Confronting elderly parents about childhood trauma

Do you think it is appropriate?

On the one hand, i think a frank and open discussion is healthy. But on the other hand, it was a long time ago and they don’t even remember that, or so they claim.

My specific situation was that as a child, i went went through a violent divorce of my parents. Lots of yelling and screaming in the other room. My dad was an abusive drunk.

But what is burned into my memory is my mom chasing after my dad when he left the house, getting into 1969 Chevy station wagon and repeatedly ramming him in his Ford Pinto. Me and my siblings watching in horror from upstairs.

Cops came, neighbors checked on us kids, but times were different. Nothing really happened.

My Mom has no recollection of this event happening. She does not have Alzheimers. Dad died years ago from booze.

Generally, it’s some kind of trait of parental abusers to deny abuse (gaslighting). I have abusive parents myself, and confronting them about trauma always starts arguments and tons of denial.

It is a general trait of abusers to deny abuse or otherwise rationalize e.g. “gaslighting” in its various forms, which can vary from simple denial to convoluted revisionism that turns back the offense onto the victim it as a measure they were ‘forced’ to engage in. In general abusers are unwilling to come clean and own up to their actions unless they are seeking out redemption; bringing it to them unsolicited is rarely productive or satisfying, and even if they acknowledge what transpired may simply pass it off as being consistent and expected with the place and time.

In other words, don’t expect elderly parents to have a “frank and open discussion” about their failings unless they bring it up, and even then, their view of the events and causes may be at odds with your recollection and objective reality.


I was not subject to abuse (not as it was defined at the time anyway, in the 50’s and 60’s) but my father later did acknowledge that he might have done better but that the only parenting he learned was from the way his mother treated him. My mother never talked about it, but I had a long talk with her younger sister (after my mother had died) and it helped me to understand why she was the way she was (cold, anxious, perfectionist).

I didn’t ever confront my parents, instead I had therapy for a couple of years, which allowed me to regard them as human beings and to forgive them for the things they were not able to give me (warmth, kindness).

You’ve gotten as far as you can, with this, I expect. She doesn’t remember and he’s dead. You going to round up your siblings to insist she acknowledge this event? Ask yourself what it is you are hoping for from her. Because chances are, you’re looking for something from someone who simply doesn’t have it to give.

There is nothing to gain in my opinion.

You should find your way to being okay with the confirmation of events provided by the other witnesses, in my humble opinion.

Good Luck!

Do your siblings remember it as well? It may be more fruitful to dicuss your memories together, possibly with a professional. Even without your siblings, a profressional might help you to recover from your experience.

I was raised in the 70s and 80s and I wasn’t abused by the standards of the day. (Parents smoked in the house, spanked us on occasion, didn’t make us wear bicycle helmets, let us I ride in the back of the El Camino, etc., etc.) As an adult, I can look back and see where my parents screwed up raising me. But I also know more about how my grandparents raised my parents so I can understand why they screwed up. I’m not a parent, but I have no doubt if I were to become one I’d use them as a model for how to raise a child. Hell, I behave a lot like my father. My mother suffers from some severe anxiety problems these days and it dawned on me one day that this matched some of her behavior from when I was a child. It was quite the revelation and made me realize she didn’t have it all together like I thought she did.

I haven’t spoken to my mother about this because why would I? While there are some areas I wish my parents had been better at, they weren’t abusive and most of my memories are pleasant enough. In my case at least, confronting them about their screw ups would just be mean spirited.

I have brought it up with my siblings. I am the youngest of 4.
We are not an emotional touchy/feely family. The conversation was that yes we all know what we went through, and there is no need to dwell in the past.

My older siblings may have fonder memories of life before the divorce. When i say my dad was an abusive drunk, i mean he beat my mom. Not us kids. He had a good job and paid the bills. We went on camping vacations. He coached little league for my older brothers. I was 8 when the shit started.

