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How to nurse an injured parent-child relationship

Don't get along with a parent or an adult child? You're not alone and it can be very painful, says Dr. Joshua Coleman, an internationally known expert in parenting, couples, families and relationships. In “When Parents Hurt,” Coleman offers advice on ways to potentially heal serious rifts between parent and child. Here's an excerpt:Chapter 1: Parents on the firing lineDear Mom, I have decided
/ Source: TODAY

Don't get along with a parent or an adult child? You're not alone and it can be very painful, says Dr. Joshua Coleman, an internationally known expert in parenting, couples, families and relationships. In “When Parents Hurt,” Coleman offers advice on ways to potentially heal serious rifts between parent and child. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter 1: Parents on the firing line

Dear Mom,

I have decided that I don’t want to have any contact with you ever again. Please don’t write or call me anymore. I can’t stop thinking about all of the ways that you were never there for me when I was growing up. Whenever I see or talk to you, I just end up feeling depressed, angry, and upset for weeks afterwards. It’s just not worth it to me and I need to get on with my life. Please respect my wishes and don’t contact me again. -- Letter from Clarice, 23, to her mother Fiona, 48

Fiona sat on my couch in her first visit without looking at me or saying anything. She reached into her purse and handed me the letter from her daughter as if to say, “This says it all.” And it did. As a psychologist, I’ve counseled many adult children like Fiona’s daughter; in some cases, I’ve helped them to craft letters just like hers, or supported them in cutting off contact with a mother, a father, or both. I know the finality that these letters can portend. It’s a deadly serious business and the stakes are huge — a therapist has no business giving advice in this arena unless he or she has carefully thought about the long-term implications of these decisions. I felt for this desolate mother sitting in front of me because I knew that the letter could be the last contact that Fiona would ever have with her daughter. A flood of questions were already circulating in my mind. “Why is her daughter so angry at her? What has Fiona done to try to repair it? How capable has she been of taking responsibility or listening in a non-defensive way to her daughter’s complaints? How receptive will she be to my recommendations for how to respond?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, handing back the letter. “That must be so painful.”

Fiona looked relieved, as though she had expected me to blame her. “I worry about her all of the time and can’t stop wondering what horrible thing I did to make my own child turn against me? I’m sure I made my fair share of mistakes, but I wasn’t that different with her than I was with the other three.” She started sobbing. “Clarice was always the hardest of my four children. Even when she was young, she seemed so impossible to please. We did everything for her: individual therapy, family therapy, medication, you name it — nothing seemed to make her feel happy or connected to us. My other kids resented her because she sucked all of the time, energy, and money out of the family that should have gone to all four of them. She won’t talk to my other kids, either, except for the youngest. It’s really heartbreaking,” she said, grabbing for the Kleenex. “It is so goddamned heartbreaking!”

Are parents to blame?

Not that long ago I would have assumed that Fiona must have done something terribly wrong to cause her daughter to respond in such a dramatic way. My training as a psychologist taught me that the problems of the adult child can always be linked to some form of mistreatment from the parent. While this is often true, it doesn’t hold for all families. And when it is true, it’s often a far more complex picture than most therapists and self-help authors realize. As I worked with Fiona over the next few months, I came to understand that she had been a reasonable and conscientious mother. As her story and others illustrate, it is possible to be a devoted and conscientious parent and still have it go badly. You can do everything right and your child can still grow up and not want to have the kind of relationship with you that you always hoped you’d have. You can do everything right, and your child may still end up with a drug problem that costs you thousands of dollars and endless heartache. You can do everything right and your child may still choose the kind of friends or partners that you never imagined she would have chosen because these people seem so lost and are dragging your child into losing more. You can do everything right and your child can still fail to launch a successful adulthood despite being gifted and talented or possessing an IQ that most people would kill for. Very few of us escape feeling guilt toward our offspring. It may be part of our evolutionary heritage, a way that nature hardwires us to stay sensitive to them, even after they’re grown. And some parents are responsible for transgressions that are harmful to their children: child abuse, incest, neglect, and alcoholism are a few of the more egregious examples. However, whether the parenting mistakes are subtle or serious, real or imagined, today’s parents are completely confused by their children’s failures and accusations. They need guidance and support for themselves, not more advice about their children.

Who is this book for?

This book is written for:

Parents who carry enormous feelings of guilt, shame, and regret about how they treated their children.

Parents raising children with a diagnosis or temperament that makes them harder to parent, and maybe harder to love.

Parents whose divorces have created a profound change in the quality of their relationship with their child. This includes children who are rejecting or blaming them, refusing contact with them, or seem to be damaged by the divorce.

Parents whose current or ex-spouses are dedicated to bringing them down in the eyes of their child.

Parents who were devoted and conscientious, yet their adult child refuses contact with them.

Parents whose partner (parent/stepparent, boyfriend/girlfriend) makes it difficult to provide the kind of safety or nurturance that they want to give their children.

Parents who are mismatched in some important way with their child: for example, a successful and driven parent with a learning-disabled child; a vulnerable, insecure parent with an aggressive and rejecting child; a depressed parent with an active/risk-taking child.

Parents who are wounded by their grown child’s inability to launch a happy or successful life.

