Holiday gatherings are supposed to be a time to eat heartily and bask in the presence of our loved ones. So why do many of us leave the table feeling empty?
The holidays elicit strong feelings about family—hopeful, regretful, or homicidal. For many people, the tender images of Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life generate intense feelings of sadness, loneliness, shame, guilt, or anger. Holiday images of feel-good families can underscore the disparity between the relationships people have with their families and the relationships they wish they had.
Many parents wish for a far closer relationship with their adult children or grandchildren than the one that they have. On the other hand, children can carry the memory of hurt or anger from family relationships well into adulthood. Many people stay away from their parents or visit them reluctantly, bracing themselves to swallow, ignore, or fight over issues that have haunted them for years.
So for adults still nursing the childhood hurts inflicted by their parents, what’s the best way to deal with the emotions dredged up by the holidays? Should they simply forgive and forget?
Sure, if they can. But there is so much pressure in our culture to “get over it” and “move on” that many people aren’t allowed to look back long enough to grieve what they didn’t get from their parents—or, if they do, they’re chastised for being immature. They end up blaming themselves for inadequacies and conflicts without understanding how those problems came to be. And if they’re blaming themselves for all of their problems, they may not be ready to forgive their parents. Forgiveness can only come when we know in our blood that we didn’t deserve to be treated badly, no matter what our parents’ intentions.
Yet sometimes, the worst possible betrayals can be healed. In my experience of working with families who are trying to reconcile, the best outcomes occur when adult children are able to talk about their experience in the family and the parents are willing to admit to the possibility that they caused harm.
Children—even grown-up children—need to feel like their parents can accept the full range of their feelings. Listening without being defensive is one of the most crucial things a parent can do. It shows that we care enough about our kids to take their feelings and experiences seriously, no matter how unflattering or painful it is for us to hear them.
This is not easy for most parents to do, and it’s rarely pleasant. It’s an especially tall order to accept, with love and grace, the anger of a child who has an incorrect or partial picture of a parent at the time a transgression took place.
Conversely, for parents who know they were at fault, there is the added weight of managing their own guilt and sorrow on top of their child’s hurt and anger. It takes strength and courage to face that we have hurt someone so important to us. All parents do the best they can, given what they know and what they have to draw upon. However, it’s important for both the parent and the adult child to recognize that this is where the discussion should begin, not end.
Like it or not, it’s part of the job we parents sign up for when we create a child.
The holidays can be especially challenging for families in which parents have become estranged from their children. I’ve worked with many parents struggling because they believe they deserve a lot of the blame for their child’s estrangement. I usually tell them that if they did make mistakes, and every parent does, and have made a serious attempt at making amends, then it’s time to forgive themselves. Ongoing guilt and regret can be unconscious ways to punish themselves unnecessarily. Those feelings can make it hard to engage in the kinds of activities that make life meaningful, such as hobbies, exercise, and time with people who love them and see them more clearly than their child might.
The most important action they can take is to get support and not to isolate themselves. (One step along these lines is to visit the When Parents Hurt forum at my website and post something. It’s a wonderful group of supportive and caring people, and I am constantly touched by the kindness and empathy displayed in people’s responses to one another.)
Parents have a right to have their perspective heard. There are separate realities in a family, and sometimes this is most strongly reflected in the difference between a child’s view of the parents’ behavior and the parents’ view of themselves. Airing this perspective, however, shouldn’t be done as a way to prove the child wrong. It should be done after there has been considerable demonstration on the part of the parents that they have correctly heard what their child has said, and that they are open to making efforts to address that hurt.
As children, we don’t get to choose the family we grow up with. But as adults, we get to decide who we want to have or not have in our lives. Being a member of a family is often a challenge, even in the best of circumstances. If we are able to make peace with our family, so much the better. If not, it’s our job to surround ourselves with people who treat us the way that we want and need to be treated.
Many people are confused about whether to blame themselves or their parents, whether to forgive or not forgive, whether being mad is infantile or an appropriate labeling of responsibility. We start out believing our parents know everything and slowly begin to see what they know and what they don’t—if we’re lucky.
Hopefully, our parents are willing to admit their mistakes and hear what it was like for us to be a child or a teenager or an adult in their homes. As parents, hopefully, we have children who are willing to forgive us for the hurt we caused when we were too tired, too frustrated, or too preoccupied to do a better job. Hopefully we can forgive ourselves if they won’t. And hopefully, we are secure in the knowledge that we deserve to have people around us—whether family or friends—who care about our worries, value our friendship and take joy in our happiness.
Having that—at any time of year—is reason to give thanks and be merry.