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When Family of Origin is Tricky: 3 Important Steps to Take Toward Healing

February 21, 2023

I was well into adulthood and fairly new to parenting when I realized how complicated my family of origin was. Growing up, I knew that my formative years didn't comprise what many would call a picture-perfect "healthy family environment"--after all, my father lived clear across the country and was struggling on many levels, and my mother, while doing her best for me, was still unpacking her own challenges.

I didn't know about ACE scores or trauma back then, but as early as age six, when my mother told me she and my father were getting divorced, my gut reaction was, "Oh, thank goodness. Life will feel more peaceful now."

I'm told this isn't a typical reaction from a six-year-old child. I didn't get the memo that I was supposed to mourn this announcement.

Although my parents had worked to avoid divorce by going to family therapy and whatnot, there are certain dynamics that are so fraught with negative patterns and chronic poor choices that recovery simply isn't possible. Already at six, I understood the gist of this.

A healthy family environment must feel emotionally safe.

As I grew older, I joked, albeit secretly hoping it was true, that I'd have no trouble in my future romantic relationships or parenting because I'd had such good models of what not to do.

I was wrong, of course.

My family of origin issues did not prepare me for a peaceful family life of my own, much less any understanding of what a healthy family environment should resemble. My emotional health suffered for a good long while, while I stumbled around wondering why I kept getting relationships so wrong.

To be fair, my family of origin wasn't entirely to blame. My biological parents have both given me loving support in various ways throughout my life, so it's never been a "black and white" situation.

One change I finally made to break that pattern--the one some call "cycle breaking"--was consciously exploring the negative aspects of my parents' relationship and how they parented me--and learning how to do things differently.

I learned that conscious parenting matters. A lot.

The most important shift was in my parenting.

I wouldn't settle anymore for repeating what was familiar. Instead, I took the driver's seat of my own mental health--and knew I wanted better for my daughter's childhood, too.

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Although my biological family of origin would lay the groundwork for how I'd handle some things (epigenetics and intergenerational trauma are real), their history didn't need to become my destiny.

I also know I'm not alone in having a tricky family of origin.

How to heal family of origin issues

Tackling family of origin issues doesn't happen overnight. There's no "quick fix" for the family dynamics and belief systems we carry forward into our relationships before we even realize we're doing it.

We have to work hard to disrupt family patterns that aren't serving us anymore. We can't do this work alone.

Here are three approaches that can prove immensely helpful in recovering from a suboptimal family or origin and bring you back to a place of greater mental health--and a closer, more emotionally healthy family.

1. Find good therapy

Talk therapy, along with a combination of non-traditional therapy options, can be helpful to treat body, mind, and spirit. Talk therapy, specifically, is found to be helpful in three out of four people, or 75% of people who seek to improve their relationships this way (source).

If we want to heal, we have to intentionally address the messiness we brought into parenting, whether or not we realized we were bringing it.

We need to form a coherent narrative about our childhood, and see how the beliefs we learned growing up are still serving our self-esteem and feelings of "wholeness" in adulthood.As for non-traditional therapy to help family of origin relationships or personal healing, there are many possible helpful modalities, including EMDR, somatic therapy, and others.

"...EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.  Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal.  EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma..." (source)

Somatic approaches also help address mental health concerns from the inside out (source).

Additionally, one of the most important things you can do is reparent yourself. When you do this alongside the work you seek with a therapist, you may discover a real sense of inner safety, perhaps for the very first time in your life.

2. Set healthy boundaries with your family of origin

Whether a person's biological family or adoptive family of origin is at the root of our childhood struggles, we must create and maintain healthy boundaries with them.

They don't get to tell us how to parent our children. Perhaps of even greater importance, we don't need to let the voices they "planted" in our heads during our own childhood tell us how to parent our children. When we hear those voices, we get to push back on them.

Our boundaries may or may not match whatever boundaries our siblings have with our mother and father; they have their own relationships with them. It's their life. We must realize that for our own mental health, we can't concern ourselves with what others feel is "appropriate" for us or for our children--this is our life and this is our very own parenting journey.

If we weren't raised with peaceful discipline, we get to give that gift to our children. When we do this, they won't have to heal from their childhood like we did.

We also get to rewrite our story about our own childhood. We can develop whatever boundaries we need to manage conflict and find emotional safety for ourselves and for our children.

We need to examine which childhood wounds need fixing. Once we do that, of course, we want to be careful not to shame our parents, or in most cases, exclusively blame one parent or the other.

