Tonia N. Adams
I recognize that some of you may not agree with my assessment and suggestions in this article because it is a touchy subject. My work is based on my personal and professional experience and education, and it is not for everyone. It is not my job as a psychotherapist to affirm all of my clients’ choices nor to agree with them; it is my job to help them see how they contribute to their own problems and thereby improve their quality of life.
Counseling is not about changing the other person; it is about changing you, the client. The only control you have is over your own thoughts and behaviors. If you are experiencing estrangement, you may or may not have caused it, but you can facilitate healing for yourself and maybe for your child.
Parent-child estrangement is at a record high. Gone are the days when children adhered to the commandment to “Honor thy mother and father” which does not mean to remain in an abusive situation; it means to act respectfully despite how you are treated. Sometimes that means walking away, sometimes that means setting a boundary, sometimes that means saying nothing, but all of it should be done with the love of Christ in your heart.
Our society has increasingly practiced and endorsed estrangement over a disagreement in beliefs or discipline so that if the child’s stance is not in alignment with the parent’s on any matter, the child excommunicates the parent. We have done a complete 180 from “Do as I say, not as I do” to “Do whatever you want because I don’t want to lose you.”
Anger in relationships.I don’t think that God ever meant for truly abused children to passively accept real abuse, to be quiet and respond with, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” while enduring said abuse. But real abuse is not to be confused with simply feeling hurt.
In a relationship, you will hurt the other person’s feelings and you will be a catalyst for the other person getting angry and vice versa. Notice I did not say that you make someone angry. No one can make you angry; you choose your response to any given situation.
I found a couple hundred Bible verses on anger, the crux of which is that we can respond in anger, but that it is neither biblical nor wise. That implies God knows we will feel anger, but that we can choose to respond differently. Proverbs 19:11 (NKJV) says, “The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory [is] to overlook a transgression,” meaning you are to take it a step further than not allowing anger to control you by looking past the offensive action.
Anger is a secondary emotion to other negative emotions, such as fear, irritability, grief, sadness, etc. So we have to uncover the core emotion that underlies an angry response to identify the reason you are angry with your child, or your child is angry with you. We use anger, whether passively or aggressively, to control a person(s), to avoid being vulnerable with those raw emotions.
Interestingly, the more compassion, understanding, and empathy we exhibit, the more likely we are to soften those in our inner circles and learn more about what is causing conflict. That does not mean that being kind will elicit kindness; in fact, we know that Jesus showed kindness to everyone and was often met with an equal intensity of hatred. So being kind is a biblical principle.
How does this apply to parental regret, estrangement, and reconciliation? Most parents do their best, often better than their parents, though there are outliers who are cruel and even barbaric to their children. Good parents (and I believe most are) have regrets about how they reared their children. It seems society has moved toward a place where any disagreement with another person or entity, or discipline in any form, is seen as abuse and that is a tragedy.
We must be able to hear the other side, but at some point, parents have to model limits and teach the child to say no. It is also the parent’s responsibility to model empathy. It’s a tightrope walk, and one often characterized by parental regret because the rules of engagement keep changing and more and more children fault their parents for their lack of perfection.
Parents are increasingly left to wonder, based on ever-changing societal norms, what is the best parenting approach. If we use feelings – ours as parents or our children’s – as the only barometer for how we engage in relationships, we will always be at odds with ourselves and one another. You cannot live by feelings alone because they fluctuate from minute to minute.
Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D. wrote in his article in the February 28, 2022 issue of Psychology Today, entitled “Parent, Adult Child, and Reconciling Past Unhappiness,” about how communication between a parent and child, and vice versa, which is defensive and focused on blame may lead to a shut down from the accused party whereas communicating in an empathetic way will more likely bridge the gap of brokenness.
Defensiveness in relationships.
Face it, we all make mistakes in relationships and the bond between parent and child is rife with conflict from the moment that child breaches the womb screaming! What is also true is that resolving conflict successfully inherently increases intimacy (not in the euphemistic sexual context), meaning that closeness inherently increases. But you cannot have intimacy without first resolving conflict.
