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Last edit of this page 19/08/2011
I recommend the book "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along" by Joshua Coleman.
Four archived articles
I end up doubting those mental health theories that find closeness and interdependency between the generations unhealthy. I'm not convinced that people are better off if they differentiate a lot as Murray Bowen would have us do, break free from all their warm, cozy enmeshment as Sal Minuchin advised, and leave home the way Jay Haley encouraged us to do. I like being as close to my children as I am, talking over cases and writing papers with my psychologist daughters and working out with my triathlete son. Pittman
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'How To Be A Grownup Even Around Your Own Parents' by Frank Pittman, MD
Retrieved from psychotherapy.net May 2009 for readers in remote Canada and Australia.
"You know what my scenario was for this whole thing? I was gonna move away. I was gonna get rich and move into a luxurious mansion. My parents were gonna come visit me — once — and say 'Oh, what a nice mansion. We love you, Dave.' And I was gonna say 'I love you too, Mom and Dad.' And then they were gonna go away and die. Does this make me an asshole?" — Tom Hanks in Nothing In Common (1986)
"Hello, Arthur. This is your mother. Do you remember me?... Someday Arthur, you'll get married and you'll have children of your own and Honey, when you do, I only pray that they'll make you suffer the way you're making me. That's a Mother's Prayer." — Mother and Son, Mike Nichols and Elaine May
The Terrifying Power of Parents to Strip Off Our Masks of Adulthood And Expose The Child Underneath
We never really are the adults we pretend to be. We wear the mask and perhaps the clothes and posture of grownups, but inside our skin we are never as wise or as sure or as strong as we want to convince ourselves and others we are. We may fool all the rest of the people all of the time, but we never fool our parents.
They can see behind the mask of adulthood. To our parents, we seem always to be "works in progress." A parent's work is never done — we are never finished and ready to face life on our own. I remember going to see our oldest daughter off on the train to college. As the train pulled out of the station, one of the other mothers took off running behind it, trying to catch the train and stop it. She had suddenly remembered a piece of advice she hadn't given her daughter. A mother's failure to understand the new world in which her child lives does not reduce one iota her responsibility to give advice about how to deal with it.
People don't become grownups until they realize that their parents, however wonderful, were badly misinformed and sometimes stark, raving mad. Each generation's job is to question the things the parents accept on faith, to explore the possibilities, and adapt the last generation's system of values for a new age.
The world is changing more rapidly each generation; the enormity of the change is painful for those on either side of the generational divide. Fathers who won World War II single handedly and have strutted around as Head of the Household ever since may never understand sons who want to be househusbands. Mothers who have sucked it in and pretended to be mentally deficient and emotionally unstable in order not to threaten their patriarchal husbands may have enormous resentment of their daughters who get to be full scale human beings.
Parents may feel betrayed when their children adopt different styles and habits, and matters of style may turn into matters of morality, health or safety. To the parents, various things the children do may mean the death of the longed for and as yet unborn grandchildren, while to the child, homosexuality may be a lifestyle choice, suicide may be a political statement, and joining the foreign legion may be an interesting career move. The child who makes such choices may not understand why the parents keep mourning the grandchildren that will not be instead of being as thrilled as the children are over the homosexual partner, the political placard or the artistic pictures of sand dunes they are getting instead.
Techniques for Regressing Grown Children into Blathering Childishness
Parents who would like to strip away their child's mask of adulthood and expose him or her as a still imperfect child, still in need of parents in attendance, have a variety of time-honored techniques at their disposal, all of which are simply subtle ways of doing their jobs as not-quite-ex-parents, by doing the job in a way that keeps both generations firmly in place. Parents can simply remind you that you are not quite who you pretend to be. They can bring up stories from your childhood at the most amazingly deflating moments, like telling stories about your toilet training at your wedding reception or telling your new boss how your kindergarten teacher never thought you had enough sense to get out of junior high. My father insists the most awful moment of his life came when he was making his first high school touchdown and heard the voice of his mother above the roar of the crowd calling "My Sonny Boy," a name he never lived down.
Parents can offer a sanctuary, not just as a pitstop along the road of life, but a permanent alternative to adulthood. They can give you or offer to leave you more money than you can make, so you never have to plan an adult life, and can not truly respect the adult life you have been able to achieve. They can devote their lives to making it possible for you to never grow up. Your parents can provide you with a lifetime occupation, perhaps taking care of them — like the seeing eye children of central Africa who spend their lives from the age of two or three running interference for their sightless parents — or try to protect you from the imperfection of grown-up relationships.
A young woman in my practice caught her husband in a brief affair, saw a couple's therapist, fought it out with the contrite young husband, and reconciled. She then told her parents what had happened, whereupon her three-times-divorced father gave her the money for the best divorce attorneys and the two-times-divorced mother offered the other half of her fancy duplex. They insisted that she needed more time with her parents before she chose her next husband. They hinted that taking her in and raising her and her brood of children might bring them back together again.
The Gift of Guilt
At any time, your parents can call in their investment in you and demand repayment for giving you life. The classic approach to this is guilt, as Erma Bombeck put it: "Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving." King Lear was our expert at this, bewailing about "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." His kids fixed him.
