TODAY Parents: 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 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!”

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