The Celebrity Therapist

The Celebrity Therapist

The Parent Trap: What Does It Mean to Be an Adult Child, Anyway?

“Yesterday I called my Internet provider with a billing question and got a vivacious female robot who told me how glad she was to help me. Could we begin with my touch-toning my phone number? I hit O for operator, but this time the robot paused for a second and said calmly, like Nurse Ratched, ‘Okay — but you’ll just have to answer these same questions with someone else. So would you like to begin again, by touch-toning your phone number.’

I could hardly breathe. After a moment, I said, slowly, ‘Mom?’”—Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually)

How do they get us like this? No matter how old we get or how we mature we fancy ourselves, when it comes to our parents — or anything that smacks of them — we regress into an irritated, insolent teenager for whom the world is unfair. In Anne Lamott’s case, at the time of this incident, her mother had been dead for years. Yet the power of the parent was capable of reaching out to her from the grave. Spooky? Sure. A real phenomena? Absolutely.


For those of us fortunate enough to have had “normal” parents, loving and supportive, the connection may not be as painful – perhaps a mild irritation. But for the many others (and you are in good company), whose parents were less than ideal — overly critical, absent, out-and-out abusive — when the parent force grabs you, it is truly painful.

What do we do when this happens?

Meredith Watkins, MFT, clinical editor of, states, “Grown adults with difficult childhood (and adult) experiences of their parents whisper to me, terrified, ‘But what if I’m just like them, you know, deep down?’ Hear me and hear me well: You are your own person. While your initial self image as a child was developed from what your parents reflected to you, you are now all grown up and get to decide if that image is the one you care to take with you or discard as the muddled image of your parents’ own insecurities and flaws projected on to you.”


There’s a Bible verse that states, “By their fruit, you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) This means, if you want to know who you truly are, deep down, take a look at your “fruits” — you overall behaviors toward others and yourself; your personal beliefs and values and how they take root in your life. Knowing yourself well — and being content with that — anchors you in the midst of a parent-induced storm.

Many people had parents who didn’t (and still don’t) act like a parent “should”. In fact, you may have been the “parentified child”—a psych term that means you parented your parent. Clearly, this is a reversal of roles, and a damaging one at that. You got cheated out of being a kid, knowing that the world was a safe place and you were taken care of. This is not your fault!


However, now, as an adult, you can take those early skills and direct them inward, to begin to heal the wounds that perhaps never received the balm of compassion and tenderness they needed.

Pema Chodron, the prolific American Buddhist nun, states, “To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes…That’s the beginning of growing up. As long as we don’t want to be honest and kind with ourselves, then we are always going to be infants.” (When Things Fall Apart)

So, make a deal today to be both honest and kind with yourself.

Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a Life and Recovery Coach on Celebrity Rehab on VH1 and author of “The Law of Sobriety” which uses the law of attraction to recovery from any addictions.  Sherry can be reached at for coaching packages, therapy, teleseminars, workshops, or speaking engagements.

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