Parents vary in their sense of what would be suitable repayment for creating, sustaining and tolerating you all those years, and what circumstances would be drastic enough for the parents to present the voucher. Obviously there is no repayment that would be sufficient. The guilt is there, inescapable and even irreducible, but the effort to call in the debt of life is too outrageous to be treated as anything other than a joke. My mother used to tell me, as often as needed, how she had to lay in bed flat of her back for nine months in order to give birth to me. If I displeased her, she'd remind me that all she had had to do was stand up and I would be a messy spot on the floor, so I should be eternally grateful that she didn't do that. I'd thank her, but assure her it would be O.K. for her to stand up now.
Children are a Family Affair
Your parents can claim your children, and tell you how to raise them. This can be useful. Every child needs more than two parents, so a full set of grandparents can come in handy. You don't have to take the advice of course, but finding out how your parents or your partner's parents thought out the issues of child raising can give wonderful insights into both them and you, how they came to do what they did and how you came to be who you are. Of course it can rattle you. I know I'm more comfortable getting advice when I know what I'm doing than I am when I am trying to fake competence, and we are all amateurs at childraising.
Parents can deflate you just by appearing, either in person or in your mirror, as an older version of yourself, reminding you what is in store for you. They can criticize you so sensitively and astutely that they remind you that you aren't perfect yet. Even as the world applauds, your parents can take your victory away by reminding you that you might have done a better job in some way. Bring home a report card four A's and one B to hear, "That's nice, but what did you do wrong in calculus?" When I was about 30, I called my mother to tell her I had been written up in TIME magazine. She said, "Nobody in Autauga County, Alabama reads TIME any more. Why didn't you get written up in U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT?" That meant, "Don't get too big for your britches around me, Sonny Boy. I knew you when."
After a few minutes of sympathetic reflection, I realized that it also meant, "I'm so afraid you'll be so successful and so acclaimed by the world that you won't need us anymore, that you'll feel too good for us, that you'll be ashamed of us. Please love me, even in your moments of glory." I could have wondered why she didn't put it that way, but I'm actually just grateful that she didn't stand up all those years ago.
Parents can write the family history, putting you wherever they choose, preferring perhaps to keep you in the family mythology as a child. My mother, for example, was clearly ambivalent about my successes. When I came to give a widely publicized talk to dedicate Alabama's first mental health center, I was about forty, and the picture of me she sent to the newspapers was from high school. I was a middle aged man, but still Little Frank, my mother's boy wonder.
How Awkward Adolescence Becomes a Permanent State of Immaturity
Children give parents this deflating power to take the wind out of our sails when we are in adolescence, when we are so seriously self conscious we become male and female impersonators, trying to convince somebody out there, mostly ourselves, that we are no longer children. We have enough trouble carrying it off when we are doing it in front of a mirror, but it becomes impossible to look like an adult when our parents are telling us what to do. Our parents know most clearly just how immature we are. One way adolescents try to pose as grown-ups is to make a show of not needing parents — at just the point of greatest confusion and disorientation of our lives, right when we need them most.
Once the older generation has raised us to about the level of adolescence, we are so full of hormones, piss and vinegar, we don't like to think we need the wisdom of the ages. It is true that the world is changing so fast that each generation's wisdom has expired by the time it can be put to use. Our parents' style and values, their ideas about how the world works, are likely to seem old-fashioned just on principle, but the real issue is that as adolescents we are too scared to tolerate doubt. Our parents might have money or things to leave us when they die, but this does not make us value them; it makes us impatient with them for continuing to live. If we can't find a use for them and they don't have anything for us, we might merely want to find an escape from them. We might even come to fear them, as if their active involvement in our life were proof of our characterological weakness — and maybe even dangerous to our mental health.
One solution for adolescents is to hide from parents, even if we have to run away from home, in whole or in part. It is hard to look like a grownup, much less feel like a grownup, when you are busy running away from home. Yet we have a society in which adolescence is, for some insane reason, seen as the most desirable time in life. We have a world full of people who get into the middle of the stream of life, and paddle like hell trying to stay in the same spot as the life cycle and the world flow by, equidistant from childhood and adulthood, and terrified of both.
The Magic of Parenthood
Some people stay pampered children forever, but child-raising — hands-on, fully invested child-raising — is the main event in life, the experience that takes you out of the child generation, where you are only able to take and puts you squarely in the parent generation, where you are able to give as well, and thus become able to take deservedly and unashamedly, without the nagging guilt children of all ages feel over taking more than they are giving back.
The end product of child-raising is not only the child but the parents, who get to go through each stage of human development from the other side, and get to relive the experiences that shaped them and get to rethink everything their parents taught them. They get, in effect, to re-raise themselves, and become their own person.
Sure there are ways other than child-raising to become a grown-up, though none so natural and total. One way to replace the experience of parenting is by nurturing strangers, as childless Mother Teresa or George Washington did, but being Mother of the Slums or Father of His Country can be a big job. For those who can't arrange parenthood, active aunting and uncling seem the next best choices. The usual things recommended for making a man out of a boy (and perhaps for making a woman out of a girl) — war, football, fighting, and prison — just create a fiercer boy. Learning to love a child can make a real man out of any boy, a real woman out of any girl, but some people might prefer to avoid something that engulfing and find a less drastic way of managing their parents and getting treated as adults.
The Solution: Acting Like a Grownup
If you would move into the adult position with your parents, you can do several things. Your parents can't do these things for you. They can not grant you your adulthood; you must claim it for yourself.
