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.
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.
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 therapist, reading 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.
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 relationships.
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 which 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 men and women 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.
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.”
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.
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. And moreover, if one or both had a mental illness, a mood or personality disorder, or some kind of addiction, their capacity to show up for you may have been still further limited.
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.
If you would like additional support right now and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
I really like this post, Annie. I find it very helpful. I’m interested in what you mean exactly by “blame and shame”? With my family, my intention is not to shame them, but I do blame them. I do hold them accountable for what they did. Do you think I’m wrong for that? I’m not sure I will ever forgive them and I don’t think I have to. Some people tell me I need to, but I don’t think I do. I believe I can move on with my life without having to forgive them. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks a lot.
I really appreciated what you shared and would be happy to clarify.
I think sometimes blame gets confused with being clear on cause. Of course, if you are clear that you experienced pain from someone, it is not, in my opinion, blame to be clear about that. The difference, I think, is when we have unprocessed material which causes us to lash out and assign responsibility where there may be none. Or perhaps assign too much responsibility.
Truly, it’s very delicate and subjective territory unique to us all.
I hope this feels helpful in some way, and thank you for taking time to comment.
From “When the Body Says NO” by Gabor Mate, MD
Whom do we accuse?
Parenting, in short, is a dance of the generations. Whatever affected one generation but has not been fully resolved will be passed on to the next. Lance Morrow, a journalist and writer, succinctly expressed the multigeneradonal nature of stress in his book Heart, a wrenching and beautiful account of his encounters with mortality, thrust upon him by near-fatal heart disease: “The generations are boxes within boxes: Inside my mother’s violence you find another box, which contains my grandfathers violence, and inside that box (I suspect but do not know), you would find another box with some such black, secret energy—stories within stories, receding in time.”
Blame becomes a meaningless concept if one understands how family history stretches back through the generations. “Recognition of
this quickly dispels any disposition to see the parent as villain,” wrote John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist whose work threw scientific light on the decisive importance of attachment in infancy and childhood.
Thank you for sharing the compassionate words of Gabor Mate, vis a vis Lance Morrow and Bowlby. I agree that our parents are products of the parenting they received and so forth over the generations. And when one generation does their work of consciously reparenting themselves and making different choices for their children, those “boxes” can change in shape and size and scope of impact.
Again, thanks for sharing those words.
Gábor Szurdoki on
” Whatever affected one generation but has not been fully resolved will be passed on to the next.” But this is NOT an excuse. This bullshit part of psychology says that I can kick the sht out of my wife 5 times a day, sorry, I just do what my father did. Fck that.
“The intent of this essay nor the work of psychotherapy is to blame and shame our parents.” I think there is a key word missing here, as I think the meaning is meant to be the opposite?
Either way, this article is very helpful and reinforces the lessons I am learning in therapy even though it is a tricky thing to process. Such a good reminder of the importance of actively seeking out these experiences too. Thank you
Forgive me if my message didn’t come across clearly; the intention of this piece, and my work as a psychotherapist, is not to blame or shame anyone’s parents. I hope this clarifies, and I’m so touched that my writing resonated with you. I hope you continue to seek out those experiences, as tricky as they may be. You’re so deserving of transformation.
Staci Long on
I found this article very enlightening and helpful. I had never heard the term un or under parented so putting a name to my past situation was therapy in and of itself. Thank you for sharing.
You’re so welcome, Staci! I’m not sure if I coined the phrase but I certainly use it all the time in my therapy practice to help explain possibly hard-to-understand feelings, concepts, and experiences. So I’m glad it felt helpful for you to hear this term, too! Warmly, Annie
This is a wonderful article and very sensitively written, thank you! Do you have any suggestions for methodically identifying which developmental aspects an individual might be missing? and then perhaps a bit more on addressing them through reparenting themselves?
This is a great question! I may have to write a blog post on this in the future because it’s a big subject, too.
I think of unmet developmental tasks as the places where we might feel “stuck” still in our lives — forming close relationships with peers, dating, taking care of our bodies or our homes, etc.. I’d invite you to reflect on what parts of your life feel “stuck” and be curious about whether or not that feels like a challenge stemming from lack of modeling, mentoring, and parenting in childhood.
If it is, then your task is to start learning how others successfully (and I use that term loosely and subjectively) do that thing you’re interested in and then perhaps begin to model their behavior. And I have to say, working with a therapist may be the best support in helping you identify these places and be curious about how you can meet these needs for yourself.
I hope this feels helpful and thank you again for taking the time to read this article and for your great question.
Mark Brady on
It’s now 5 years later, but Bruce Perry’s NeuroSequential Model of Therapeutics provides granular detail as to what our human developmental
tasks turn out to be.
Thanks for this information on a topic that is not often discussed. Can you comment on/clarify what the grieving process might look like/entail?
I’m glad you enjoyed the article! The best way for me to explain what the grieving process might look like/entail is actually in the form of another post I wrote entitled, “Yes, Sweetheart, you DO actually get to grieve this.” https://www.anniewright.com/yes-sweetheart-actually-get-grieve/
I hope this feels helpful and I wish you all the best on your healing journey.
Maggie Macha on
This article really resonated with me. I was underparented. I have worked with various therapists over many years. I have reached out to mentors all my teenage/adult life. I am currently working to good enough parent myself. I practice being loving and nurturing to my younger self. Structure feels soothing, so I structure my days. I appreciate this article, I’ve never really seen it written out so clearly. I am grateful for your clear and consice plan for healing. It is affirming all that I have done and continue to do. I know others with similar upbringings, who have not chosen to do any healing. I recently have gotten involved with those who are doing the healing work and I truly treasure their comradery.
Thank you for your kind words about this post – I’m so glad the article resonated with you! It sounds like you’re doing a lot of wonderfully supportive things for yourself: putting yourself in contact with mentors, weaving structure into your days as a form of soothing, surrounding yourself with like-minded others on their healing paths. Good for you! You’re doing a great job showing up for your life and I wish you all the very best as you move forward.
Eoin Brennan on
What about the notion that we have inside of each of us and unconditioned self who’s complete and is pure joy and happiness, independent upon anything or anyone external? Like what the Buddha did. He achieved enlightenment and was free of all attachments. He could allow things to come and go from his life without holding onto them. And he was the happiest man that ever lived.
Michelle Brown on
Hi Annie, I appreciated this post. I’m 54 and finally accepting the loss of my childhood and grieving the realization that I’ve never felt safe & protected. I recognize now how hard I sought that in relationships. Having a father who left completely and severed ties and a mother that insisted on being patented, I finally see it and see the subconscious reasons for so many of my choices. I appreciated this post and wanted to locate additional resources. For example I’m very interested in finding a support group but I don’t know what to look for? I also would like to find additional online groups since I’m not sure what if any are in my area. Any assistance is appreciated!
Still a very relevant article in 2021. Thank you for explaining, in my case under parenting, giving the virtual permission to grieve and providing tangible steps to work through it.
Hi Nicole, you’re so welcome! I’m glad this post feels helpful and actionable to you. Take such good care of yourself. Warmly, Annie.
Do you think your quiz applies to children who lived in boarding schools from a young age, 6 years old and up. Missionary kids, etc.
Thanks for your excellent question! This would apply to anyone who feels they were under-parented and in many cases, it would absolutely apply to children who grew up in boarding school. I hope that you’ve found this post helpful. Sending you my very best.