NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Trying to Decide Whether to Salvage Your Relationship With Your Parents

In my previous article, Now That You're An Adult, Your Parents Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child, I began a discussion about the experiences of adult children whose parents were abusive when they were younger but who changed into the parents that these children wanted all along since childhood.  In this issue, I'm focusing on a decision that many adult children are faced with--whether to try to salvage their relationship with their parents (see my articles: Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter RelationshipsGetting Help in Mother-Adult Daughter Therapy, and Deciding Whether or Not to Reconcile Your Relationship With Your Father).

Trying to Decide Whether to Salvage Your Relationship With Your Parents

Why Do Adult Children Become Estranged From Their Parents?
Deciding whether to try to salvage a relationship with one or both parents isn't easy, and many adults seek help in psychotherapy to grapple with this issue.  There's no one answer that will suit everyone, and each person will have to decide what's best for him or herself and family members.

From the adult children's perspective, there are many different reasons why they and their parents become estranged.

Most of the time adult clients in psychotherapy indicate that the estrangement developed due to physical abuse or neglect from childhood (see my articles: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems Later On In Adult Relationships).

In order to take care of themselves emotionally and physically, these adult children made a decision to part ways with their parents because there was no way to continue to have a relationship without it being harmful to them.

Often this type of estrangement occurs gradually over time. But if even limited contact with parents is still hurtful, these adult children might cut back even further in terms of contact--until, in some cases, there is no contact.

For most adult children this is an agonizing decision to make.  It might not start out being a decision to end all contact but, as time goes on and neither the adult child nor the parents reach out, it can develop into complete estrangement with little incentive to reach out.

The Problem With Cultural Myths About All Parents Always Being Loving
Aside from the emotional difficulty with reducing or eliminating contact with parents, adult children are often stigmatized for having less or no contact with parents due to cultural myths.

These cultural myths are all around us and perpetuated in songs, stories, movies, and Mother's Day and Father's Day cards:  All parents, especially mothers, are presumed to be loving, nurturing and self sacrificing towards their children.

While there are many loving and nurturing parents, by no means are all parents loving and nurturing. There are families where one or both parents are emotionally and physically abusive behind closed doors where no one, except the children, see and experience what's going on (see my article: Breaking the Family Code of Silence in Dysfunctional Families).

Cultural myths about all parents being loving makes it that much more guilt and shame producing for adult children to make decisions about reducing or eliminating contact with their parents.

In many cases, these adult children are stigmatized by well-meaning others who need to believe in the cultural myth.  In some cases, these same people are in denial about their own families and haven't dealt with their own ambivalence about their parents.

Many clients in psychotherapy tell their psychotherapists that when they decided to reduce or eliminate contact with one or both parents, other family members, friends and acquaintances didn't understand how these adult children could "do this to the parents."

There is often an implicit message that if adult children are reducing and eliminating contact with their parents, the problem must somehow be the adult child's fault.  These adult children might hear others say, "But their your parents.  How can you cut them off" or "You know your parents did the best they could at the time" or other platitudes.

I think that people who say these things often don't realize how damaging these statements are to the adult children, especially for adult children who might have grown up feeling emotionally invisible to  their parents and others (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

When they have to also endure others' scorn for taking care of themselves, this can make their decision-making process that much more lonely, and it can continue to make them feel invisible and undeserving of self care (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Rather than trying to guilt or shame adult children for taking care of themselves, it would be much more helpful for others to realize that they might not have the whole story and to use empathy and understanding before making judgments.