- Take responsibility for your own life, not necessarily doing it perfectly but accepting the blame for the missteps: "I did this and I did it wrong. Now I want to learn from my mistakes. What do you think I could different next time?"
- Accept well-intentioned counsel from those who know and love you, even if neither their love for you nor their understanding of you is ideal. People, especially parents, love to give advice, and they will honor your maturity in asking for it.
- Your parents can't fix your problems or turn you into a kid again. They know by now (I hope) that they have no magical powers, but it is up to you to make yourself aware of that. They can not turn you into a child; that is something you are doing to yourself when you collapse, run, or hide under the spell of your childlike awe at their presumed power. You must move in close, and unmask them as Toto did the Wizard of Oz, who turned out to be a silly old man hiding behind a lot of sound and lights. As he said when told he was a bad man: "No. I am a very good man, just a very bad wizard." Parents and wizards are all faking it.
- Forgive your parents for all the ways in which they didn't raise you just right, whether their errors were in loving too much or too little. All parents, as they perform their required functions as parents of adults, do the deflating things that make you feel like a child. If you have children, you'll do those things too and eventually laugh about them.
Parents sometimes do horrendous things to their children — beating them, raping them, selling them into slavery, even trying to kill them. Still more parents abandon their children, break up their children's family to run off with someone who did not have the best interests of the children at heart, and leave the children with someone they could not tolerate living with themselves. Those things must also be faced, and when they are finally understood, they must be forgiven. Otherwise the child may never feel secure with the imperfect love and imperfect investment the parents made in him or her, or with the child's own imperfect capacity for reciprocating all that love. An angry, unforgiving child, going through life feeling like a victim of imperfect parenting, has no way of moving into the adult position in relationships. Unrelenting anger at parents is a developmental dead end.
It is interesting how much more people blame parents for overdoing their jobs than for underfunctioning as parents. People seem tolerant and forgiving of fathers who love too little, while they spend a lifetime fearing mothers who love too much.
I got macroparenting, especially from Mother, which was at times oppressive and even frightening, but generally served me well. A patient of mine was microparented. Maisie's father had disappeared when she was born and had never been heard from again. Her tight-lipped mother raised her all alone. When she was 18, and had finished high school she chose not to go to college but to quietly work and make the money to go find her father. She hired a private detective, who eventually found her father working at an optical shop. She introduced herself and took him down the street for a cup of coffee. He was rather silent, but he did explain that he had feared he would not be a good enough father for her, so he ran away, and he had been ashamed of that ever since. He told her he had little he could offer her, but he gave her a package of eyeglass wipes and advised her to keep her eyeglasses clean.
That little box of wipers was the only thing Maisie had ever gotten from her father — except for the explanation that he had run away because he felt she deserved more than he had to give. She never saw her father again but that explanation of why he had made the disastrous escape from her life gave her the goal of hanging in there and raising her own children. She realized that she didn't have to be wonderful to raise children, but she did have to be there. Maisie was forever grateful to her father for that insight, and she always kept her eyeglasses clean. We don't know what the meeting between father and daughter did for her father. He ran away again after that.
The hardest part of becoming an adult with your parents may be this: getting close enough to truly understand them and why they did what they did. You can't expect to satisfy your parents and you can't expect to fix them, but you must understand their life and yours from THEIR perspective before you can truly forgive them. No matter how awful, incestuous or homicidal your parents, they must be faced and understood, not for his sake but for yours. As long as you fear your parent is out to do you in, you can never feel safe in the world.
It may take a lifetime. Some of it will happen automatically as you raise your own or are involved with other people's children, but some of it can only happen as you examine your parents, living or dead, present or absent.
Dismantling the Family Hierarchy and Becoming Peers
For a grown child to expect respect from parents, he or she must accept responsibility for his or her own life and act like a grownup. If the grown children are still trying to blame their lives on their parents, no respect can be expected.
In considering the ledger equal, it must be understood that the greatest gift you have given your parents is the opportunity to raise you. The things a child gets from parents can't compare to the things a parent gets from raising a child. Only by facing the experience can you understand the degree to which children give the meaning to the lives of parents.
To make the member of the child generation feel quite sure that the debts are paid, it is wonderful when the children get to take care of the parents as they grow old or sick, and die. There is nothing quite so liberating from parental guilt and empowering to your adultness as nursing your parents through to the end. It can make you feel wonderful when your parent needs you more than you need him or her. But if you are still feeling guilty, as if you have not paid enough, achieved enough, reinvested enough, or suffered enough for the parent, then you can come to feel like a slave. You must decide when you have bought your freedom, and then you must give a bit more just to be sure. When you have paid back your parents for your life, and paid more than you owe, then you are indeed your own person.
Tricks for Taming Used Parents:
Getting Them to See You as an Adult and Treat You with Respect
Meanwhile, there are techniques for achieving hierarchical equality with your parents. Here are some tricks that my children have taught me, tricks that I didn't learn when I was coming into adulthood because I wasn't mature enough to face my parents head on. My kids are an improvement, especially in the ways in which they deal with their parents. These techniques are guaranteed to work better than whining childishly or storming adolescently at your parents complaining they don't treat you as an adult.