A blaming mindset leads us to parent from our own anger and resentment, rather than from a place of peace. That serves neither our relationships with our parents or with our own children. More effective is to find a way to make peace with our past, whatever our narrative about our family of origin may be.

To clarify, this does NOT mean we need to approve of how our parents or extended family of origin treated us. It's a different kind of forgiveness we seek; one that frees our heart from carrying our pain forward.

We can choose to see our feelings about our family of origin as messengers about what we need going forward, rather than what we lost when we look backwards.

Most importantly, if our family of origin choses to perpetuate unhealthy patterns, especially in front of our own children, we can choose to no longer be a party to it.

We want our own children to have a strong sense of what healthy families look like, and realize we are the ones who need to model that, including setting clear boundaries with some of the people we love (or once did).

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3. Study every healthy family you encounter, and find role models--without digging so deep that you overwhelm yourself

Once you begin your healing journey, it can be tempting to dig so deep into your past that you lose sight of your present.

You might embark on an extensive study of family issues; everything from dependence disorders, emotional abuse, trauma recovery--you name it. Maybe it all serves you well. 

Or, maybe you benefit only from one piece of it, and the rest stands to do little more than overwhelm you.

You can't study everything at once, lest you become emotionally and intellectually flooded.

In bite-sized pieces, though, you can learn what works for people.

Outside an "academic analysis" of your childhood and all the factors that contributed to where you are today, one more straightforward approach is to find role models for healthy relationships outside your family of origin.

Pay attention to communication patterns of people who you know are happily partnered and/or peacefully parenting, creating a home that thrives on mutual respect. People often default to their biological family for who they model, but we can and should look beyond our own family of origin here.

We can absolutely create a "chosen" family, whether we know who that is during our formative years or whether we choose our people in adulthood. All healing counts.

Our family of origin may not like it when we do this work

Family members may directly or indirectly oppose our work to change things up; to do things differently than they did. They may view our emotional work as a direct hit to their self-esteem. They may take it personally, because let's face it, it is personal.

And yet, if we're going to provide children with a roadmap of how to do life, we need to press forward without worrying about whether our family of origin "approves" of our need to heal. We're not just healing our own relationships; we're proactively healing those that our children will have someday.

Our children will be prone to fewer mental health issues if they grow up modeling healthy families in their romantic relationships, friendships, and in their own parenting someday.

It doesn't matter whether your family members are on board, or whether they believe you "need" any help. You know what feels right and what seems to be moving the needle in the right direction, so it's exclusively your choice to pursue healing without doubt or fear of judgment.

If it's healing and important to you, doing your family of origin work can be non-negotiable, regardless of what your parents, siblings, or anyone else says about it.

We get to redefine what it means to heal

Perhaps the most important part of healing family of origin issues is redefining what it means to heal. It's tempting to hold a sort of black and white view of the family unit: beliefs that a family is either "healthy" or "broken."

The truth is, we're all somewhere in-between. Every step we take towards having an emotionally safe family of our own is a true and worthy accomplishment.

Will we ever achieve perfection, though? Will we find that perfect fit of a puzzle-piece scenario where the entire family relationship just works as intended, every moment of every day?

I doubt it. And I'm an optimist.

I believe that healthy families are, perhaps surprisingly to my younger self, still messy sometimes. 

Emotional well-being shows up somewhere on a spectrum, rather than being an absolute. Family of origin issues still come up, because we have that history. Our trauma and core beliefs don't just disappear into thin air when we decide to heal. It's an evolution that takes time and effort.

The big shift for healthy families, however, is when our family of origin issues don't determine the outcome of every struggle. We get to choose a new path forward. A healthier one.

We've grown wise enough to view our history as a single piece of that puzzle, but we now have more tools at our disposal. More information. We learn more ways to show up for ourselves and one another. We learn strategies that enhance our relationships rather than harm them.

Healthy families develop ways to be present for each other through the gift of emotional safety. Difficulties no longer set us back; instead, whether in marriage or friendships or raising children, we deeply believe that healing is always possible.

Because it is. 

My six-year-old self didn't know how things would turn out, but she was right about one thing: life feels more peaceful now.

Disclaimer:  All advice and guidance offered on this site is not medical guidance and should not be interpreted as such, and the owner of this site is not responsible for individual outcomes.

I am not a physician, psychologist, or counselor, nor am I licensed to offer therapy or medical advice of any kind. I am a certified conscious parenting coach and my courses, blog posts, and all other guidance are based on my training and experience. If you are having an emergency or are in crisis please call 911, or the National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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