Do you have a complicated relationship with one or both of your parents?
Have you considered severing ties or just moving far away?
Do you wish THEY would change so you can be close to them again or have the relationship you’ve longed for?
You’re not alone! Most adults have some level of family pain- with a parent, adult sibling, adult child, or another family member. People tend to keep it private though because of the stigma.
Have you ever BOLDLY wondered?
- What would it be like to directly confront your parent(s) about the hurt they caused you when you were a child?
- How might your parent(s) respond if you directly expressed your desire to be closer (ex. have a REAL conversation and express love) instead of going along with an unsatisfying superficial bond?
- Is healing and reconciliation possible if you are estranged?
- Is walking away ever the right thing to do?
Whether the origin of your pain is from childhood or adulthood, a resource that has been transformative for MILLIONS of people is a book called:
Making Peace With Your Parents by Harold Bloomfield, M.D.
How I discovered the book …
Many years ago, I received a phone call from my mother telling me that my father was about to go into a surgery and there was a strong possibility he could die.
After my father survived the surgery, I told a small group of close colleagues my initial response, “FINALLY! My family will experience some relief and I can let go of my resentments.” (I had a complicated relationship with my father as everyone did who loved him or worked for him.)
My older and wiser colleagues (who had all worked in Hospice) compassionately though directly informed me, “He’ll still be alive in your mind. You need to make peace with him now.” Realizing I had to face my pain and possibly my father, I anxiously asked, “How can I do that?” One of the therapists recommended I read Making peace with your parents.
This book is INTENSE (in describing the pain of childhood and offering engaging powerful exercises), encouraging, practical and truly enlightening. If you desire change, it is definitely worth a read.
The Rewards of this book
Doing the exercises and processing the book’s contents with therapists, mentors and friends allowed me to make peace with my father by accepting him for who he was and enabled me to do my part in transforming my relationship with my mother. My mother also played an important part in co-creating a safe and loving friendship that I cherish today.
In this blog, I will briefly cover:
The pain of childhood (& adulthood) associated with troubled relationships with parents, and how childhood wounds effect us as adults.
Numerous benefits of doing the work of “making peace with your parents”, and what you can do today to heal and move beyond to live your best life!
When you have tried everything… Reasons families break up and when it’s healthier to cut ties.
The pain of childhood. Does this describe you?
As a child, did you feel…
- unwanted (little love expressed)
- ignored (lack of interest in your inner world or your true identity)
- unseen (your parents’ faces didn’t light up when they looked at you)
- not allowed to speak the truth (secrecy and fear abounded)
- unsafe (emotionally and/or physically)
- incompetent (your parents didn’t celebrate your strengths)
Would you describe your parent(s) in one of these categories?
- A “Martyr” who used guilt and control by making you feel inappropriately responsible for your parents’ suffering (“If you loved me, you’d do what I say”)
- A “Dictator” who used fear or intimidation and possibly also demanded your affection (“If you’re good, you’ll do as I say.”)
- Emotionally “Unavailable” who lacked empathy, affection, and did not ask you about your “inner world” (emotions, thoughts, your true self)
How these childhood wounds can effect you as an adult
As an adult, do you struggle with…
- Going “home” or to any family of origin events (See my blog, which lists Bloomfield’s brilliant “Guidelines for Visiting Your Family at the Holidays or on Vacation“)
- Relationships- family, friends, bosses and/or coworkers
- Feeling obligated to meet the expectations of your family of origin
- Excessive striving and unrealistic expectations that cause you to overwork
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Self-worth and your ability to TRUST others
- Judgment by others or yourself of your sexual/gender orientation
- Anxiety, depression, and/or intense anger or rage
- Insomnia, chronic pain, and/or unresolved loss
- Addictive, self-sabotaging, or self-destructive behaviors
- An internalized self-critic which punishes you for making a mistake, pushes you to be perfectionist or causes you to underperform and experience feelings of shame
- Navigating life transitions and/or your roles at home, work, or elsewhere
- Not fulfilling your potential and holding yourself back from your ideal life
How else might these childhood wounds effect you as an adult?