1. Tell them about you. Tell them what you like and what you don't like. You be the expert on you.
2. Explore them, not you. When your parents try to tell you more about you and your shortcomings than you really want to hear, ask them about themselves at your age.
3. Thank them for any criticism, and ask them what their experiences were that led them to their opinions.
4. Ask for their advice before they have a chance to give it. If they know you are taking their advice seriously, they may give more sympathetic advice.
5. Explain how much you value their opinion, and be especially careful to add that it is one of those you will particularly value as you make your own decision.
6. Don't hide anything from them. Secrets and lies will make you ashamed of yourself, and will make them think you are hiding things from them, like a child.
7. Invite them to do a lot of things with you, whether they like to do such things or not. And accept their invitations in return. Include them in your social life.
8. Ask them to tell you family stories. When they tell family stories about you, give them the necessary information to change your position in the family myths.
9. Tell them whether you need cheerleading or criticism at the moment. Remember, they want above all to feel needed and to be a good parent. Structure them in doing so.
10. Find things they can do for you now and ask them to do such things. Think of expertise you need, information you need, and give them ample opportunity to feel useful.
11. Find things to thank them for, especially memories from the past. Thank them randomly.
12. Tell them what a terrible child you must have been, and how bad you feel for having been such a bother to them.
13. Reveal all the things you kept secret from them at the time. Blow their minds. Actually, it will probably surprise them that you weren't worse.
14. Call them more often than they need for you to. Try to call during their favorite TV show, so they will be in a hurry to get you off the phone.
15. Don't criticize them to others. Get into the habit of praising them to your friends. That won't change them, but it will free you from your adolescent pout with them.
16. Name your children after them.
17. Don't name your pets after them.
18. Take them to movies about parents and children. Mommie Dearest or The Great Santini are good choices. Then talk about it, taking the parent's side. Since they've been children longer than they've been parents, they might just counter by seeing the conflict from the child's perspective.
19. Give your parent a copy of this article.
20. Take your parents with you to your therapist and tell the therapist
what wonderful parents they have been. If your parent doesn't respond by telling your therapist how wonderful you are, give him or her another copy of this article, and underline the parts that seem relevant.
One of the most highly valued functions of used parents these days is to be the villains of their children's lives, the people the child blames for any shortcomings or disappointments. This approach toward escaping guilt is an effort to protect the self-proclaimed victim from having to take responsibility for his or her own life. But if your identity comes from your parent's failings, then you remain forever a member of the child generation, stuck and unable to move on to adulthood in which you identify yourself in terms of what you do rather than what has been done to you.
I know your parents, like most parents including my own, including me, made a lot of mistakes. That was then; this is now. A lot of parents came into adulthood as they raised you, and are better people now than they were then. There are great advantages to seeing yourself as an accident created by amateur parents as they practiced. You then have been left in an imperfect state and the rest is up to you. Only the most pitifully inept child requires perfection from parents. It might help for the parents to apologize a few times, but the child who would become an adult must finally get off the parents' back and get on with the job at hand.
Some parents were awful back then and are awful still. They got stuck in childhood and adolescence, and the process of raising you did not turn them into grownups. Parents who were clearly imperfect can be helpful to you. As you were trying to grow up despite their fumbling efforts, you had to develop skills and tolerances other kids missed out on. Some of the strongest people I know grew up taking care of inept, invalid, or psychotic parents — but they knew the parents were not normal, healthy and whole. Children of imperfect parents might be grateful to their imperfect parents for the opportunities to develop unexpected strengths. My sister and I are firmly convinced that our mother's alcoholism made us stronger people and better caretakers. Such a tragic-comic existence certainly did wonders for our sense of humor.
The Problem with Some Family Therapists
I end up doubting those mental health theories that find closeness and interdependency between the generations unhealthy. I'm not convinced that people are better off if they differentiate a lot as Murray Bowen would have us do, break free from all their warm, cozy enmeshment as Sal Minuchin advised, and leave home the way Jay Haley encouraged us to do. I like being as close to my children as I am, talking over cases and writing papers with my psychologist daughters and working out with my triathlete son. Our son is also our accountant and Betsy's primary source of business advice. My 90 year old psychiatrist father-in-law, who has been a source of much of my clinical wisdom, is now living with us and letting us a do a few things for him, to pay him back for all he has done for us.
Whose life is it anyway? As we raise out children, as we invest our hopes, our energies, our futures and our very beings into them, we are hoping for something back, something that we will get from our children, both now and in the future, that will make up for whatever the deficiencies in our own parenting. Each life carries within it all the generations that came before and all the generations to follow. In whatever we do, we must be aware of both. I have lived through adolescence, in which I felt only connected to my generation, and oppressed by anyone who would require my allegiance to anything outside myself. I have lived through the adolescent sense that the history of my family and of the human race begins and ends with me, and now that I see myself connected on both ends, I no longer feel lost and alone.
Therapists Who Blame Your Parents
There are therapists who have had wonderful training wasted on them but who will never be therapeutic because they are still members of the child generation and have not moved up to the parent perspective. They might do well to rethink their career choices until they have worked out their business with their own parents. Child-generation therapists might think that guilt is a killer, and any relationship, any reality, any responsibility must be shucked to protect grown children from guilt. They may encourage you to blame your life on the mistakes of your parents rather than encourage you to find out what the experience was like for your parents, how they learned to be the people and the parents they were, and how they would do it over again now. That exploration brings parents and children together, and can set them both free. An adult-generation therapist (of any age) will see both you and your parents through the eyes of an adult rather than just through the eyes of a child, and will know that you must forgive your parents if you are ever to be free of your sense of childlike helplessness.
