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Monday, February 3, 2014

Developing a New Psychological Perspective About Your Parents After They're Gone

As a psychotherapist, I see many clients who come to therapy because they have unresolved feelings about deceased parents.  In an earlier article, Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective, I discussed how clients often develop a different perspective, as adults, about their childhood trauma.  In this article, I'll focus on how it's possible to develop a new psychological perspective in therapy about deceased parents.

Strange as it might sound, many clients do develop a new relationship, within their own internal world, with one or both parents even after their parents are deceased.

Is It Possible to Develop a New Psychological Perspective About Your Parents After They're Gone?

Working Out Parental Relationships Can Be a Longstanding Endeavor
For many people, working out their parental relationships can be a longstanding endeavor.  It's not unusual for people to struggle with their feelings on their own from early childhood to old age without finding a peaceful resolution.

Working Out Parental Relationships Can Be a Longstanding Endeavor Starting From Childhood

From Childhood to Adulthood:  An Increased Psychological Capacity to Understand Parents
Children often have a narrow perspective about their parents.  This is understandable because, generally speaking, children's capacity for psychological understanding isn't as developed as adults.

It's natural that children often idealize one or both parents.  For instance, a child might see a mother as being very glamorous and all knowing or feel that a mother can protect the child against whatever danger there might be in the environment.  Or, a child might see the father as being strong and powerful, the family protector.

Then, as children get older, especially in their teens, they tend to place more importance on their friends' opinions and values.  And, at that stage, they might even denigrate their parents' opinions or values, much to the chagrin of their parents.

The change, from idealization as young children to separation and need for autonomy as teenagers, is a natural stage of development.  Of course, it's all a matter of degree.

When people come to therapy to deal with unresolved issues about their parents, it's usually because there are negative feelings that are lingering about their parents.   They want to experience a resolution to these feelings so they don't continue to experience the resentment, which is eating away at them, for the rest of their lives.

There are many reasons why people have longstanding resentment towards one or both parents.  Sometimes, children grow up feeling disappointed in their parents without really understanding what's going on for the parent at that time.

In cases where there are more serious issues, like parental abuse, which I won't be discussing in this article, clients need trauma therapy.  See my articles on this topic:

Overcoming the Psychological Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Resolving Childhood Trauma to Lead a More Fulfilling Life as an Adult
Adults Who Were Emotionally Neglected as Children Often Have Problems Trusting Others

From a Negative Psychological Perspective to a New More Integrated Perspective
In this article, rather than dealing with abuse, I'm focusing on a particular issue that involves disappointment and resentment towards a parent when the child sees the parent as inept.

The focus will be on a psychotherapy client who began therapy with a negative perspective about his father and who was able to develop a new, more integrated  psychological perspective.

In the example that I give in the vignette below, the client is able to work through these issues in therapy. As always, this vignette is a composite of many psychotherapy cases and has no identifying information about  any particular clients:

Roger was an engineer in his early 30s.  When he came to my psychotherapy private practice in NYC, he was filled with anger and resentment towards his boss.  He feared that his resentment might eventually cost him his job if it became apparent to his boss.

Developing a New Psychological Perspective About Your Parents After They're Gone

In general, Roger had problems with male authority figures throughout the course of his life.  Now that he was in his 30s, he recognized that his anger towards his current and prior supervisors was out of proportion to the situations involved, and he didn't understand it.

As we discussed his family history, it became apparent that Roger also had lifelong anger and resentment towards his father, Dan, who had died suddenly of a heart attack several years before.

Roger's main complaint about his father was that he was disappointed in his father and he saw his father as inept.

As a young boy, Roger longed for his father to be his hero.  He wanted to be able to look up to his father like other boys did but, instead, he felt consistently disappointed in his father.

Most of Roger's memories about his father were about his father being inept in some way.  He thought of his father as being a kind, well-meaning man, who "just couldn't get it right."

He described many situations where his father tried to work on a household project, but he fumbled around instead.  Inevitably, Roger's mother would have to take over in order to complete the project.  Roger knew that his mother felt disappointed and resentful, and he sympathized with her.

Dan also had difficulty concentrating and would often "space out" when he was trying to help Roger with his homework.   Then, his mother, who became exasperated, would have to take over.

Roger was also aware that his father would often shout in his sleep during his frequent nightmares.  Then, his father was up for the rest of the night pacing around the house before he could go back to sleep again.  But Dan never wanted to talk about his nightmares or what was bothering him.

