As a therapist, I hear both sides of the story: Adults who lament how their parents treated them, and parents who discuss the ingratitude of their children for all they have done for them. Clients discuss some the worst things their parents have done to them. A friend who was discussing her parents’ transgressions recently asked me the same: “what was the worst thing your parents did?” This made me think, “I wonder what my kids would say was worst thing I’ve done to them”. This post is about just that, but not about me. It is about the tough conversations you are avoiding, whatever side of the coin you are on.
I set about asking my kids, most of whom are adults. I certainly would not share their answers here. However, my son Ian began his answer with a quote he heard recently: “We spend our whole lives waiting for our parents to apologize. They spend theirs waiting for a thank you. Neither of us ever gets what we want.” (Callahan, S., Lehmann, Z.). The insight of this quote, from a sitcom, astounds me.
Think about it for a minute: are you harboring resentment for some of the things your parents have done? Have you talked to them about it? When children age, the developmental tasks are to both see your parents as humans, and to be perceived as an adult. Though you will always be your parents’ child, it is important to interact as adults. Isn’t an important part of being an adult having hard conversations?
On the other hand, if you are a parent, have you honestly looked at what you have done wrong while parenting, and discussed it with your adult child? All parents make mistakes. There is no perfect parenting. This is known cognitively, but do parents actually take responsibility for it? Do you know how you negatively impacted your children, and are you willing to apologize?
It can be surprising what has affected children, and continues to affect them once they are adults. Often a message that was received wasn’t the message that was intended. Perception plays a crucial role in the process we are discussing. But perception is one’s reality. Just because a parent does not feel that was the message does not change the message that the child received. At this point it is important to suspend beliefs, intentions, defenses, and justifications, and really hear what your child perceived. This is not an easy task.
Much of family therapy is communication. The therapist provides a safe place for the family to express what they feel is going wrong in the relationship. But in many cases, can’t the home be a safe place? Is it that difficult for the parent and child create a safe place to hold a difficult discussion like this?
Often people, let alone families, ignore important conversation. I recently had a session where that seemed to be the main issue. Family members had not spoken in months, but when questioned ignored the issue and chocked it up to an oversight; to being busy. One adult sibling ignored the issue, stifled his anger, and refused to have an honest conversation. This is not uncommon. Many fear confrontation, themselves, their anger, or hurting another.
The conversations with my children were not easy. Not for me. Not for them. There were emotional statements made, and I could feel my defenses rising. I could also feel guilt. It was easy to see the uncomfortableness in my children as well. The conversations were difficult. I would like to believe they helped. I know I have been more aware of my behavior.
Communication is the beginning of healing. Just hearing one another is often sufficient. Really hearing one another. Without defense. Without the generic answers people often give one another. Without a lesson on how the world is. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “I’m sorry”, and “I love you”, are two of the most powerful phrases in the human language. I challenge you to hear your children, and hear your parents.
Callahan, S., Lehmann, Z. (2015), “Mom”, Season 1, Episode 5, Casual.