The point of exploring your parents' deficiencies is for you to correct the misinformation you've received as a result, not to blame your life on them and then avoid them. You can't escape them anyway. Your biological parents are present in every chromosome in your body. The parents who raised you are present in every word you speak, every action you take. Your job is not to satisfy your parents, nor to fix them, but to understand them. Only through understanding them can you finally understand yourself.
This article was excerpted, in part, from Grow Up! by Frank Pittman. Copyright © 2002 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published October, 2002.
About Frank Pittman, MD
Frank Pittman, M.D. is the author of Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult (1999), Private Lies: Infidelity and Betrayal of Intimacy (1990) and Turning Points, a book about treating families in transitions and crises. Source
An Interview with Frank Pittman, MD by Victor Yalom, PhD Growing Up & Taking Responsibility
Retrieved from psychotherapy.net/ May 2009
Yalom: I appreciate you fitting this time into your busy schedule at the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference (2000) for this interview.
Pittman: I love being interviewed.
Yalom: Really? Why?
Pittman: Because I like to get that much attention from somebody,especially somebody who may ask me something that hasn't been asked before,and stimulate some thought.
Yalom: I like to stimulate people.
Yalom: Your book has a bold title. It's called Grow Up! How'd you come up with that title?
Pittman: My first book, Turning Points, was about treating families in transitions and crises. The original title was Shit Happens, and they changed it.
Pittman: My publisher. I wrote another book, about infidelity, entitled Screwing Around, and they changed the title to Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. So I wrote a book about men and masculinity, about fathers and sons and the search for masculinity. And the title was Balls. They changed it to Man Enough. So I figured I could write a book called Grow Up about—really it's about the happiness that comes from joining the adult generation, rather than sticking with the narcissism of being in the child generation, the generation to whom much is owed and who feels picked on allthe time. So I called it Grow Up! I never thought for a moment they'd keep that title, but they did. And then the day the book came out the publisher went bankrupt. And has not been heard from since!
Yalom: So maybe they should have changed that title?
Pittman: Maybe they should have changed the title. The book's doing okay; it's just that the publisher is not. They sold the paperback rights to St.Martin's Press, which is doing pretty well with it.
Yalom: Can you summarize the thesis of Grow Up?
Pittman: ... we've got a society full of good people who somehow get stuck in adolescence.
The thesis is that people who feel like victims (people who feel that they're helpless and they need other people to do for them) are not going to be as happy as people who see themselves as competent adults. And we've got a society full of good people who somehow get stuck in adolescence. And I think we have that because we haven't really seen much in the way of adults making marriages work, making life work. Kids instead grow up seeing adults complaining because the adults aren't children. So the children can fight like hell to make sure they don't have to become adults.
Yalom: What do you mean, "adults aren't children?"
Pittman: People wear baseball caps now, trying to look as if they're 12-year old children, so nobody will expect them to be grown up. We've got a world full of people who are trying to do that because they're terrified of moving into adulthood.
These adults are behaving like children. They screw around on their marriage, they pout, they refuse to parent their children and instead complain to their children because the children aren't performing better for the glory of the parent. We've got a society in which adulthood is not valued. And as a result, we wind up with very unhappy people. See, if you find yourself in the child generation, you really have a choice: you can declare whether you're going to be an adult or a child. You know you're declaring that you're going to be a child when you go around blaming your life choices on your parents, when you go around avoiding getting stuck in adult positions, getting stuck in adult jobs, adult professions, and try to maintain the child's position. You're being a child if you go around trying to get everyone to see you as a child, by dressing yourself up as a child. People wear baseball caps now, trying to look as if they're 12-year old children, so nobody will expect them to be grown up. We've got a world full of people who are trying to do that because they're terrified of moving into adulthood. And what they don't realize is that if they felt empowered enough to be adults, their ability to achieve happiness would be enormously enhanced.
Yalom: I've been struck by your bold and repeated use of the word "happy." In fact, the subtitle of your book is How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult. People don't talk much about the actuality, or even the possibility, of being happy.
Pittman: There's this great belief that if you are not getting everything your heart desires, you will be miserable. This is a dangerous belief. The failure to be blessed with a life that is a constant state of ecstatic wonder becomes a psychiatric emergency.
They don't talk about being happy. What they talk about is not being happy. What they talk about is that if they don't get their heart's desire, they will surely be miserable. If they're not so crazily in love—with their job, with their wife, with their child—that they just perform their responsibilities automatically, out of overwhelming passion, then they will surely be miserable. There's this great belief that if you are not getting everything your heart desires, you will be miserable. This is a dangerous belief. The failure to be blessed with a life that is a constant state of ecstatic wonder becomes a psychiatric emergency. All the mental health people jump in and say, "Oh, my God. They're not happy. Call the fire department. Maybe these people shouldn't have gotten married. Sorry about the six kids and all. But maybe they shouldn't have gotten married. Maybe we'll have to get them divorced so maybe they can be happy with the 2nd, the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th, or the 6th husband or wife." I look at these people who aremiserable in their marriages and their lives, and I think, I have the responsibility to them, to make them aware that they have the capacity to bring about their adult selves—that they have aresponsibility to their children that's going to affect the second half oftheir life enormously if they don't fulfill it. Maybe I've got aresponsibility to the two other people that these folks would marry next if they don't learn how to be married the first time around.
