As my husband and I deepen our discussions around family planning, we’re tackling a number of questions about budgeting, housing, childcare, employment and so on. Most of our inquiries are of a fairly practical nature, such as “How can we afford this?”, and “What kind of parental leave can we work out?”
But some of our questions tend to veer into the wild, snake-infested territory of “what ifs”. One of my favorites to ponder, with an urgent hopelessness, is “What if we screw up and our kid grows up to resent us for it?”
It’s an impossible question to answer right now, but in 20 years or so, I might be asking this same question, and justifiably so.
“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.”
So what is a parent to do if, after raising their kid as best they could, their grown child begrudges them for how they were raised or how said parent handled a particular issue?
Through consulting numerous therapists, we’ve pieced together a 8-step process detailing how parents can deal with this difficult situation, and ultimately build a better relationship with their grown children.
Step 1: Listen without interjecting
Arguably the most important and difficult step is the first one, which is to listen to your child without interrupting or begging to differ.
“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. “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.”
Dea Dean, LMFT, adds that while it may be difficult to acknowledge your child’s negative perception of you, especially when you never intended to cause harm, “listening without defending shows respect for the reality of your child’s experience and leads to resolution.”
Step 2: Don’t correct your kid’s story
When you lead with correction over connection, you miss an opportunity to have your child feel truly heard.
“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 Dean. “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.”
Step 3: Be compassionate if your kid is reactive — they’re literally channeling their inner child
Your child may be an adult now, but when they’re talking with you about these deep-rooted, possibly painful issues, they may seem like a kid all over again.
“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. “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.”
Step 4: Apologize in a way that is validating
Once your kid has said everything they have to say, and you’ve both taken whatever time you need to feel your feelings, you should apologize. It’s best to do this in a way that is truly thoughtful and aims to validate rather than sweep the issue away. Again, you’ll want to focus on letting go of any defensive urges.
“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.”
So for example, if you chronically missed your kids’ sports games, rather than saying, “Well you know I had to work late and I tried my best to provide for our family,'' Herrera suggests saying something like, “Wow, I had no idea that stuck with you so strongly. I’m so sorry you didn’t feel worthy. You are so important to me and I would have never wanted you to feel that way. I’m so sorry — this sounds like it’s still a pretty big deal.”
You can be a good parent and have unintentionally caused hurt in your child.
Dea Dean, LMFT
Step 5: Don’t condemn yourself; even the best parents make mistakes
Taking accountability by apologizing is crucial, but keep it in perspective: you did the best you could, and you’re not a bad parent just because you messed up in this one area.
“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.”
Ashton Burdick, LPC, adds that you don’t have to apologize for things that were genuinely someone else’s responsibility; “however, if you see that something that was in your control wasn't the best way to handle it, it can help to apologize that it happened — or for your role in it.”
Step 6: Let go of expectations of how your kids should respond
Perhaps your grown child will be immediately receptive of your apology and willingness to improve communication, or they may need space and time. Whatever the case may be, they are adults now whose actions you can’t control. Let go of expectations of how they should respond.
“Even though someone might be your child, they are still their own individuals with their own feelings, opinions, goals and lives,” says Burdick. “Expectations and ‘shoulds’ lead to disappointment, conflict and lack of acceptance of the reality of what is. If we continue to hold on to the expectation that our family will be the perfect image of what we want them to be or that they will forget a lifetime of pain and argument just because we are interacting with them, we are setting ourselves up for continued conflict. If your adult kid only spends an hour at Thanksgiving instead of the eight hours you were hoping for: accept it. Recognize that it is a step and something positive, rather than devaluing it because it doesn't fit your ideal image of what you wanted the day to look like.”
Step 7: Don’t accept abuse
Your child may be emotional and, as mentioned earlier, highly reactive — but that doesn’t mean they can be cruel to you. Be sure to respect and enforce your own boundaries. If they’re lashing out at you, ask for time and space.
“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 awhile, and if that seems likely here, do what you feel is necessary for your emotional or physical safety.”
Step 8: Forgive yourself
Being compassionate to your child may come naturally, but it can be challenging to show that same compassion to ourselves.
“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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