Obstacles For Adult Children to Salvaging a Relationship With Parents 
The obstacles to salvaging a relationship with one or both parents can be formidable, including (but not limited to):
  • Parents' Denial, Lack of Acknowledgement and Refusal to Take Responsibility For Abuse: Chances of salvaging a relationship between adult children and parents are usually better if the parents can acknowledge and try to make amends for a history of abusing or neglecting the child.  Although they can't change the past, if parents can take responsibility and they are sincere about their remorse, this makes it somewhat easier for the parents and adult child to try to develop a better relationship.  It doesn't erase the past, but it provides a basis for reconciliation for many people.  But when parents either deny or minimize the abuse ("That happened a long time ago.  You should be over it by now"), this can be a major obstacle to a reconciliation.
  • Ongoing Abuse or Manipulation:  When one or both parents continue to be abusive with an adult child, this is a major obstacle to salvaging the parent-adult child relationship.  The adult child must decide if it's better to try to have some form of relationship rather than none.  If the abuse or manipulation continues, it makes it that much more difficult to sustain a relationship.
  • The Adult Child's Relationship With Parents Is Beyond Repair:  In some cases, the relationship between adult children and their parents is so damaged that it is beyond reconciliation.  This can include a history or the ongoing perpetuation of severe forms of abuse, including (but not limited to)  sexual or physical abuse. Where there is no hope of change and maintaining a relationship with parents would only mean continued abuse, adult children often have no choice but to abandon any hope of having a healthy relationship with one or both parents.  
Developing a Compromise to Maintain a Relationship With Parents (if possible)
The bond between most parents and children is strong and, even in cases where the actual bond isn't strong, there is often a wish for repair on both sides in order to develop a stronger bond.

Finding the compromise that works for everyone involved can be challenging, especially if parents are in denial or refuse to take responsibility for or minimize a history of abuse when their adult children were younger.

Sometimes, adult children decide to have limited contact with their parents on holidays and birthday.  Other times, adult children move to another part of the country and try to maintain some telephone contact.  This can be a trial and error process with both sides discovering what works for everyone--if there, in fact, is a solution that works.

An adult child might decide that, even if it's emotionally triggering to see his or her parents occasionally, this is the lesser of two difficult situations when considering a complete cut off and limited contact.

When they see each other, there is often an unspoken agreement to avoid certain topics that would create conflict.  This might cause some regret for both parents and adult children that their relationship isn't as emotionally intimate as they wished it could be, but it's part of the compromise to maintain some contact and minimize damage.

When No Compromise is Possible
As previously mentioned, in some cases, due to numerous factors, including severe abuse or neglect or ongoing abuse, a compromise isn't possible.  This is a painful, but often necessary, decision for the health and well-being of the adult child.

As An Adult Child, Trying to Decide Whether to Salvage Your Relationship With Your Parents

Getting to this decision can be a long, painful road with many attempts at compromises along the way.

In addition to dealing with possible guilt and shame, there is grief involved because cutting off complete contact often involves giving up any hope that the relationship can be repaired and the hope of ever having a loving parental relationship at all.

This article focused on adult children, but there are also circumstances where parents have to decide whether or not to salvage their relationship with their adult children when to do so would be to perpetuate emotional and/or physical pain for them.  This decision is also usually agonizing.

From the adult child's perspective, cutting off a relationship with one or both parents is almost never taken lightly.  There is often guilt and shame involved--even when the adult child knows that to maintain a relationship would involve ongoing abuse.

Some adult children decide to compromise and maintain limited contact with parents.  Often, there is an underlying hope that, eventually, a time will come when the adult child and the parents can reconcile their relationship--even if it seems impossible at the current time.

Is maintaining hope for a full reconciliation in the future a form of denial?  There's often no way to know in the present.

For many people a complete reconciliation never happens, and they live their lives with an open emotional wound waiting for that day.

For other people, as they and their parents get older, there might be a new perspective and the possibility of a reconciliation where it never seemed possible before.

This might also involve a time when the adult children have their own children and the parents are motivated to repair the relationship because they want to be involved in their adult child's and grandchild's lives.  It might involve a parent who is very sick or close to death with a final wish for reconciliation and healing.

Getting Help in Therapy
Psychotherapy clients, who decide to have limited or no contact with parents, often work with their psychotherapists to resolve a traumatic history of abuse or neglect and work through their current decision-making process (see my article: The Benefit of Psychotherapy).

Unresolved childhood trauma often gets triggered in the present, so working with a skilled trauma therapist can help to resolve developmental trauma (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you have been struggling on your own with unresolved problems, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who is a trauma therapist (see my article: How Trauma Therapy Can Help You to Overcome Trauma and Develop a More Accurate Sense of Self).

By working through unresolved trauma, you can free yourself from the effects of your traumatic history so you can have a chance to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City trauma psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients with unresolved trauma.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.