There were days when Dan couldn't go to work at the retail business, which was owned by Dan and his brothers, because he was too tired and shaken up by his poor sleep.  Fortunately, his brothers, although somewhat impatient, made allowances for Dan and they shared the profits of the business with him equally so that he never suffered financial consequences from his inability to work.

But Roger knew, even as a young child, that his father felt humiliated and upset by what Roger and other family members saw as Dan's ineptitude.

Roger also sensed that his father had no understanding of why he was having these problems.  Throughout his educational history, Dan was always at the top of his class, so it was clear that he was an intelligent man.  It made no sense to Dan and to anyone else that he would be having these difficulties.

When he was a young child, Roger's feelings for his father vacillated between sadness filled with longing and intense anger.  Each time Dan embarked on a new endeavor, Roger hoped that his father would be successful but, more times than not, Roger was deeply disappointed.

As he got older, Roger struggled with his resentment for his father.  He could hardly look at his father without feeling angry.  He tried to hide these feelings from his father because he didn't want to hurt his feelings, but he knew that his father was aware it.

Roger described his father as "a broken man" who sank deeper and deeper into depression just before he died.  And, after Dan died, Roger was left with many conflicting feelings about his father.

As we continued to talk about his father and his current boss, it became apparent to both of us that there were many parallels in his feelings about them.  He described his boss as a bumbling, incompetent man, which is also how he described his father.

But he also felt guilty for feeling this way about his father and wished he could let go of his resentments, especially now that his father was dead.  He regretted that he didn't come to some resolution before his father died.

It occurred to me, as I heard more about his father from Roger, that there was an important part of Dan's history that Roger didn't understand.

Roger knew from his mother, Betty, that his parents were "going steady" before Dan was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam.  They got married soon after Dan returned from Vietnam.  However, his mother told Roger that she realized soon after they got married that Dan wasn't the same man after he got back from the war.

As we continued to talk about his Dan's history, it seemed to me that Dan might have been suffering with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the horrific experiences he endured during the war.

After I mentioned this to Roger, he asked his mother about it and, reluctantly, she told Roger that Dan was, in fact, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when he came back from Vietnam, but he never wanted to go for psychological help.  She also didn't understand this diagnosis and how it affected Dan.

She said that all she knew was that before Dan left, he was an intelligent, capable individual, and after he came back, he was struggling to deal with basic things in their lives.

With this new understanding, Roger was able to look back on his father's life and his relationship with his father and see them in a new way.
Roger Developed a New Psychological Perspective 

Roger was able to develop a different perspective about his father.  It all made sense to him now.  He felt a sense of love and compassion for his father that he had never felt before.  He regretted that he didn't know this while his father was alive.

Over time, as we continued to work on this issue, he felt at peace with his feelings for his father for the first time.

He also realized that, even though his boss was somewhat incompetent, the depth of his anger for his boss was out of proportion to the situation and it was triggered by his unresolved feelings for his father.

Developing a New Psychological Perspective About Parents After They're Gone
One of the myths about psychotherapy is that clients spend years blaming their parents instead of taking responsibility for their own feelings.  The myth is that therapy clients keep going over the same material and getting nowhere in their own psychological development or in working through their feelings for their parents.

And, yet, in my experience this isn't the case:  Therapy clients can work out their unresolved feelings for their parents with the help of an experienced psychotherapist.

Developing a New Psychological Perspective About Parents After They're Gone
The ideal would be for someone to work through his or her issues about parents before parents die.   But, for a variety of reasons, regrettably, this isn't always possible.

But even though your parents might be deceased and you don't have a relationship with them in your everyday life, you still continue to have a relationship with them in your internal emotional world.

And just because they're not around any more, all is not lost in terms of developing a sense of peace about your relationship with your parents.  As in the vignette about Roger above, it's possible to see and understand things in therapy that you didn't see before.

And, in many cases, it is possible to develop a new internal relationship with a parent even after he or she is gone.

Getting Help in Therapy
Struggling with unresolved feelings for parents can be complicated, especially after they're deceased.

Without your being aware of it, your unresolved feelings can have a negative impact on you and the other relationships in your life.

Getting Help in Therapy: It's Possible to Grow and Develop  a New Psychological Perspective

Rather than continuing to struggle with these feelings, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who can help you to work through these issues and develop a new psychological perspective that gives you a greater sense of well being.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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