The wounds caused by teens and adult children

Since parenting a child at any age has its challenges and provocations, I could have started with childbirth and continued through each developmental stage. However, I have chosen to limit my topic to the wounds caused by teenagers and adult children: I start with teenagers because adolescence is the place where some of the hardest confrontations begin to be waged between parent and child. While many parents hope or pray that their young child will one day outgrow her problems — her trapeze-like mood swings, her difficulty “fitting in,” her defiant and insufferable temperament — most begin to realize by adolescence that their soon-to-be adult may be no different and no easier than the very same child was at ages two, five, and ten; it’s only the hair and clothing that have changed.

Adult children are another story. Financial strings aside, a young adult has almost total discretion to spend time with you, or not. The only time younger children have similar latitude is in divorce where the courts or living arrangements enable the child to have much more choice over how much time he will spend with a noncustodial parent.

In other words, adult children are even freer to launch salvos against the parent’s happiness and well-being, to have their own versions of how they were raised, and to state those claims with authority. It was their childhood, not yours; their experience, not yours; and now, in case it wasn’t perfectly clear, their adulthood! With adult children, closeness or distance is negotiated on an equal playing field — a field with rules unheard of before in history.

Not a parenting book

For all of its glory and gut-busting work, parenting is a dangerous undertaking. You put in long hours, examine every decision and action, do the best you can, and yet the child who once adored and needed you can come to reject, shame, or belittle you. The youth who was to be your greatest source of joy and pride can become your greatest source of worry and disappointment. The sweet kid who wrote you love notes and gave you hugs has written you off, or gives you the finger instead.

This book is written for parents who have concluded, after years of therapy, medication trials, soul searching, or family interventions that they should stop listening to all of those other parents, pediatricians, psychologists, and talk-show experts who say that if they only do steps one through seven, they too can have the relationship with their child that they always wanted. They have decided that these well-meaning advisors are naive, misinformed, or plain ignorant and wrong, because frankly, they are. Their advice is based on a parenting model that offers little to those who are greeted by pain, guilt, or disappointment every time they open the door to their teenager’s room or try to get their grown child to return their calls.

Upcoming chapters

Chapter 2 will help to provide clarity about where you are right now with your child and will help you understand how you got there. It outlines the many ways that you can become hurt as a parent, and will provide questions to help you begin to think about how you got there and where you need to go.

While all parents experience feelings of guilt, some parents are chronically plagued by the belief that they have damaged their children, sometimes without any corresponding evidence. Chapters 3 and 4 are written to provide guidance for parents who feel guilty about their behavior in the past, or who need help dealing with their child’s accusations in the present.

Our current ideals about parenting and children are historically unprecedented; most of our ideas about what children need and who parents are supposed to be are flawed in many, many ways. These ideas greatly contribute to parents’ feelings of shame and failure. They contribute to children and others feeling entitled to blame parents for the children’s problems, inadequacies, or poor relationship with the parent. “Parents” and “children” are constructs whose definitions change with every century, if not every few decades. Chapter 5 seeks to place today’s parent in a historical and economic context.

Chapter 7 details the problems that occur when a parent and child are temperamentally mismatched. A mismatch occurs when what comes naturally to the parent is completely at odds with who the child is, and sometimes at odds with what he or she needs. We’ll look at how temperamental mismatches can create long-term conflict in the parent-child relationship and provide recommendations and solutions.

Teenagers can cause parents to feel inadequate, enraged, scared, and hopeless. Today’s parents of teens face special challenges because of the peer group’s increasing power to supplant the parent’s authority. Chapter 8 is written to help parents manage the thorny cluster of emotions provoked by difficult teenagers and to provide guidance on how and when to intervene.

Chapter 9 looks at the guilt, disruption, and loss that parents feel with divorce. It will also examine the ways that ex-spouses and stepfamily issues may contribute to the alienation divorced parents sometimes feel with their children. Guidelines and exercises will be provided.

While divorce can strain the relationships between parents and children, a difficult marriage can do the same.

In Chapter 10 we look at the wounds that occur when your spouse or partner makes it harder for you to be a good parent. Some common situations are spouses or partners with poor communication skills, anger management problems, abusive behaviors, psychiatric disorders, or addictions. Guidance and exercises will be offered.

In Chapter 11 I will provide help for those parents whose hurt comes from having a teen or grown child who can’t get his or her life developed and launched. This will cover those children who have already moved out of the home and those who are still living there.

One of the most painful experiences for a parent is to have a grown child who refuses to have a relationship, or who makes that relationship extremely difficult. Chapter 12 is written for parents whose adult children have rejected them, either through constant blame or by completely cutting off contact. Guidelines will be given about when to pursue, when to back off, and how to gain serenity.

Part of what makes parenting difficult is the way that children can trigger painful feelings from our own childhoods. In Chapter 13 we’ll consider how your own childhood history affects your parenting and your response to your child’s treatment of you. Recommendations, exercises, and guidelines will be given.

Who is this book for?

This book is for you if you have lost something important during your years of raising children: your bearings or your self-esteem, the opportunity to be the parent you desperately wanted to be, or the potential to repair the damage from your own painful childhood. While there are thousands of books telling you how to better raise your children, there are none written on a topic that is just as important: healing the wounds of the parent. If this is your goal, this book is written for you.

Excerpted from “When Parents Hurt” by Joshua Coleman. Copyright 2007 Joshua Coleman. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.