- Are you stuck in resentments, not able to forgive or accept your parents’ limitations, and unconsciously project this anger onto people in your present?
- Do you struggle to express anger, love or sexuality in your intimate adult relationships?
- Are you unable to “parent” yourself? Do you struggle to take charge of your life and live up to your potential? Is it difficult for you to take responsibility for your own health and happiness and nurture yourself?
- Do you struggle with parenting your children? According to Bloomfield, “Problems with our children are often related to problems we had with our parents.”
Benefits of doing the work of “making peace with your parents”
Here is a list from the book on pp. 15-16 (it reflects my clients’ and my own experience!)
- “The ability to heal your hidden resentments and emotional hurts. The exercises will help prevent past upsets from “mysteriously” reappearing in your current relationships.
- Special insights and techniques to deal with “difficult” parents, including those who are martyrs, dictators or unavailable. (ex. Owning your power and communicating assertively!)
- The understanding and insight necessary to forgive your parents and learn to enjoy them exactly the way they are. This does not mean forgetting or stuffing away your feelings. Rather, you will be shown how to work through your anger successfully and get beyond your judgments and expectations in order to rediscover your ability to love and be loved by your parents.
- Effective communication skills to help you break out of the frustrating rut you and your parents have fallen into. Learning how to express anger and love effectively and constructively will help you not only with your parent, but with all of your relationships.
- A greater understanding for the ways in which you may have held back your sexual expression and joy as a result of your upbringing. You will be given effective skills for unraveling the complex double messages about sexuality that parents give to their children, as well as techniques for throwing off parental inhibitions and increasing your sexual fulfillment.
- An awareness of the ways in which marital conflicts are often related to unresolved issues with your parents. There will be techniques to help you eliminate fears of intimacy and negative family patterns you may be bringing into your love relationships.
- Self-parenting skills through which you can become a more nurturing and loving person for yourself and your children.
- Ways to deal effectively with the death of a parent… You will discover how dealing with your parent’s death can lead from crisis to personal breakthrough.
If you wish to make peace with your parents and are willing to tap into your COURAGE, here are some action steps:
1. Read the book, Making peace with your parents; The key to enriching your life and all your relationships & work with an individual and/or group through the exercises.
It is tremendously helpful to find an ACCOUNTABILITY partner (Support group, therapist, friend, or family member) to work through the exercises and discuss the topics (especially those that are most triggering to you) to get the most out of this powerful book.
- Just reading a “self-help” book does not go deep enough to help you heal and transform. You need to do the “work” as well to break through your fears and resentments.
2. Consider individual therapy. It helps to have a supportive and neutral place to work through your past and change your future.
Individual therapy can help you change the course of your life when you process your pain- both the struggle and the hidden gifts, and let it go. Having a non-judgmental, compassionate, and authentic space to reflect on both your successes and the areas in which you desire to grow can help you develop a more accurate view of yourself and your life.
I will support you in speaking your true voice and helping you articulate and follow through on a plan of action for creating the life of your dreams. You will learn new strategies to accomplish your goals and receive compassionate support on your journey.
3. Join a support group or find a friend you can be REAL with to know you’re not alone and to hear how others are working through these common family issues.
Examples of support groups are: COA (Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families), Women and Men’s Groups at religious and spiritual institutions, personal growth groups, etc.
The photo for this blog is from the movie, “Stuart Saves His Family”.
The subtitle for the movie is that “You’ll laugh because this isn’t your family. You’ll cry because it is.”
Laughing and crying with others (in real life or even characters in a movie) about struggles you’re ALL going through is healing, empowering and takes away shame. We really are STRONGER TOGETHER!
