one or both of your parents. A reparative experience for you now as an adult in your healing journey as one who was un- or under-parented could look like: Taking a self-defense course, installing additional deadbolts on your home doors or even befriending your local neighborhood police officers.

When it comes to seeking out reparative relationships for the un- and under-parented, this means cultivating relationships with those who could specifically help heal gaps in our childhood development.

And, similar to seeking our reparative relational experiences, there’s an ultimate goal to cultivating and creating these reparative moments and experiences of healing: the goal is for your to internalize these healthy and healing relationships and experiences, let them “fill in” some of your missed-out-on gaps and provide you with the experiences and tools to ultimately become your own “good enough inner parent.”

5. Become your own “good-enough inner parent.”

Ultimately, becoming your own “good enough inner parent” is the therapeutic work — the lifelong work of most of us and certainly a central part of the work for those who identify as being un- or under-parented.

Becoming your own good enough inner parent entails recognizing what you, perhaps, developmentally lacked as a child/adolescent/young adult, grieving what you missed out on and then providing for yourself actively and relationally what you may need and want in order to heal and thrive in your adult life now.

In doing so, you will become your own “good enough inner parent” to your precious little child self (not to mention perhaps actually learning more skills about how to become an even more healthy, conscious, and supportive adult for the still-young children in your life!).

And bear in mind, the process of becoming your own “good enough inner parent” is not a linear, time-limited process. This is ongoing, ever-unfolding and wildly dynamic work as our needs and wants are ever-changing as our lives progress.

In closing

The intent of this essay nor the work of psychotherapy is to blame and shame our parents.

At the end of the day, we as humans only do what we know and if your parents were never taught and modeled how to be nurturing, supportive, safe and reliable, it’s hard to expect and assume they could have ever been this for you.

So again, the point here is not to blame and shame your parents, but my point is to help you consciously consider what you may not have received as one who was un- or under-parented and provide you with this virtual permission slip to actually mourn what you didn’t receive. And then my hope is to spark within you the curiosity about how you can move forward in your own ever-unfolding, creative, healing re-parenting journey.

Please remember, you are not alone if you identify as one who is un- or under-parented. And no matter where you’re starting from, transformation is always possible.

And if you would like skilled, professional mental health support while you begin or continue your transformation journey, please explore my therapy and coaching offerings to see if I might feel like a good fit for you.

Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: Do you identify as one who is un- or under-parented? Which of these five key tasks has been most valuable to you in your own healing journey? What’s one piece of advice you might give to a fellow sojourner on their own healing and reparenting journey? Leave me a message in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.

And until next time, please remember to take very good care of yourself.

Warmly, Annie

Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash

Originally published: April 30, 2020
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