Even as an adult, time with my father felt edgy. You see, to the end of his life he had a volatile anger and, as a child, I was emotionally, verbally, and physically abused by him. Yet, through therapy, I had progressed from dealing with my own lack of anger management to resentment to curiosity. My therapist had said, “You give yourself the gift of healing your childhood when you let go of resentment and forgive your parents.”
I held some resentment towards my mother for not confronting my father’s tirades, for watching helplessly with streaming tears. Yet, my primary issue was with Dad. Whether I was in his space or across the country in our own home, his booming voice yelling at me, “Shut up, you stupid. . .” sometimes followed by an assault, would be triggered in my head.
Reasons to Forgive Your Parents
For many it is a leap to consider that our parents did the best they could with their past, available resources, beliefs, and abilities. Yet to move out of the blame game and see ourselves as victims may require exploring our parents’ reality and giving up resentment and judgement. I feel blessed that my children appear to have done that for me.
This quotation by the psychologist and family counselor, Dr. David Stoop, summarizes why you might want to consider engaging in a process to forgive your parents or caregivers.
“Forgiveness, I have learned, is the key to resolving the pain of the past and breaking generational patterns. Without it, nothing is ever laid to rest. The past still operates in the present.”
My therapist had explained that it didn’t matter if I did the internal work of transforming the father in my head or felt courageous enough to experiment with transforming the actual relationship itself. I was blessed to be able to do both.
The Internal Journey
If you are ready to do some personal exploration of your relationship with a parent or caregiver, here are some initial steps.
- Write down how you feel. You might feel hurt that you were seldom seen and heard. You might feel angry for living in a state of fear or that your parents abandoned you or refused to get their addictions under control.
- Write a process letter to yourself. Write out these beginning sentences a number of times until you run out of responses.
- I resent you (parent/caregiver) for . . .
- As an adult I regret participating in this by. . .
- From now on, for my own self-care, I will . . .
- Have realistic expectations. The chances of your caregivers healing their past is less likely than your ability to accept them as they were and are. Believe they did the best they could. Accept that we are all flawed.
- Put a spotlight on their positive characteristics and deeds. This is not denying your pain. It is a reality check. Every day has a dark night and daylight. Don’t get lost in the dark.
- Imagine a healed mother, father, or caregiver. Visualize a different childhood for them with loving care, wise guidance, and abundant resources. Who might they have been?
- Find a substitute parent. Some people choose to ask an inspiring role model to be their substitute or fill-in parent. I feel honoured to have been asked by two amazing, younger women to fill that role.
- Develop a loving and affirming parent voice and presence for yourself. This part of yourself can give your wounded childhood parts what they need. Many of us need a process to help us grow up again, whole and perfect.
- If these healing activities seem overwhelming or simply difficult, please seek a trustworthy and experienced therapist.
The In-Person Journey
If your parent or parents still continue to be toxic, please establish:
- Physical boundaries: Decide how much time, if any, you will spend with them. Perhaps if you live a distance away, use a hotel for accommodation when visiting.
- Emotional boundaries. Make clear what topics are acceptable. “We will not discuss how my partner’s parent declared bankruptcy.” Make clear that name calling, swearing or other disrespectful behaviour is unacceptable, especially if children are involved. “We will immediately leave, if you call your grandchild a brat.”
My opportunity came when Katie, our 13-year-old daughter and I traveled to Ontario to spend a week’s holiday with my parents. By this time, I knew that the only person I could change was me. I decided to explore my father from two different angles:
- Notice and acknowledge any of his positive attributes and behaviors.
- Seek to understand. Subtly ask about his history of abuse, neglect, danger, and distress. During the week I would sprinkle interview-type questions into the conversation. I wanted to avoid triggering his nervous system. It would be enough work to keep mine calm.
Notice and Acknowledge
When he opened the car door for me, I said, “Ah, thank you, Dad.” When he carried a dish to the dinner table, I said, “No wonder I chose a hubby who joins in kitchen duty.” When he introduced me to a neighbor, I said, “I like the way you enthusiastically introduced me.”
Seek to Understand
For too long I grumbled to my therapist and friends about my father’s abusiveness and what I considered my miserable childhood. But I had never sought to understand his. To my surprise he was glad someone took an interest in his past. I discovered:
- My grandpa’s form of discipline was to take the boy to the barn for a fight to see who was right. No wonder he had next to no parenting skills.
- Because of his rebellious nature, his one room school teacher, Old Dougy Barton, used to whip his back. No wonder, regardless of his impeccable spelling and ability to fix any farm machinery, he did not finish Grade 8.
- He worked as a farm hand until he joined the military. In his three years serving in World War II, he saw many atrocities.
- He spent a night hiding under a dead donkey. Another time he thought he buried all the body parts of his dead army friend, only to wake in the morning and pick up an ear. No wonder he screamed with night terrors.
- He and my mother had met before he was dispatched. They married a month after his return and he was supposed to live happily ever after.
- His failure to make a decent living as a farmer was shaming.
A Shifted Perspective
These shared experiences shifted my perspective. I thought, “He only passed on a fraction of his distress to us, his kids.” When Katie and I were on the cusp of leaving in our rental car, I ran back to my parents’ front door and said, “Dad, I’ve never felt so loved.” He began to cry and pushed away my hug. I drove around the block, stopped, and had my own good cry. You see, my father had never told me and my siblings, “I love you.”
The compassion that was stirred in me for Dad has lasted a lifetime. The task of forgive your parents was complete.
Dad died at age seventy-two with unresolved trauma. Trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next can be thought of as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma or generational trauma. The trauma my father carried did not start with him.
It is now well known that children of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) commonly develop trauma.
Definition of Trauma
The Canadian Association of Mental Health defines trauma as:
“The lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event. Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic (distress) event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness, and intense fear.”
Should you want to experiment with curiosity questions here are some suggestions.
Curiosity Questions to Ask Your Parents
- Consider starting some of the following questions with, “I feel curious.”
- After you hear the initial answer, say something like, “Please, tell me more about that?” and “Do you mean to say. . .?”
- Add “Thank you for sharing.”
- What is the story behind this teapot (your ring, degree, house, hobby, career, or decision)?
- As a child how were you disciplined?
- As a child, what was a treat for you?
- What was school (church, money, sports,) like for you?
- As a child, who was there for you, listened and supported you?
- Please tell me about your relationship with your parents (grandparents, uncles, aunts).
- What were some of your most challenging moments?
- When you faced challenges how did you cope?
- What person has influenced you the most?
- If you could have done anything what would it have been?
- If you were to do your life over, what might you do differently?
- When and where have you been the happiest?
- What excites you right now or you are looking forward to?
- What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today (this week, this month, this year)?
- As your adult child, what do you want for me?
- After a family cut-off of several years, one of my clients made a date to see his father in a restaurant. Decide the environment that is best for you to have an exploratory conversation.
- Another client, with deceased parents, sought out relatives and previous neighbours in her quest to better understand and forgive.
Your biological parents cannot be switched. Your past cannot be changed. However, your perspective can change. We can forgive our parents for being human, for making mistakes, and not giving us all that our minds, emotions and spirits wanted. We can start the journey to change our generational story, acknowledge our own mistakes, and step up to the plate to embrace full-out living.
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Patricia Morgan MA CCC helps her readers, clients, and audiences lighten their load, brighten their outlook, and strengthen their resilience. To go from woe to WOW call 403.242.7796 or email a request.