Parents on the Firing Line
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 deadly serious business and the stakes are huge—a therapist has no business giving advice in this arena unless they’ve 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 towards 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, blaming, refuse contact with the parent, or seem 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/step-parent, 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 a successful life.
This Is 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 wankted. 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.