After recently losing my father, I have been sitting in contemplation about the parent-child adult relationship (the lifelong relationship with our parents once we have reached adulthood) and the fact that many parent-child relationships don’t progress into an adult-adult relationship. I believe unresolved issues with the parent could be a main factor that contributes to this. This is a very big and complex topic, and I understand that the thoughts I share just touch the surface of things, and may ‘press on a bruise’ for readers.
Young children usually see their parents as superhumans. They are everything to them. Whatever the parent says is perceived as right and the child believes everything that comes out of their mouths. This is their perception as they learn what it is to be human. These are the “enjoy them while they’re young” years.
Then the child become a little more aware of the world around them and may start seeing things in a broader perspective, coming to realize that their parent’s opinions and ideas aren’t necessarily those of others. The child becomes influenced by friends, teachers, other adults, media, their own creative minds… and the perception shifts.
Parents often have a hard time with this stage, as their precious child starts to challenge their ideas, opinions, values and beliefs. The child is expanding their consciousness and getting the parent ready for what comes next – teen years of independent thinking. During the teen years, the child will often defy or argue with everything that the parent thinks, perceives, practices, or knows. The child has entered the (important) rebellious stage in order to find their own identity. And much of what they perceive puts the parent in a bad light.
The actual mistakes parents make or the memories of the child around perceived mistakes and injustices made by parents during the childhood/teen years can cause long-term harm to the relationship. If children grow up and hold on to disappointments in their parents due to their expectations not being realized, or resentments to their parents for unconscious actions, it is important to seek help (counseling is best) in order to process things, acknowledge and understand from all perspectives. However, this rarely happens.
In raising children, all parents make mistakes. They may not make the same ones as their parents (if they are able to break the generational cycles) but they will make new ones. Making mistakes with our children is inevitable. Sometimes, these mistakes are based on parental stress, ineffective communication, battles for control, acting unconsciously without realizing the potential for long-term harm, and many other factors... In the case of neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, the child may feel betrayed, bullied, unseen, diminished and many other emotions, resulting in a breakdown in trust, lack of self-esteem and self-worth, among many other long-term issues that may require therapy to process and heal. Unresolved issues in childhood (especially the abusive ones) can result in anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders lasting throughout adulthood. Studies have found that adults with a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences have a higher suicide rate than those who did not experience such childhood trauma. In an ideal world, we would all go to family therapy with our children, parents, siblings… to clear the air, heal the past, foster understanding and forgiveness and learn how to communicate with each other in loving ways. But this rarely happens in the real world and in real families. Pain from childhood haunts many if not most adults throughout their lives.
Therapy is always a positive step in dealing with adverse experiences during childhood. And whether the painful experience is a result of abuse or neglect, or power struggles and lack of effective communication or oppressive controlling parenting styles, the grown child still feels the pain from the perspective of their child mind. It is the perception of the trauma that follows us into our adult life. What if the abusive parent dies before any healing could be done? What if the child with unresolved issues from their childhood isn’t able to confront or heal them with the parent before they die? Many conflicting emotions and memories may flood the adult child, and a deep sense of loss may occur - not just for the parent themselves, but for the unhealed relationship that can now never be repaired.
Staying angry or resentful or taking it out on other siblings or family members who may have had different (perceived ‘not so painful’) experiences is not an effective coping strategy. It is very important to be aware of what is going on within, and seek support. There are counselors who are trained in grief work, especially for those with unresolved issues. Family therapy involving all the survivors is also a specialty of some therapists. Counseling support fosters understanding, healing, accepting, forgiving, and allowing the process of grieving. I cannot stress this enough. Healing the past is possible but it requires a willingness, cooperation, courage, and open mind and a vulnerability. This vulnerability translates into strength once the work is being done.
Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of www.elixirforlife.ca. The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor or healthcare provider if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment.