There’s no changing the past

All parents make mistakes, but if a child feels they’ve been truly wronged, it’s best to atone, heal and move on

Special to The TribuneNovember 3, 2011 

The woman sat dejected in my office. “Our family is in total chaos,” she began. “Our grown daughter is accusing us of parental neglect and abuse.

And we didn’t know we’d done anything wrong.”

My client explained that she and her husband believed that they had been responsible, loving parents. They had provided their family a stable home, had helped their youngsters with homework in the evenings and could afford dance classes after school. Two of their three children agreed that Mom and Dad had done a great job.

Their third child, however, was terribly unhappy. She blamed her folks for not being emotionally available and for not protecting her against neighborhood taunts. “She brings up these faults every time we are together,” the woman sighed. “I dread hearing her voice on the phone.”

Often parents find themselves the target of their children’s criticism. Sometimes the charges are valid. A lengthy, bitter divorce can deeply affect kids’ happiness. A mother may not believe her daughter when she tells her Grandpa is sexually abusing her.

At other times the claims are misdirected or highly exaggerated. For instance, a grown man insists his mother and stepfather are the reason behind his drug addiction and inability to hold a job.

Of course, all parents make mistakes. The vast majority want nothing but the best for their growing offspring. Still, they inevitably look back on their child-rearing experiences and wish they had done some things differently. The job of children moving into adulthood is to make the best of their lives regardless of what bumps they experienced along the way. Some upbringings are relatively idyllic. Others are fraught with trauma. The past can’t be changed. But the present is in their hands to mold however they want.

Tips for responding to children’s accusations

If a grown child is accusing you of parental mistakes, follow these guidelines to begin the healing process:

• Stay calm. Kids’ accusations are incredibly hurtful. It’s natural to want to fire back. Your anger doesn’t help the situation. It only adds fuel to the flame. Take a few breaths before responding so you don’t make a bad situation worse.

• Express undying love for your child. Accusing children feel acute emotional pain. Parents can help diminish the pain by letting kids know they are cherished and adored. A sincere statement such as “I love you beyond life itself,” sets the stage for improved relations.

• Apologize for wrongdoings you know you committed. If you’re already aware that you did something harmful to your children, now’s the time to admit it. Express sorrow that you abandoned the family after the divorce.

Apologize sincerely for being drunk when they came home from school. Your acknowledgement validates the children’s emotions and shows you understand what they went through.

• Apologize for any wrongdoing you may have committed without your knowledge. Begin a conversation by saying, “I’m not aware of the accusations you’re making against me. Still, I’m so sorry for any pain I may have unwittingly caused. I only want what is best for you.” Your heartfelt willingness to improve your relationship speaks volumes to the child.

• Express your desire to establish a loving relationship. Once you’ve apologized for any known or unknown transgressions, it’s time to work toward healing. Say, “I’d really like things to be better between us from now on. What can we do to make that happen?”

• Engage in constructive activities. Find hobbies or interests you both enjoy. Go to a play. Book a weekend together at a cabin. Get tickets to a basketball game. Your efforts demonstrate your good intentions. The event gives you something new to share.

• Steer conversations toward positive topics. The accuser may insist on rehashing the past. Avoid doing so. Calmly state, “I can’t do anything about what happened. I’d like to focus on our relationship today. Let’s talk about topics that make us feel better and bring us closer together.” You’ll serve as a good role model and prevent your grown child from obsessing about the past.

• Be patient. Healing seldom happens overnight. It may take years for the accuser to come around. A good relationship with your children is worth the wait. Even if they never accept the olive branch that you’ve extended, you know you’ve done your best.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com

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