My two oldest siblings were entering college nearing the apex of things. My conversation with them revolved more about them continuing a normal relationship with my father. One brother and I moved across country with mom and didn’t have much contact with my father, except the occasional birthday card with a 5 dollar bill in it.

I grew to despise my father for putting us into this into this situation of moving yearly, changing schools, generally crappy economic and social situation (i had no friends). Although my dad did pay his child support dutifully. Mom didn’t want alimony because she was a strong independent woman and was gonna make it on her own (rolls eyes).

My older siblings stayed back home, invited my dad to dinner as adults. When my sister got married, we all went back home for the wedding, i was petrified of my dad getting drunk and causing a ruckus. I was older then and wondered if i would have to protect my mom like i couldn’t when i was 10. My abusive alcoholic Dad was just Grandpa eventually (to my 2 older siblings). I never understood it. My other brother stopped drinking when he had his first child. He didn’t have a drinking problem, he just didn’t want to become an abusive drunk. He told me specifically this is because of our father.

I put this in GD for the larger issue of Confronting elderly parents about childhood trauma and whether or not its a good idea. But maybe since i’m going on about my life it should be moved to a different forum.

To the OP:

You’re the one driving this. What is your goal? What do you need to happen so you no longer desire to have this ‘confrontation’? Once your parents do what you want them to do… what then?

All of us are just people doing the best we can with the genetics we are given, the environment we are in, and the experiences of our lives. Your mom hitting your dad with the car is not an isolated event but, as you noted, the culmination of so many things, much of which you weren’t alive for. Yes, it was traumatic for you to witness that… but how much more traumatic for your mother to be pushed to that point? What was the culmination of her genetics/environment/experiences which led to that moment? Do you really know? You know what you know, yes, but do you really know?

And so, you may be better served to think about forgiveness. Not the version where you admit your failings and say ‘I’m sorry’, but true forgiveness, where you stop demanding payment and/or punishment for past transgressions made against you.

If I can recommend something, here is a Vox Conversations podcast with Elizabeth Bruenig about the subject of forgiveness and why it is so difficult. She notes that…

"As a society, we have absolutely no coherent story — none whatsoever — about how a person who’s done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity between their life before and after the mistake.”

It’s worth a listen and, if you have been trying to go down the confrontation path for a while now, maybe a new approach is worth considering.

Blessings/peace to you.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression “don’t go the the hardware store to buy a loaf of bread?”

That particular loaf may be inedibly stale by now, even if it were in stock.

I agree with the posters who ask what is to be gained by this today?

I was raised in an abusive househould, with all 4 children leaving home between the ages of 16 and 18 yrs old. Miraculously, we all turned out well.

Through the years, and at funerals of our immediate family members, after a few drinks us kids (then married with kids of our own) would sit around and bring up instances of what happened to and with us. I think, just us, having these conversations among ourselves was cathartic for all of us. I am the last survivor of all 4 kids.

Looking back, I know that bringing these issues up to parents would have accomplished nothing but drive a wedge. A wedge not only between the parents and kids, but also force kids to take sides. Some things are just better left unsaid.

I am NOT disputing this. I just want to make an additional point. Namely, that they might genuinely not remember. It’s entirely possible that even at the time, it was not a big deal to them, and they forgot about it sooner or later.

I was not abused, at least not by 1960s standards. But in talking with my mother 10-20 years ago about various events in my childhood, I was amazed by how many stories she couldn’t remember, even though they made a big impression on me at the time. AND by how many stories I couldn’t remember, even though they made a big impression on her.

And I have told this observation to my children, as an example of how hard it is to be a parent. You have to be on top of your game constantly, because you never know which little tidbits will stick with the kid for decades to come.

I have to agree with this. When I was a child, my parents regularly had shouting matches in which they would SCREAM at each other at the absolute TOP OF THEIR LUNGS. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine it was physically possible for a human being to YELL AND SCREAM any louder or more vociferously than they did. This would go on for a minute or so, then they’d immediately kiss and make up, and be standing there hugging.