Yalom: You have previously mentioned your marriage as being a big source of happiness for you.
Pittman: It's been a big source of reality for me. Some days it's kind of irritating. There's a wonderful line at the end of American Beauty when Kevin Spacey has been shot, is dying. His wife has been messing around on him, can't stand him. He's looking at the pictures of his family as he dies. He says it's all coming to him, as if all of it's happening at the same time. "And the only thing we can feel is grateful." Now, to have somebody who's willing to put up with you for forty years, to have somebody who knows you? It makes you so appreciative. Somebody else may have a better turned elbow, cuter toes, or something like that. Somebody else might tell jokes better or cook better or do better carpentry, or some such thing. But that seems so unimportant compared with having somebody really care about you. Somebody who knows you.
James Dean and Modern Malaise
Yalom: How did you personally come into adulthood. When did you grow up? And what helped you to grow up?
Pittman: I grew up in the 1950s. At that time, adulthood was popular. We aspired to it. It was the pre-James Dean era. See, in 1955, James Dean came along. Elvis Presley came in the same year. But James Dean appeared in three movies, in all of which he sat around and whimpered and suffered because his father, or father-figure, was not loving him enough. And then he sullenly collapsed on some woman, taking like a child and giving nothing back. We are proud to offer over 80 psychotherapy DVDs
Yalom: For the benefit of those of us in the next generation trying to grow up, could you remind us what these three movies are?
Pittman: The first was East of Eden, then Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. The plot was the same in all three of them. The guy who could not grow up because he had not received his father's approval, and trying to geta woman to take care of him. These were the children of what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation," the generation that fought World War II. The men were the heroes that saved the world. All they had to do was risk their lives. They came back home to be worshipped by women and be taken care of and granted all manner of privileges. Only their sons didn't want to go risk their lives. They didn't want to run the risk of dying.
Yalom: You're talking about Vietnam?
Pittman: Well, the world was changing before Vietnam. Remember, there was Korea before Vietnam. The world changed a lot between ?45 and ?68. The boys of that generation were expected to grow up to be little soldiers. And they began to resist that effort. They began to refuse. In many ways this was a good thing; in many other ways, it was a very bad thing. Because while we ended up having a generation that produced social change, we also had a generation that was highly resistant to the idea of growing up.
Yalom: So it's a good thing if growing up doesn't necessarily mean being soldiers and going out to kill people.
Pittman: But growing up does mean that while your feelings are very interesting, they're not the only thing that's going on in the universe today. And however lovely your feelings are, and however fascinating your complicated state of mind, there are things that need to be done. And if you're going to take on a partner, there are responsibilities there. If you're going to have children, there are responsibilities there. And you can't really run out on those responsibilities and maintain much of a senseof honor and integrity. You can't run out on those responsibilities and really grow up in a way that makes you proud of your life's choices in the second half of your life.
Yalom: So I hear you saying that one thing that helped you grow up was the historical times that you lived in. Growing up was expected; it wasn't really a question.
Pittman: I was never given a choice. I went to college in four years. I was not given a choice of taking six or seven or eight years because I wanted to "experience" myself. Nobody in my generation was.
Yalom: But what personally helped you to grow up? To really grow up, not just to fulfill those roles.
Pittman: By the time I was 25, I was a doctor, a husband, and a father. I might very well have wanted to go off to Tahiti and paint. But that just didn't seem like much of an option! If you don't consider it an option, then you don't go through the rest of your life pouting because you didn't get to do it. I mean, at a certain age, I wanted to run off with the circus! At another age, I would have liked to have been a cowboy. By the time I was moving toward adulthood, certainly by the time I got out of college, it became apparent that hey, I've got the abilities that are required to become an adult. If I become an adult, then I will have all of these rights and privileges. I will have honor and integrity, and I will be respected by all sorts of people. There will be all manner of good things that will happen to me.
Who the Hell is Frank Pittman to Tell Me Anything?
Yalom: So you became a psychiatrist, and you noticed that a lot of your patients haven't grown up. They come into your office, and some of them know some things about you and what your values are. I can imagine them are thinking, "Who the hell is Frank Pittman to tell me anything? To tell me how I should grow up?"
Pittman: "What an ass! How dare he tell me anything. He's just like my daddy; he's just like my mamma; he's just like the assistant principal. How can anybody tell me what to do? I want what I want when I want it. I'm not going to grow up and you can't make me!"
Yalom: So whatever they know about you beforehand , probably within the first five minutes that you open your mouth, they're going to get a strong sense of what your values are.
Pittman: Most of my patients have heard about me before they come in.
Yalom: I don't believe in pure therapeutic neutrality per se, but itseems to me that you're on the very opposite end of that spectrum. So if people get such a clear sense of what your values are, how does that impact your work with them?
Pittman: I am empowering. I'm making them aware that they have the power to do things they didn't know they could do. They really do not know that they can act contrary to their emotions. When they feel mad, they react mad. When they feel sad, they act sad. When they feel bored, they act bored. They are not aware that if they behave differently from the way they feel, in some sort of thought-out way, they may very well achieve exactly what they're seeking.