What I find in my practice, in nearly every relationship conflict, is that one or both parties involved dig in their heels in a defensive stance, hoping that the other person will see the light, come into agreement, and admit their wrongs.
This sense of holding the other person accountable by insisting the other person relinquish their position, by demanding an apology, or by regurgitation of all wrongs perpetrated, is a common response rooted in fear and control so that the “victim” feels safe(r) to remain in the relationship.
What often follows non-compliance to this forced acquiescence is a non-verbal threat of continued punishment either through stonewalling, which is some form of avoidance like giving the silent treatment, walking out, changing the subject, or passive-aggressive behavior. These responses are rarely effective, yet sadly are common.
Remember, parents, when you would say, “Because I’m the parent”? Well, now, as the parent of an adult child, you are the one who has to step forward and toward your child, to model what that looks like to take responsibility because you are the parent. Never mind all you may have sacrificed for your child; you as the parent chose to have a child. Your child owes you nothing except honor, which, while a biblical requirement, may not be your reality.
Humility in relationships.
So, what will more likely be effective than the negative responses outlined previously is a humble acknowledgment of any contribution to the conflict. This does not look like, “Well, I’m sorry you took it that way,” or, “Yeah, I did that because you…” or just “I’m sorry. Let’s move on.”
It looks something like, “I want to hear your perspective about what has transpired between us to cause your pain,” or “I really want to understand more about what my actions felt like to you,” or “I know I have had blindspots in our relationship; could you please help me see those?”
This is role-modeling healthy communication, which is a parent’s responsibility. If your child provides that data, respond without anger, which seems simple, but we all know that our flesh tends toward the latter. Acknowledge how you hurt him/her, whether the hurt was intentional or not, and express an understanding of the impact. Then, offer ways you will try to change that behavior.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. – Proverbs 15:1, NIV
An amends letter.
If the parent-child relationship is completely broken, meaning the child is uncommunicative, one way to work toward reconciliation is to write an amends letter, suggests speaker, psychologist, and best-selling author in the area of estrangement, Dr. Joshua Coleman. He outlines essential points to include in an amends letter.
First, admit your mistakes without justification (and isn’t this how we should interact in all of our relationships anyway?). Second, articulate empathy for how your actions may have contributed to the adult child’s feelings and estrangement response. Third, do not defend yourself. Fourth, communicate gratitude for hearing you out. And finally, express a willingness to learn more and to talk with them when they are ready.
One statement Dr. Coleman suggests putting in an amends letter that truly resonates with me is saying that you as a parent have/had “blindspots” that felt emotionally abusive enough for the adult child to create or maintain an emotional and/or physical distance in the relationship out of a need to protect themselves.
Notice I said, “felt.” That does not mean you as the parent meant to emotionally abuse your child. This allows you to own your actions that you were unaware caused offense while recognizing that we all act on what we think we know about any given situation, often falling short of what we wish we would have known. This also recognizes that there must be a reason, whether real or perceived, for the adult child to have reacted the way they did.
Moving past regret.
Lastly, to move out of parental regret and into reconciliation, ask God for forgiveness and repent of anything you have done to cause your child to be hurt in any way. Once you do that, regardless of whether or not your child forgives you and the relationship is restored, God has forgiven you and you must forgive yourself. You should not continue to carry guilt for sin that has been forgiven.
Do not give up because God is always working! As a parent, I have learned that my children are on loan to me from God. That means they are His! It also means I am charged with allowing God to work through me and through them, but I cannot control the outcome. Your responsibility as a parent is to follow God’s direction, to pray unceasingly that your children will follow Him, and know that He will work all things for good (Romans 8:28).
Christian counseling for regret and reconciliation.
If you need help in navigating parental regret and/or estrangement, reach out to one of our qualified therapists who can walk you down the path to healing and reconciliation.
“Parenting”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Natalia Blauth, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Be the Kind One”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love”, Courtesy of Emmanuel Phaeton, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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