Will My Child Forgive Me?
This is one of the most common questions parents ask when contemplating a child’s emotional reaction to a wilderness therapy or long-term rehab intervention. Often, the questions center around whether the child will forgive, will feel abandoned, or will hate the parent. Will your child forgive you if you take away his car, don't let him back into the house, or don't support him financially? These questions tug deeply at the heart of each parent; nothing is so precious as the relationship with one’s child, and the fear of losing that relationship is truly frightening. Ultimately, the parent is asking about whether or not the child will abandon them. And this fear is evidence of a wound from the parent’s own childhood, one that will require their attention as they press forward with the stated goal of helping their child out of mental health or addiction issues.
When my mother told me, “You will love your children more than you will ever love your parents,” She offered me a great gift and liberation. She released me as a child since I no longer felt the need to compete or reciprocate the amount of love and sacrifice my parents had given me, which was the full amount of love that each had to offer someone. I have felt this pull to reciprocate this love to my mother, but I always came up short when I compared her expression of love for me with mine for her. I believe that we love whom we serve which would explain whey we love our children so endlessly. But, there are times when we make the mistake and expect that our children should reciprocate our love at the same level of intensity. Alice Miller1 says that when we ask our children to care for our feelings and provide our security, the security we needed in our childhood, we often require them to suppress or repress parts of themselves to make us feel okay, “The parents have found in their child’s false self the confirmation they were looking for.”
My mother’s statement also gave me the idea to liberate my children from this dilemma. It is impossible for them to love me as much as I love them, and what was more, that isn’t what parenting was about. Parenting and love is not about getting but rather about giving. The act of parenting stretches us and transforms us. The sacrifice of a parent is a gift rather than a payment of which we will later require some kind of return. Strings-attached gifts predispose the giver to resentment and the receiver to the sense of resentment, suffocation and non gratitude. We often don’t even know that we are giving with the expectation attached until the resentment surfaces; in the moment it does, we can develop greater clarity about our relationship to others and the gifts we give them.
My first response to the question parents ask about forgiveness is this: Your child will forgive you when he or she gets healthy, because that is what healthy people do. Healthy people forgive their parents for their decisions, for their perceived limitations, for their insecurities, and, surely, for well-intentioned interventions. In that vein, a young person who matures and gains a more well-rounded and healthy perspective will forgive a parent (or parents) for initiating an intervention that they, the parents, believed was vital to the health, well-being, and, in some cases, to the survival of their child.
Next, I teach that wanting or needing forgiveness from your child is one way to impede it. If we have the wherewithal as adults to know ourselves, accept ourselves as human, and have clarity about our intentions, we won’t need their forgiveness. This need of ours, as I stated above, is evidence of a lack of something in us that is not our children’s responsibility. Parents are afraid that if children don’t forgive, they will blame us for their actions. My response, “Okay. Let them. That is the best way to help them move through grief and blame.” It is our debating with them and our unwillingness to allow their feelings that contribute to their stuck-ness and fixations. When we will allow it, don’t fight it, or even accept it, they can move through it more easily. Fighting it keeps it there. The fight is about the right to feel and the validity of the feeling and our trying to make it go away demands that it must get louder and larger—because the reality is that it is there. The challenge in letting it be is that it requires great capacity in us. This capacity is one that many of us, including me, lack at times. We can move away from the need to be right and into place where it is just okay to be us.
Seeking to parent by trying to control what a child feels contains several fissures at the very foundation. First, trying to control what a child feels actually teaches that feelings are someone else’s responsibility. Parents complain about how their children blame them but then engage in measuring their own sense of worth or the rightness of a certain course of action whether or not the child is upset. One mother, after some significant work and coaching on a letter to her son, started off the next call by regretting her letter, “I blew it! I wrote a horrible letter!”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“He was really upset in his response in the letter this week,” she explained.
I heard it and I explained, “His response is not about you. It is about him. I thought your letter was wonderful. You worked hard on it. It was honest and kind. It was hard for him to hear and he lashed out at you, but that is about his pain, not about the quality of your letter.” It is these kinds of patterns that reinforce or suggest that we are the cause of the child’s feelings.
We need to learn to listen better to our children, but we need to listen to them to find out about them, not about us. We can be informed by what other people tell us. It can increase our compassion and help guide us to know how to be helpful, but it is our responsibility to find our own center. We need to find our own mirrors with peers, co-parents, therapists, mentors or sponsors, rather than reducing our children to two-dimensional reflections of ourselves. They don’t need the burden of carrying our esteem on their backs—it’s too heavy and too overwhelming. They need to know we can take care of ourselves. That is one of our greatest gifts to them.
If we try to control the feelings of our child, then we may also be sending the message that difficult feelings are to be avoided at all costs, thus robbing the child of working through the difficult feelings and challenges that they will inevitably encounter. We can talk to our child about how an action and perception of that action leads to a particular emotion, but that feeling is ours to own. Our peace and serenity is our responsibility, not theirs. By parenting with a focus on our intentions and our own truths rather than by how our child might react to or perceive us, then we are able to let go of how our children feel, and in turn give their feelings back to them.
The pattern of worrying about your child’s emotional responses when presenting a boundary or consequence also puts the responsibility of your self-esteem squarely on your child’s shoulders. You are, in essence, saying to your child, “I can only feel about myself the way that you feel about me.” In the short-run, your child may see this responsibility as a way to utilize and get what they want, but in the long-term they will find it psychologically taxing. Eventually those same children, as adults, will need space from their parents as they will want to resist being the one carrying Mom or Dad’s sense of self on their shoulders. By letting go of how your child feels about you while still being sensitive and respectful, you effectively remove the great burden from your child of feeling that they have to create your sense of self.
I have seen many young people struggling with an inability to differentiate in their relationships. They struggle to determine where they end and where the other person, usually their parent, begins. This lack of clarity is often rooted in a family of origin that unwittingly models this form of emotional control. It’s a parent that says, “You made me lose my temper,” or “you caused me to feel sad.” By allowing your child to experience her feelings and not making your choices based on her emotional reactions, then you can assist your child in establishing a healthy pattern of emotions and help them to navigate challenges and relate to others throughout their lives.
When we don’t take on the responsibility for our own feelings, we provide our children emotional leverage that allows the child to say to the parent, “I won’t forgive (or love, or feel loved, or feel safe, or feel cared for, or talk to you, etc.), unless you do (or don’t do) x and y.” This dynamic places parenting decisions in the hands of the child. Here, parents feel compelled to do what the child desires in order to achieve the emotional outcome they want. By making your decisions without deferring to your child’s emotional reaction and instead coming from a place of love, careful consideration, education, intuition, faith, and insight, then you don’t put your child in the inappropriate position of raising him or herself. You can still be informed by what your child feels, but not driven by it.
So, will your child forgive you? Yes, when he or she gets healthy. And this usually comes after you don’t need them to forgive you to feel okay. Again, do your best. Always do your best, because that’s all that you can do. Remember this maxim: “You are doing the best you can and you can always do better.”
Allow your children to have their own emotional responses. Letting go of a child’s reaction is one of the greatest contributions you can make to the equation of them moving past resentment towards you. When they realize you are not being held hostage by their emotions and response, they will move towards acceptance, and move away from pressuring, manipulating, and blaming.
And learn that you don’t have to be right (thus creating the implication that the Other is wrong). We believe that we need to be right because that is how we were raised. You can be you and that is good enough. You will be imperfect, make mistakes, learn and grow. Your children will take you beyond the edge of your capacity and that is part of the deal. When you develop enough confidence to acknowledge your limitations, you are modeling self love and forgiveness. You teach your child that they are also enough and that is where the healing is. When parents move away from being right and making others wrong, they provide children with an internal copy of themselves that will serve them well in all their future relationships. Perhaps the real question has always been, “Can you forgive yourself?”
1 (Miller, 1997)