Reparenting Your (Queer) Self
Hi-dee-ho friends and neighbors! Today we’re here to talk about parental trauma and reparenting yourself.
We’re going to begin with a basic premise: most among us have some kind of emotional rupture that has occurred between ourselves and our parents that has not been resolved. This does not mean that our parents are necessarily intrinsically bad people, or that they weren’t trying, or that they didn’t do the best they could.
Your parents may also be crummy people! But many people need to hear that we know that Their Parents Are Not Bad before we can have a deeper discussion about how some things went sideways in their childhood.
Children Require Unconditional Love
For many among us, there has been some reason in which it has felt like our parents have stopped loving us for a reason that we could not help.
This unto itself is traumatic. An adult can survive another person not loving them anymore. It may be awful and devastating, but an adult can survive an experience of emotional abandonment. For a child, (or a young person) their entire world can capsize.
Also it bears mentioning- children have an intrinsic need for unconditional love and encompassing approval. When this is offered inconsistently or not at all, it indelibly shapes them. Often it shapes them into adults that are still seeking out this approval, or have learned they cannot expect this from the world.
While there are many parents who love their children, there are children who have experienced some large or small degree of rejection from their family of origin, whether or not their parents intended it.
There are an unsubtle number of adults who are very clear: I have this job/spouse/lifestyle/habit because it is how my parents measure my success and worthiness of their affection. It doesn’t mean that all the parents out there are bad parents, but it does mean that their children have learned with a great deal of specificity: this is how I want you to be.
Queer People Are Familiar with Rejection
This is also acutely true for many queer people. Queer people are still getting cast out of their families on account of being queer, even if that’s a story you imagined was over by now. What is also even more common is a tendency for families to maintain emotional structures that exclude that person explicitly or implicitly without outright telling a person to never come back.
When you find yourself outside the shelter of parental care, you are find yourself having the experience of having reached the edges of parental approval and tolerance. You are officially not worthy of their love and connection- even if only temporarily.
There are certainly families who will have ruptures and do repair work! Rupture is inevitable, and a desire and persistence at attempting repair can be transformative in families. Unfortunately, what’s more common is to rupture and then reconnect without acknowledgement or process of the intervening time.
The weeks, months, or years that went by while your parents reconciled their expectations with the reality of your lived experience is time that is often lost to the common memory in a family history.
It is convenient to forget they didn’t speak to you for 18 months or acknowledge they have never said your partner’s name out loud. Business as usual amongst a family is an easy way to blow past any unresolved conflict without doing deeper work.
Here’s the thing: attachment is something that drives most of our close relationships. The severing of attachment is traumatic. For the avoidant attachers among us, they seek safety in withdrawal and isolation- and do not necessarily attempt to locate a source for reparenting. For those anxious attachers among us, there is a much stronger likelihood of seeking reparenting. The tough part is, it’s easy to seek reparenting in ways that are very misaligned with your actual needs.
Here’s what attachment wants: unconditional love and care. Those things can be pretty hard to find! It can also be tough to find unconditional love and care in ways that map onto your particular needs and desires.
Folks may seek out the unconditional care and approval from their friends, romantic partners, activist collectives, or managers at work. Sometimes people start a blog or a Youtube channel and then become caught in the cycle of approval-seeking to their own detriment.
The tricky piece is that while some of these relationships may be able to meet some of your needs for unconditional care and approval, they may not have capacity or desire to do it in the ways that you want or need.
A number of the trauma reprocessing techniques I utilize with folks, namely lifespan integration and ego state therapy have this essential element of reparenting in them. There is a certain amount of identifying your competent adult self (that found their way to this office this morning, that knows how to drive, that can cook a little bit and knows how to be kind to their friends) Essentially, we go back across time and memory to find their younger self, and bring them up to the present to be re-parented by their competent adult self.
This is essentially akin to any “inner child” stereotypes of psychotherapy you’ve probably heard about before, but it’s powerful stuff! It’s a combination of talk therapy and visualization techniques (sometimes with the EMDR bilateral stimulation- that’s the tapping or finger-waving you’ve heard about).
What this all amounts to is that my work with folks often come down to assisting them in learning and practicing reparenting themselves. This can begin in a very formulaic, therapeutic format- with the literal visualization of bringing your younger self into the present moment in a safe place with you, and telling them all the things that they needed to hear. This is something that specifically happens in these types of trauma processing therapy techniques.
But reparenting yourself looks a lot like engaging in the mundane tasks that some people call ‘adulting.’ Adulting is another word for reparenting yourself.
Some of this stuff is basic- making sure that your environment is clean and safe, making sure that you have enough to eat, and are sleeping, and that you are safe in a practical and emotional way. This unto itself is an enormous task whether you are parenting an actual child, or you are in the process of reparenting yourself. But there is a deeper level of reparenting yourself that not all parents are able to do- and that’s customizing the way you reparent yourself based on your actual needs.
This can look like:
Knowing that you are going to be anxious before you have a hard conversation with a friend, so making sure you have time to go for a walk and get a cookie after you do it.
Acknowledging that you tend to drink more alcohol when you’re stressed out, and if you’re not interested in changing that behavior, making sure to drink water and take ibuprofen so that you don’t have a headache the next day.
Buying yourself new pants because the old ones don’t fit because your body is changed. Your body is your body, and even if you’re not pleased with how it’s changing, you still need new pants.
Anticipating that you will forget to eat breakfast most mornings, so keeping a box of granola bars in your desk at work.
Noticing that after every time you have a conversation with a particular relative, you are thrown into an existential crisis about your professional trajectory, and practicing with yourself or a friend about how to set conversational boundaries around topics that they can’t be kind around.
There are so many ways to reparent yourself, and as you get more experience noticing the patterns of your needs, the more skilled you’ll be at attending to your needs and taking good care of yourself. It’s also very typical for folks with experiences of experiencing relational disconnection when they have needs to have a strong aversion to noticing and attending to your needs.
Please consider- you are the person best equipped to know what you need, and the people that care about you will be better able to offer you care if you know what you need. You will better be able to care for yourself if you know what you need.
If you have no idea what you need or how to begin, give me a call. That’s one of my favorite things to help people figure out.
About the Author
Maria Turner-Carney has a BA in media studies and queer identity development from Fairhaven College. She received her Master’s in Social Work with a focus in Mental Health from the University of Washington. Her work background includes LGBTQ mental health; work in the anti-violence movement; dating and domestic violence; harm-reduction; mental health case management; chronic mental illness; intergenerational relationships; and managing chronic health conditions. Her practice is located in Seattle, WA, which you can book here. You can follow her on Instagram here. This article was originally posted in Maria’s blog, which you can read here.