The brilliance of “Stuart Saves His Family” is that it takes family dysfunction to an extreme, for example Stuart has four 12 step sponsors (overeater’s anonymous, debtor’s anonymous, adult children of alcoholics, and gambler’s anonymous) so we can experience healing laughter and yet is also totally relatable in the sense that~
Most of us have a secret fantasy of “SAVING our family” or having the power to change it into the family we dream of… and like Stuart we eventually realize that part of growing up is learning to accept our family (and ourselves) as we are.
4. Have a courageous conversation with your parent in therapy or on your own.
This is the MOST DIRECT (and the fastest) way of potentially healing and strengthening your relationship with your parent(s). It also requires the most COURAGE.
3 possible outcomes of courageous conversations: (REAL Life Stories)
1.) Your parent changes overnight! Your relationship improves.
My father told me this story about his mother~
When he was 35 years old, he confronted his mother about feeling emotionally neglected by her. Given my father’s account of my grandmother’s absence of emotionally responsive behaviors, it made perfect sense that he felt unloved and uncared for. In spite of my grandmother being an immigrant to the U.S. and an orphan as a young adult, to her credit, according to my father, she CHANGED overnight into becoming the mother he always longed for (& she was an amazing grandma too).
2.) Nothing changes… or you’ve possibly planted a seed. In time, you might see the fruits of your labor.
Here’s my story with my father (before we experienced reconciliation)~
I will always remember the therapy session I invited my father to shortly after I got married.
I felt EMPOWERED during the therapy session to have finally expressed my grievances and had my father listen to them. On my drive home, I felt hopeful and even a bit surprised to have had the thought, “I think I love him.” But the day after our session, my father called me and tried to discredit all of my concerns point by point. I hung up the phone on him and thought to myself, “You fool. You had my heart yesterday.”
It was only after having read and worked through the exercises in Making peace with your parents, attending individual therapy and doing12 step work in both Al-Anon and ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families) that I was able to heal and reconcile my relationship with my father.
My father had a part too. To his credit, he eventually GENUINELY apologized to me on more than one occasion. And he never gave up trying to connect with me and show me love. In his final years (& illnesses), I was able to love and accept him for who he was and I treasured his relationship with my son who he adored.
3.) Your relationship gets worse.
While this is a real possibility, often caused by the parent or adult child unwilling to make any changes for the sake of their relationship, the alternative (holding in hurt and resentment for the sake of peace and togetherness) does not allow genuine closeness either.
I would guess this occurs the least because relationships tend to deteriorate not from individuals striving to repair them, but more so when individuals give up trying to do anything different and avoid the necessary conversations that show care, concern and vulnerability.
Having a courageous conversation might be…
- In person alone with them at one of your homes or in a public place to increase your emotional safety.
- In a skilled family therapist’s office.
- On a Zoom call or your cell phone.
- Through writing- either a letter or an email. (If you need an example of an effective letter, see the “Love First” model below.
Where you have the conversation doesn’t matter as much as EXPRESSING your authentic feelings, especially the hurt you’ve experienced and and hopes for your relationship moving forward.
Surprisingly, the outcome also isn’t as important as the PROCESS. So many individuals have reported the tremendous benefits from just having broken the silence and expressing pain they had been carrying around for years, sometimes decades.
After I mailed a “Love First” letter to a relative (that I worked on for a year with many revisions and supportive conversations by my Al-Anon sponsor), I received a few sentence email response. My relative acknowledged receiving my letter, did not apologize for her behavior and instead disputed that she did anything wrong.
Although I never received an apology, I did observe positive changes in this relative’s behavior.
Seeing my relative’s behavior change, in addition to my own as I finally learned how to speak my voice and set healthy boundaries, was the reward I hoped for in exchange for my courage, effort, and time in writing and mailing that letter.
To see instructions for a “Love First” letter~
Check out my blog called, “Do You Have a Mother-in-Law? (or any other difficult relatives)” and scroll down to Tip #3 (of how to survive or even thrive in your relationship)
5. Work through acceptance exercises with a therapist or in one of the above books to LET GO of your pain and expectations of your parents changing. FREE YOURSELF.
