A man sat dejectedly in my office. He’d abandoned his two children when they were very young. Now, a decade later, he was interested in re-establishing a parental bond with them. But his grown kids wanted nothing to do with him. No matter how hard he tried, they refused to accept his apologies. He felt discouraged and defeated.
While all parents make mistakes, some commit serious offenses that have lasting repercussions for their sons and daughters. Substance abuse, neglect, violent rages or physical aggression can instill intense fear, anger and resentment in youngsters toward the perpetrators.
Kids may be forced to disengage physically or emotionally from their folks in order to survive the trauma.
Fortunately, many people make dramatic changes in their lives. They quit drinking or leave abusive partners. They find work or get help for a mental illness. These newly functioning moms and dads feel genuine remorse for what they’ve done. They are eager to rekindle a loving relationship with their youngsters. They want to make up for lost time.
The affected children may have differing views. They may not be ready to reconnect with a parent who caused them mental or physical anguish. Perhaps they feel betrayed by the person who should have cherished and protected them when they were small. They may have been bombarded with negative statements from other family members and friends about how terrible their parent was.
Parents are often wracked with guilt over the damage they’ve caused their children. They may worry that their kids will shun them. They may fret that the harm is irreparable. They may attempt to overcompensate by doing too much for their youngsters. The fact is that most children yearn for stable relationships with their folks, regardless of what those parents have done. Of course, they want to have the problematic behavior stopped. But they also crave the parental love, support and stability that was painfully absent from their homes.
Making amends to your kids can be a daunting challenge. It requires a personal commitment to a new lifestyle. It means consistent, unwavering effort on the part of the parent. The road to a new relationship may be long and uneven. Years of work may be needed to smooth over ruinous potholes. Still, the benefits far outweigh any misgivings. In the end you may reclaim the ultimate gift, a workable relationship with your child.
Tips for finding means to communicate
Begin the healing process and repair your parent-child relationship with these steps.
• Get your life in order. Don’t attempt to reconnect with your kids before you have tended to yourself. Get clean and sober. Complete your jail term. Pay off your debts. Stabilize your personal life. You needn’t be a saint. But you must resolve the major problems that played a role in your initial estrangement.
• Admit your wrongdoing to your children. Outline the transgressions you committed. Take full responsibility for your actions. Never blame the kids or another person for your behavior. You were the adult in the family. You were the one who messed up.
• Apologize for the hurt you have caused. Express sorrow for what you’ve done. Make it clear that you regret the choices you made and the manner in which you behaved. Never gloss over the severity of your offenses. You’ll come across as a phony and you’ll undermine your efforts.
• Set limits with your youngsters. Yes, you made serious mistakes with your kids, but they can’t run roughshod over your life. They may not speak disrespectfully to you. You don’t need to give them money if they are adults. Be calm but clear about your expectations: “I intend to treat you with respect and consideration. I would like the same from you.”
• Be persistent. Children may not be eager to reestablish contact. They may refuse to take your calls. They may return your letters unopened. Don’t get discouraged. Let kids know that you are sorry and that you love them. Hopefully, they’ll get your message.
• Accept children’s decisions. Your kids may still turn a cold shoulder no matter how hard you try. Do your best to keep in contact but be ready to move on with your life. Sometimes it’s impossible to make amends to those you’ve harmed.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com