I’m known not the only one who remembers this. It was significant enough that when my parents were separating when I was 22, my father remarked on the phenomenon to me, saying “we’ve been like that since we were teenagers.” Yet twenty years later, when I was discussing my childhood with my mother and brought it up… she claimed to have no recollection of any such shouting matches ever occurring.

One can’t overstate how different perspective can be depending on the observer. When you’re a little kid, two much bigger adults with fully developed vocal cords screaming at each other no doubt seems much scarier than two people your own size. Plus, I think my mother just viewed her relationship with my father through such rose-colored glasses–they had been high school sweethearts, and I have no doubt he was the only man she’d ever loved–that she had a hard time seeing such things in a negative light, and they just didn’t seem like a big deal to her.

It doesn’t even have to be abuse by any standard - older people forget and misremember things. My mother is 80 and doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. A few weeks ago at a family reunion, she was a bit annoyed that her great-grandson was being put to bed earlier than she would have liked and told me, my brother, and my sister that she never had a bedtime for us. As our eyes popped out of our heads, we told her that we clearly remember being sent to bed in the summer while it was still light out and begging to be allowed to stay up when something special was on TV. She insisted that she never gave us a bedtime because my father worked until midnight and they didn’t want us to get up early. I later figured out that she must have been remembering the year or so before I started school that she didn’t have an infant who would have waken her up early and misremembered that our whole childhood was like that.

This my husband does with his siblings. Their mother likes to tell stories of raising the kids. She thinks the stories are cute. Borderline negligence is not cute.

I think this is what therapists are for - for you to talk through the trauma. I don’t think its necessary to confront your mother - she, intentionally or not, has decided that it is healthiest for her to not dwell on any of it.

As a more general thing - it generally does not work out well to confront people about the past. Its the past. You make peace with it on your own. If the person’s behavior was so horrible that there aren’t mitigating factors to excuse it, an apology won’t do any good. And if there were mitigating factors, then your mother’s choice to bury it is common - picking at someone else’s emotional scars for your own relief is ineffective and selfish.

Add me to this chorus. I’m just in my mid-40s, and there are many events my sister, my mother, andI remember very differently, or not at all. And our timelines, the order of key events, have significant differences.

Memory is fickle.

It’s not surprising that your two oldest siblings would not have the same feelings that you did.

A lot of research has been done concerning extended trauma and the effects that it has on the brain. It wasn’t really understood well until researchers and therapists such as Bessel van der Kolk really started to dive deeply into the problem. They were able to find that trauma can make lasting changes in the brain, and that special therapy can sometimes be necessary.

There aren’t any perfect parents, and everyone needs to be understanding of their own parents, but there is a fundamental difference between “normal” parenting and that which involves abuse or neglect. Kids can be traumatized not only by abuse directed at them but also from one parent to the other, or towards siblings.

You were in a completely different situation than your oldest two siblings as well as in a different stage of life and was more powerless.

I had to find a way to make peace myself with the ghosts of my past.
For me, I had to find a way to let go of the very negative feelings associated with memories of past events and come to peace with myself.

For some people, I decided that while I would let go of the pain associated with their words and actions of the past, it was necessary to not have any contact with them again.

This is a difficult question and the circumstances are likely, although not unusual, somewhat unique.

What are you hoping for? An acknowledgement? An apology? Sympathy? One rarely gets satisfaction from these types of cases. There is an excellent book You Can Survive Narcissistic Abuse which you might find worthwhile.

The consensus appears to be that it is a bad idea.

I guess my thought on the subject was along the lines of it is better to talk about issues than bundle them in a tight little ball and swallow them.

Maybe “Confront” wasn’t the best choice of words.

I’ve never gone to therapy about it, but i have talked about it extensively with my wife. And as mentioned, tried with my older siblings, but didn’t get very far.