Yalom: According to Frank Pittman?
Pittman: I don't have control over them. I can't make them do what they don't want to do. I can just make them aware that they can do things differently from the way they're doing them.
Yalom: What you bring to the work, your values, your views—it has got to have a big impact on your relationships with your clients. You bring a lot of yourself into the room.
Pittman: A lot of myself is in the whole office. My wife runs the office. Until recently, my daughter was working with us.
Yalom: She's a psychologist?
Pittman: Both of my daughters are psychologists. One of them I write with, and one of them I do therapy with. But when people come in, they really enter my life. Much more than I enter theirs. They're in my space; they're in my milieu. They're experiencing me and how I think and how I evaluate things and how I make decisions.
Yalom: Again, how does that impact the type of therapy you do? Browse our large collection of CE courses
Pittman: They're perfectly capable of saying, "I'm not going to do it and you can't make me." They're perfectly free to not come back. When I make people aware that they don't have to break off contact with their families, they don't have to quit their job, they don't have to leave their marriage, they don't have to put their children up for adoption. That they really could do something different. Despite the fact that they're doing exactlywhat they're feeling, they could do something different that might produce a different outcome. And while I might offer one possibility or two or seventeen possibilities about something they might do differently, they cancome up with a whole lot of possibilities on their own. Many more than I can come up with.
My contribution is my optimism that they have the power to do things differently from the way they have been taught to do things. From the way they have been accustomed to doing things. I see people who areviolent; I see a lot of people who are screwing around; I see people who are kicking and hollering at their kids all the time; I see people who jump from job to job to job, finding something to be displeased with in all ofthem. These people don't have to do that. It's self-defeating for them to do it, and I can make them aware.
Yalom: How do you make them aware? What do you do?
Pittman: Send them to the movies. Send them out reading novels. The novels and the movies are opportunities to examine people making decisions. Feeling what they're feeling, thinking it out, taking action of one sort or another. They get to spend a few hours in somebody else's head, in somebody else's life. I tell them stories. I tell them stories from my own life; I tell them stories from other people's lives. I just go through the process with them of how they make the decisions that they're making. That just because they're mad at somebody doesn't mean they have to hit them. Just because somebody cuts them off in traffic, they don't have to shoot them. They don't have to do just what they feel like doing. If they see somebody who turns them on, they don't have to jump them. If the kids get to them, they don't have to kick them. But there are people who don't know that.
Yalom: You have a love of the movies.
Pittman: I have a love of the movies. I do. I want my myths to come at me bigger than life. I want big myths. I want John Wayne-, Katherine Hepburn-size myths. I have this great love for the movies that I guess comes from growing up in rural Georgia and Alabama and thinking that happiness was elsewhere. That there must be great excitement elsewhere. It took me coming into adulthood to appreciate what we had in those little towns. Because at the time I wanted to get to the big city. I wanted to get to Atlanta.
No Neutralily and No Pussyfooting Around
Yalom: I can imagine someone reading this interview might think, "Frank Pittman's in there kind of sermonizing, telling people what to do," rather than helping people explore and come up with their own solutions. Can you try and give a picture of how you help them reach these decisions?
Pittman: I was looking at a tape I made about ten years ago, interviewing a couple. The man had been screwing around for 20 years. His wife found out about it. And in talking with him about it, he just assumed that all the other men were doing the same sort of thing that he was doing. And the magic moment in all of this was when he said, "I must have been the only man who was feeling what I was feeling." I said, "No, no. I think we all feel that way. I think we all enjoy looking. But it feels safer if you know you're not going to act on it. What did you think everybody else was doing?" He said, "I thought everybody else was messing around just the way I was." I said, "No. Some people were and some people weren't and things generally went better for the ones who weren't."
Now, I'm not shoving anything down his throat. If you're being honest with your partner, then you have this magical thing of knowing that there's somebody who knows you, warts and all, who knows you in all your foolishness, and puts up with you anyway. And there can be no more wonderful feeling in life than that. Whereas, if somebody thinks you're perfect and you've faked them out into thinking that, the fact that that person loves you doesn't mean shit. Because they don't know you.
Yalom: If you don't mind, I'd like to back up and get a sense of how you evolved into the kind of active, perhaps moralistic kind of therapist that you are.
Pittman: They were never able to convince me that I was supposed to sit there like a stuffed teddy bear after a stroke and pretend not to understand anything that was going on and not have any thoughts about it. Well, unfortunately I didn't get trained very well in psychiatric residency. They were never able to convince me that I was supposed to sit there like a stuffed teddy bear after a stroke and pretend not to understand anything that was going on and not have any thoughts about it. So I got involved in working with families. I grew up in a family where everything, all explanations, were 3-generational. Everything was connected with Grandma. That was my growing up in Alabama and Georgia. They brought Nathan Ackerman and Margaret Mead and whoever I needed to teach me.
Yalom: Who's "they"?
Pittman: ... we were going through a period of assuming that what therapists did was being neutral and assuring everybody that whatever damn fool thing they wanted to do was perfectly okay.