“God, grant me the serenity to ACCEPT the things I cannot change
The courage to CHANGE the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
When you’ve tried everything, but to no avail…
Reasons families break up and when it’s healthier to cut ties!
I want to first clarify that the research and my experience working with individuals and families shows that the decision to “break up” with one’s family is not taken lightly at all!
In part because, as author Harriet Brown explains, “There’s a lot of shame and stigma about having a bad relationships with a family member (especially a parent) and so we suffer in silence because we feel bad…something must be wrong with us.” Adult children also naturally want to experience a sense of belonging to our family since we are wired to connect with others and especially those that share our roots.
Consequently, “It’s a HUGE decision to end a relationship. So, we keep trying to reconcile, it falls apart, come back together, try again, falls apart…We want to be part of this family, but for some people it’s not possible.” – Dr. Christina Sharp, Assistant Professor at University of Washington
Below are just a few reasons why adult children cut ties~
When adult children feel they have to betray themselves to belong to their family.
I have heard MANY stories from the LGBTQIA community of individuals who have faced this dilemma. Individuals from extremely religious or alternative families have also expressed this predicament when they leave the nest and transform in ways that feel healthy and authentic to them, but are very different from their family of origin.
For example, in Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, she explains, “I had to choose between my parents and myself… To be a reflection of my family or true to myself”.
Westover was raised by survivalist parents who were opposed to public education. The first time she stepped foot in a classroom was at age 17 when she enrolled in an university. As Westover’s success in education increased (she earned her PhD in history at Cambridge University), she began to lose her family.
She wrote, “They were unable to accept the person I had become and I was unable to accept some of the old patterns that had defined my childhood. Violence, fundamentalism, threats. I loved my family, but I wasn’t sure if I belonged there, if I could fulfill their expectations of me.”
When parents continue to abuse (emotionally, verbally, physically, or sexually) adult children.
Emotional and verbal abuse tends to continue the most into adulthood when family members are afraid to confront the “difficult” or “outspoken” individual who tends to be in a position of economic or emotional power.
Spiritual teacher and author Pema Chodron advises:
“Buddha would like BOUNDARIES.
It is MORE compassionate to set a boundary with someone who is continuing to be abusive because it’s NOT compassionate to them or others to allow them to continue to be abusive.”
For the sake of all family members, especially the next generation (grandchildren), it is crucial to set a limit on the family member who is abusive to end the cycle of abuse and model respectful behavior.
When parents won’t accept their adult child’s choice of a partner or spouse
There’s a saying, “Leave and cleave” that some families believe in while others expect their children to CONTINUE to put them first and their spouse and other priorities second. Culture, religion, and family patterns contribute to these beliefs. Ideally, adult children can blend their family of origin with their in-laws to increase the abundance of support and joy in life.
Unfortunately, some adult children find themselves in a loyalty bind when their parent(s) don’t respect or even outright reject their spouse and/or in-laws. According to relationship expert, John Gottman, PhD, “Couples must establish a sense of ‘we-ness’ or solidarity… and husbands must side with their wife against their mother.” (as well as the reverse and for same gender couples)
“People- like other growing things- do not hold up well in the long run when severed from their roots. If you are emotionally disconnected from your parents or other family members, you may be more intense and reactive in other relationships… If possible, be brave and stay in touch.” – Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D.
Staying in touch might mean~ loving someone from a distance and only staying connected through a phone or computer, brief visits in public places, full reconciliation or something in the middle.
Only YOU can decide what level of connection is the right one for you and your parent(s). TRUST YOUR GUT and seek professional help if needed.
In certain cases (ex. abuse) estrangement IS a healthy solution for an unhealthy environment.
Thanks to Bloomfield’s powerful and inspiring book, you have access to the knowledge, exercises and strategies you need to finally make peace with your parents. Similar to forgiveness, this process benefits you the most and the work can even be done without your parents.
The benefits of making peace with your parents are many (in all areas of your life) and your efforts can have a far reaching effect even beyond the next generation in your family.