If your adult child does not like the way you parented them, what do you do? Sulk, ignore, reprimand or reject? It’s not an easy path for parents to walk on, but compassion on both ends can go a long way toward healing.
“Even when they do their best, parents fall short, regardless, and there will be memories and experiences that children find hurtful,” says Lauren Cook, MMFT, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University. “There is no such thing as a perfect parent.”
Here are some tips from NBC News to help start difficult conversations on building better relationships with adult children.
“Most importantly your children want to be seen and heard, so even though it may be difficult to hear them out without interrupting or finding counter arguments, it is the first step in the right direction,” says Dr. Viola Drancoli, PsyD, a clinical psychologist as quoted in the article. “It often takes clients a long time to confront parents with those resentments, either because they don’t expect to be understood or because they don’t want to hurt their parents. Either way, the more open and non-defensive you can listen, the better.”
“When you listen to your child’s experience it can be tempting to want to let them in on what was really going on with you, or to want to correct them if their perception or experience wasn’t 100 percent correct [in your opinion],” says Dea Dean, LMFT. “When you lead with correction over connection, you miss an opportunity to have your child feel truly heard. When you acknowledge their feelings first, they will be more likely to naturally want to listen to your side of things and be open to learning what it was like to be you in the moment being discussed.”
“Even though your child is now an adult, they’re still your child and when you’re working through issues of the past, you’re likely interacting with a younger part of them that can be emotionally reactive,” says Dean in the article. “It’s important to have empathy for your adult child if they’re struggling to understand your side of things in a past interaction that hurt them. When we accrue emotional wounds, they occur on the right hemisphere of the brain, where we store experiential memories, and when those stored memories are walked through again, the right hemisphere of your child’s brain will likely become engaged, reigniting those old feelings of ‘fight or flight,’ that they might have felt in the moment from the past. This is why their emotional reaction may seem incongruent with the intensity of the actual interaction. They’re not the adult sitting in front of you during the present discussion, they are experiencing the feelings and using the logic of the child they were when the incident occurred. Have compassion for that younger part of them and practice nonjudgmental acceptance for their experience.”
“We get the desire to explain why we may have done something, usually with good intent because we don’t want our people to hurt, and therefore we try to explain why they shouldn’t,” says Nicole Herrera, MFTC. “This has the opposite effect through. The adult child will feel as though they need to do one of two things: one, explain their feelings further — which usually causes escalation — or two, start to shut down again and create greater resentment. For the parent, if they can focus on the feelings their kid is having rather than the content they are bringing up, they have a better chance of validation and apology.”
Step 5: Be accountable for your actions and words
“Take accountability for how your words or actions were absorbed by them without condemning yourself or shifting into ‘all or nothing’ thinking,” says Dean. “You can be a good parent and have unintentionally caused hurt in your child. One reason it can be difficult for parents to acknowledge the hurt they caused is because they feel they’re acknowledging their failure as a parent. If you can separate your identity as a parent from your behavior as a parent, you will be more successful at listening to and acknowledging your child. Remind yourself that you were and are a loving parent and at the same time you made missteps that wounded your kid.”
“Forgive your child for not expressing his or her feelings perfectly, but don’t accept abuse,” says Nance L. Schick, Esq., a conflict resolution coach and author of “DIY Conflict Resolution: Seven Choices and Five Actions of a Master”. “Sometimes we need to love each other from afar for a while, and if that seems likely here, do what you feel is necessary for your emotional or physical safety.”
“Perhaps the toughest [step] is working on forgiving yourself for not being the parent that you had hoped to be,” says Judith Belmont, MS, a psychotherapist and the author of “Embrace Your Greatness: Fifty Ways to Build Unshakable Self-Esteem”. “In my 40 years as a psychotherapist, I have never met a parent who meant to inflict harm on their children, but many of them did despite using the best skills they had at the time. Parenting does not come with a manual. Many well-intentioned parents, particularly ones who have their own issues of low self-esteem, are depressed, experience marital discord, and have problems managing stress, do not react well to situations. But you cannot change the past and rework history. Parents need to be reminded that they did the best with the mental health and abilities they had at the time. Some parents remain a prisoner of their past and take too much responsibility for their kids’ problems. The saying I have for this that has provided comfort to my clients is, ‘Forgive yourself for not having the foresight to know what is now so obvious in hindsight.’”
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