A Holiday Dilemma: When going home for Thanksgiving means entering a world of pain

By Savannah Eadens

After a lifetime of criticism and pressure, 18-year-old Sophie* is still trying to drown out the voices in her head telling her she may not be worthwhile. 

“What am I doing? How do people think of me? Should I be doing better?” she constantly thinks to herself.

These thoughts developed from the most influential and formative relationship a child can have: one with their parents. 

While in high school, Sophie, now a freshman music major, said she was pressured by her mother to be thin. At one point, she lost 60 pounds. 

“I was really underweight and [my mom] would tell me I looked better and to keep going,” Sophie remembers. “It was a constant, every-day thing. She would always ask me how much I weighed and tell me that I needed to work out.” 

But it didn’t stop there. Sophie’s parents pressured her to wear makeup and said she would hate herself if she didn’t change her appearance. They also pushed her to do well in school and compared her academically to her friends. 

Sophie’s dilemma—how to pursue a relationship with parents who she said have been hurtful to her, but who are also financially supportive—is one shared by many college students.

Victims of emotional abuse, as Sophie considers herself to be, often first become aware that something is amiss when they’re away from home for the first time.

“I have made a lot of progress figuring myself out,” Sophie said. “I don’t like to be home for more than a day or two because [painful feelings] always come back and there is no way to avoid it. Going home should be something that doesn’t give me anxiety.” 

Emotional abuse occurs when an individual’s basic needs and beliefs are not respected, leaving them feeling undervalued and unloved, said Amy Bailey, a clinical psychotherapist at Urban Balance, a Chicago-based counseling service. When away at college, students can realize that their childhood experiences were destructive and may feel distraught about going to their parents’ home—a place where they don’t feel safe anymore, she added. 

The holidays can be an especially overwhelming and vulnerable time for families. 

“We all have this Norman Rockwell ideal that we are going to go home, carve a beautiful turkey together, and it will be nirvana,” Bailey said, referring to the 1950s’ picturesque American family. 

The reality is that trauma resulting from emotional abuse doesn’t just cause a child’s resentment but can evolve into depression, anxiety or feelings of alienation and sadness, Bailey explained. 

Though she would prefer not to go home for Thanksgiving, Sophie thinks her parents would feel betrayed if she decided to stay on campus. 

“I am their family and their only child, and believe it or not, they do like spending time with me,” she said. 

Bailey tells her student patients who feel like they must go home that they should have a plan to exit the situation, such as calling a friend and having a ride to leave their parents’ house. 

Using a similar strategy, Nancy Burgoyne, a clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, tells her patients to imagine themselves as anthropologists studying a different culture, and to put themselves in the role of stepping back and observing their family interactions. By becoming non-reactive observers, young people can distance themselves from conflict and deprecation. 

“What we don’t want to say to young adults is that there is no way to be at home and be OK,” Burgyone said. “Entering that situation in a planned, thoughtful way with a strategy to take care of yourself can leave the young adult empowered.” 

Francesca*, a freshman cinema and television arts and interactive arts and media double major, said distance and time away from her mother at college has made her aware of her mother’s manipulative actions. 

When Francesca was a child, she said she often overreacted or cried, and when that happened, her mother would threaten to tell her friends and humiliate her. 

“I am no longer in the fight or flight response,” Francesca said. “[Emotional trauma] is something that a lot of people don’t understand because this is college and you are supposed to be able to advocate for yourself and grow as a person, but that is not going to happen overnight.”

Francesca now finds it challenging to confront other people, including her roommates. 

“There was a point [with my roommates] where I felt like I was inconveniencing everyone by being there. I feel like I need to make up for my presence there,” she said. “It is hard because you can’t tell someone, ‘Hey, I can’t communicate well because my parents didn’t raise me [correctly].’” 

When young adults are immersed in new environments, they are provided feedback about themselves that is incompatible with what they received during childhood, Burgoyne said. As students distance themselves from a home life filled with pain, they are granted various perspectives they’ve never encountered. 

“The transition to college can be anywhere from devastating to liberating,” Burgoyne said. “Typically, the relationship with family members can be complex, and often there is love. Realizing [the relationship has] been abusive puts the young adult in a tremendously difficult position [about] how to relate to their own distress and how to relate to their family going forward.” 

Bailey said depending on where the student is in the process of healing, returning home can be a reminder of anger and pain, something they do not want to experience once again. 

“The process can be triggering,” she added. “When you’ve been on your own, you are an adult, then you come home and your parents are trying to ask ‘Where are you going and when are you coming home?’” 

Many parents financially support their children while in college, which makes it especially difficult for students who are in hurtful family situations to break ties with their parents.

Students who are at expensive colleges and universities are often not in a position to sever relationships if they want their parents to continue to pay tuition bills, said Marla Brassard, a psychology and education professor at Teacher’s College Columbia University in New York, who specializes in studying psychological maltreatment of children by parents and teachers. 

“If you don’t come home, [your parents might] feel like you are making a statement that you dislike or hate them and they’re not going to pay for your school anymore,” Brassard said. 

Francesca said her mother uses financial leverage as a parenting tactic and has threatened to cut her off. 

“I am going to go home [for Thanksgiving], and I am extremely nervous about it,” Francesca said. “I tried to tell them it wasn’t worth it for a four-day weekend.” 

 After coming up with several excuses not to go home for the holiday, Francesca said it is ultimately her parents’ decision because they are footing her tuition bill and the airfare home to Massachusetts. 

Sophie is in a similar position because her parents are paying for the first two years of college. But after sophomore year, Sophie said she plans to take out loans to support herself. 

“I hate being dependent on them because when you’re dependent on someone, that gives them power to [hold] that over your head,” Sophie said. 

There is a power imbalance between a parent and child that goes beyond financial support in college. Children are dependent on their parents for nearly everything when they are still growing up and living at home.

It is difficult for young adults to understand that the same parents who nurtured them may have also hurt them. 

There is evidence that even children who were harshly treated still want their parents to love and care about them, Brassard said. 

“My parents were my role models and so whatever they said, I believed wholeheartedly, and I didn’t doubt it at all,” Sophie said. 

Sophie now writes in a journal and shows herself compassion as a coping mechanism and recommends other victims of emotional abuse do the same. When the maltreatment derives from their parents—someone they respect—children believe what they are told about themselves. 

“But every person owes it to themselves to do something good for themselves,” Sophie said. “If that means letting go of baggage or forgiving the people who wronged you, you even if they don’t understand, sometimes that is just what you have to do.” 

Many parents do not realize the extent of their actions, Burgoyne noted. Even if the emotional abuse is unintentional, it still causes a rift in the familial relationship. 

It’s crucial for students to grieve the relationship they missed with their parents in order to either improve it or remove themselves from the environment in which they do not feel safe or valued, Bailey said. 

There is a profound shift when a young adult steps back, sees their parents as people with their own flaws and looks at the family dynamic with love and compassion, Burgoyne said. 

Sophie said it is not possible to end the relationship with her parents because she is an only child, so she wants to forgive her parents for unintentionally emotionally abusing her. 

 The criticism she endured in her teens has died down since she left home, and Sophie believes the relationship with her parents will continue to change.

 “You can only blame your parents so long for your own life, so that is why I started doing things for myself,” she said. “There are things that I can learn from my parents, and I feel with time, they will see me as more of an equal instead of someone that they have to keep perfecting.”

 

*These students consented to have their full names published; however, The Chronicle made the editorial decision to refer to them only by their first names to protect their privacy and families.

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