How To Confidently Explain Your Memories And Experiences To Your Parent

April 8th, 2024

One of the biggest issues adult children and their parents face is drastically different memories of the past.

Childhood memories

Before speaking to your parent about wounds from the past, it is important to identify what has hurt you and how you were impacted. It’s reasonable to expect your parent might have questions about your feelings and experiences. This is very different than them denying your experiences or criticizing them. Respectful questions to seek understanding are allowed; diminishing your experiences and calling them untrue isn’t helpful. It’s important that they learn how to ask those questions respectfully and for you to explain your feelings and experiences in a respectful manner.

And, if you have experienced abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent, you will have strong feelings about this. It makes sense that you would be emotional, angry, upset, or have various other feelings. It can feel like the victim is being blamed when you are asked to present your feelings in a palatable way to the person who hurt you. You are entitled to feel how you feel and to express yourself in a way that makes sense for you and your situation. You get to decide how to share this issue with your parent and you should do it in a way that feels empowering and aligns with your goals.

Many adult children feel that their memories are not reliable or that they are over-reacting. It’s important to feel confident in your thoughts, feelings, and memories about your childhood and know that you can feel confident in understanding your childhood and your parents.

One of the biggest issues adult children and their parents face is drastically different memories of the past. You may wonder, do parents really not remember? When they say, “That didn’t happen” or “I never said that,” do they really believe what they’re saying?

Here are a couple of theories based on what we know about memory and forgetting:

  • Memories are highly subjective. Our mood, level of arousal, expectations, prior experience, developmental stage, knowledge, and resources will impact how we store specific memories. A 5-year-old and a 40-year-old will remember the same situation in very different ways.
  • Some memories simply decay over time: Memory traces may fade if they are unused. It has been suggested that metabolic processes in the brain may erode memories over time.
  • Some memories are there, and we cannot access them. If an incident didn’t seem particularly important or meaningful at the time, we may not convert it to long-term memory, which can be more difficult to retrieve in the future.
  • Interference happened at the time of the event, and they do not remember everything that happened. Sometimes, we are distracted by other details or events that are happening at the time of an event. This stops us from committing all of the details to memory.
  • There is psychologically motivated forgetting, a protective mechanism that shields us from discomfort. Sometimes, we don’t remember because we truly do not want to. Shame, guilt, or other difficult feelings accompany the memory, and we’d rather forget.
  • Trauma can impact our memory. It can prevent information from different parts of the brain from combining to make a semantic memory, fragment the sequence of events, and change patterns of procedural memory.
  • There are people who will deny reality even when it is right in front of them. Have you ever sent a screenshot or recorded a conversation, only to be told that’s not what was actually said? Some people will deny reality even when they can literally see or hear the words in front of them. No matter how much proof you have, they will never accept a memory or proof of an incident.
  • Memories are often in the eye of the beholder. Facts, interpretations, feelings, and a personal narrative are involved in recounting memories. Your parent may truly not remember a situation that had a profound impact on you. They may not remember it the way you remember it or have the same interpretation. There are many reasons for this denial or forgetting, and it’s difficult to know what that forgetting is rooted in or if it is purposeful.

This is what truly matters: Finding a way to discuss and share each of your unique perspectives respectfully. This may also include the parent recognizing their role in a situation and making amends. And facts are facts. If the abuse happened, it happened. There is no explaining away or “seeing both sides” with certain family issues. And sometimes we can find a way to share and validate our memories and perspectives. Only you can decide what is appropriate for your specific situation.

How To Confidently Explain Your Memories And Experiences To Your Parent

  • Label your feelings. Say things like I feel or felt and label how you felt in the moment.
  • Clarify that this was your experience. “I experienced ______.” or, “This is what I was experiencing ______.” can be helpful.
  • Let them know how it is impacting you today. “This is how it affects me now, ______.”
  • Describe how repairing this would improve your relationship.

If your parent meets all of these attempts with defensiveness, cruelty, abuse, or denial, you may have your answer: your parent is not in a place where they can hear you and take accountability for this issue. In that case, you can build confidence in your experiences and feelings and focus on healing without their involvement.