Breaking the Cycle of Parental Dysfunction
You don't have to repeat your parents' mistakes. Here's how to break through them to form healthier bonds
A couple of years after my father’s death, my daughter Nadia and I traveled to Las Vegas to attend my brother’s wedding and spend time with my mom. My mom had always been emotionally distant, but she seemed even more detached than usual on this trip. Her energy was low, and her ability to be present with her grandkids nonexistent.
When I was alone with her, I asked her if she was OK. She engaged in her typical avoidant behaviors when someone would try to breach her emotional walls. She turned her back to me. Then turned on the TV. But I resisted the ever-present familial distraction she offered and stayed quiet, focusing on her for what seemed a very long time.
Finally, she turned her head towards me and said, “I just don’t understand.”
I tilted my head inquisitively.
“I…miss…your…dad,” she eked out through a rush of tears.
My parents spent so much of their lives fighting with each other. One of my first memories as a child was seeing them in an argument that turned into a physical tussle. From that jarring point on, I assigned myself to the role of my mom’s protector. I learned to suppress any grief or hurt and instead channel it into action. What child has time for sadness or fear when they have a mother to take care of? Or a problem to solve? So, I unwittingly joined my mother in her stubborn resistance to vulnerability.
It would take years of personal development work for me to realize I’d learned to steamroll over my own emotions in favor of what I believed was strength. My “strength” also meant I had little patience for others’ feelings — quickly jumping into action at even the hint of negativity, rather than creating space for people first to feel. It wasn’t until I was a mother with a toddler that I could see this approach was not going to work. I knew that I wanted to have a closer emotional relationship with my daughter, so I had to finally learn — slowly, steadily — how to allow myself and others to feel.
Sitting there with my mom, I dug deep to apply what I now knew. Instead of taking on her pain as a problem to solve, I made space for it while also maintaining my own emotional boundaries and without numbing my own grief.
She went on to say that she didn’t expect to miss a man who’d made her so angry for decades. “He was my rock, my strength . . . Turns out I don’t know how to live without him.”
This was the most honest and intimate moment my mom and I had ever shared. I nodded through tears, “Well, he was your husband, despite the battles. I understand how you feel, I really do.” I reflected back on how less than two years earlier, when I had lost my husband to an accidental overdose, my mother was unable to be there emotionally for me. I pushed away the painful memory to stay in the moment.
Just then, my mom looked up at me with a recognition in her eyes that almost bordered on shock. “Wait,” she said. “This is what happened to you. You lost your husband too.”
For the first time, my mom grasped and acknowledged my pain in losing my husband — and my daughter, then just three, losing her father — four years earlier.
Three Key Steps
After years of personal growth work, I understand intellectually how my parents’ incapacity for vulnerability caused them to behave with such dysfunction towards each other and me and my siblings. I saw the through-line to my own dysfunctional relationships and emotional repression. But it would take a double dose of death — first my husband’s and then my dad’s — to move this awareness into my emotional body, such that I was capable of the action necessary to ensure I raised my daughter from a place of tenderness and be able to model vulnerability to her.
Looking back, I can see three key steps to breaking the cycle of parental dysfunction with my own daughter.
1. Awareness: Acknowledge the Cycle
At my dad’s funeral, I broke down in tears as I gave his eulogy. I sputtered through the end of my prepared words and then returned to a seat next to my mom. Her head hung low, and she never acknowledged or tried to comfort me. When my husband died, she was similarly distant and cold. But this time, instead of being hurt, I found that all I could feel for her was compassion. A stroke of insight hit me then and there. It was not that — as I had always thought — my mom was withholding anything from me. It was simply that she did not know how to comfort me.
When you are a person who lives life on the run from pain and heartache, there is no room to admit imperfection. Admitting something isn’t perfect means you have to deal with it. In that moment, the fact that my parents did not give me the kind of love and support I needed crystallized for me. My parents did not teach me how to feel my feelings or develop healthy emotional boundaries. Only with this awareness was I able to grasp on a cellular level just how important it was for me to avoid parenting my daughter in the way that I’d been parented.
2. Action: Breaking the Cycle
My new awareness meant that when critical emotional moments arose between me and my daughter, I would have to take thoughtful action. This required ongoing work to recognize my emotional responses still on autopilot, fueled by the momentum of my upbringing. On this front, my therapist and the therapist I hired to work with my daughter in the wake of losing her father were vital.
After Nadia’s sessions, her therapist, Dr. Litter, would debrief me. Having lost a husband and a father in short succession — and, not too long after, my mom as well — there were plenty of instances where I could not hide my grief from Nadia. Dr. Litter observed that Nadia would try to comfort me when my pain bubbled over into view. She’s a chip off the old block, I thought.
He directed me to intervene swiftly every time Nadia attempted to comfort me. Now that I understood that comforting my mom prevented me from discovering my own feelings, I knew I could not let my daughter do the same. I had to stop and reverse the cycle every time this pattern showed up.
When Nadia would try to comfort me, I would tell her that someday she can help take care of me. But right now, I would say, it is my job to take care of her, and it is my joy to take care of her. As often as is needed, I would remind her of this and help her find her way back to her own feelings rather than focusing on mine.
3. Acceptance: Disempowering the Cycle
Actively breaking a cycle requires constant vigilance for when the old habits arise. For me, putting so much attention on the ways my dysfunctional upbringing reared its ugly head meant that I was often resentful that my parents had ladened me with their baggage.
Centering this work around my daughter kept me motivated. But accepting my parents for who they were and forgiving them for their fallibility kept me sane. It quickly became clear that if I was going to break the cycle without draining myself, I would have to forgive my parents.
To help myself move towards acceptance, I focused on the fact that my parents did the best they could with the information they had. My mom was born into a long line of mothers who were married and had children very young. None of these moms had the life experience to be self-aware parents — never mind the fact that they were born during times when therapy was stigmatized and women were allowed only a truncated sense of self.
Once I stopped seeing my parents as parents but as humans who also lacked models of self-awareness and growth, forgiveness came much more readily. After all, parenting is hard no matter the circumstances, as I have learned myself. Forgiveness allowed the dysfunctional cycle to lose its power over me — and liberated my daughter to become who she truly is, perfectly imperfect and able to feel the full range of her emotions.
As Nadia was for me, all children have the potential to become their parents’ teachers. When we enter parenthood with curiosity and a commitment to personal growth, we are all capable of breaking any dysfunctional familial cycles and healing ourselves along the way.