The Department of Psychiatry at Emory. They were just getting started; they had lots of money and very few residents. It was wonderful. A great experience. It's just that they didn't teach me how to be psychoanalytic. I became a family therapist instead. I hooked up with some people who had gotten a grant from NIMH, and went out to Denver and spent four years researching community mental health, learning how to keep people out of psychiatric hospitals by doing family therapy at home. It worked well, we got great results, we won awards--it was all fabulous. I became head of psychiatry at the local, great big charity hospital back in Atlanta, and was teaching at Emory. I did that for about four years and then went into private practice.
Finally I decided to write the book about family crises. The first step in writing the book about family crises was to write a chapter on infidelity, because that was the major crisis that was coming to my attention. In my family, people didn't screw around. The ones who did, we talked about it. We used them as object lessons. So I had a pretty clear idea that this was irregular behavior. People had agreed not to do that and they were doing it, and sure enough all hell was breaking loose. Sometimes all hell was breaking loose in that they were people mad, and sometimes they had even bigger problems: they were falling in love with the people they screwed around with! God knows, this is the road to unhappiness and instability. So I wrote this book about family crises, including the chapter about infidelity. The publisher said, "You can't write about infidelity; that's a moral issue." It's like, "Here, I'll show you all these wonderful textbooks on marriage that go on for 400, 800 pages without ever mentioning infidelity. You can do that, if you set your mind to it."
So I took it to another publisher. Then I wrote Private Lies, the one on infidelity, which was more or less for a popular audience. I had written Turning Points,the first one, the one on family crisis, with the idea that therapists could give it to their patients. I wrote Private Lies with the idea that patients would bring this to their therapists.
Pittman: Because we were going through a period of assuming that what therapists did was being neutral and assuring everybody that whatever damn fool thing they wanted to do was perfectly okay. That they didn't have to give any thought to the impact of their actions on anybody else.
Yalom: You tend to make (in your books and right now) some pretty strong and provocative generalizations about all sorts of people, including therapists.
Pittman: Well, pussyfooting around is time-consuming.
Yalom: I think a lot of therapists reading this interview are going to think, "Hey, I don't do that!"
Pittman: Good for them! If they don't do that, then they should send me their card and I'll send them referrals. If they are willing to take strong values, if they are willing to use their experience as therapists to mold their own values, to make sense out of life, to make sense out of the human condition and how to live it and how to make it work, then they're developing wisdom. And if they're developing wisdom by really challenging the cultural norms, challenging the social customs, and trying to figure out how things connect with one another, what actions will cause what reactions, then they're going to get wise. I've noticed that therapists who have been practicing for 10 or 15 years get over their fear of hurting people. And they begin to realize that this is a human encounter between them and somebody else. And if they can convey their experience of life, their experience of the sort of dilemmas, the sort of life stages that their patients are going through, as well as hearing what their patients have to say, then it's a collaborative effort for coming to an understanding of life.
Yalom: It's great when that happens.
Pittman: It's marvelous. And if therapists are being honest, rather than being neutral, if they're really having fun, if they're finding the humor in the human condition, then therapists can help people go from the tragic position that their feelings must be all determining, to the comic position of believing that their survival is crucial. If we can get people to change in order to protect themselves from the certain disaster that will come from continuing the patterns that they're in, it becomes a dance that is marvelously celebratory. Therapy must be fun. If it's not fun, you're not doing it right.
Yalom: It's not always fun.
Pittman: Sometimes people have to go through periods of convincing you that they feel bad. Once you can convince them that you are convinced that they feel bad, then you can start talking about life and about how to make choices and what to do about the fact that they're feeling bad. What sort of action they can take, what sort of choices they can make, what sort of things they can do that can enable them to live with themselves despite the fact that their life isn't perfect, that the world isn't perfect, and they're feeling something they don't want to feel.
Therapy is No Place for Handholding
Yalom: You are quite critical of traditional therapists - that they are hand-holders and don't take tough positions.
Pittman: I think we went through a period in which this passive, neutral approach was encouraged. My experience is that the longer therapists practice, the more comfortable they get as therapists, the less likely they are to be neutral. The less likely therapists are to be hand-holders, and the more likely they are to make this a human encounter between more or less equals, or at least equal in the sense that we're all mortal and we're all idiots and none of us is quite what we'd like to be.
Yalom: How long have you been practicing as a therapist? We have sound filters
Pittman: Forty years. I started my psychiatric residency forty years ago.
Yalom: You said a few minutes ago that you think it takes 10-15 years for a therapist to come into their own, to not be afraid.
Pittman: It takes 10-15 years to reach the point that they are not thinking of people in terms of their pathology. And they're not being protective of people, trying to keep them from living their lives.
Yalom: They're going to lead their lives anyway.
Pittman: Coming to the rescue is not what makes them therapeutic. It's the human encounter. It's the exploration of the movies and the novels and the life going on, the history going on. That's what's empowering.
Yalom: But you've got to find their language. You may love movies; that may be a great medium for you, so you'd love to send your clients out to see movies, but they may need something very different.
Pittman: I have clients who bring me rap music that expresses what they feel. Country music, with all those lessons in low rent reality, is full of wisdom, and opera, with all those out of shape, not very bright characters feeling everything so desperately, is full of bad examples of crisis management. I love it.
Yalom: So you put on the rap CD in your office and listen to it?
Pittman: I have dutifully listened to a whole lot of very bad music that sounds like industrial noise to me, but tells me what they feel—and what it must sound like to filter reality through their brains. But in my office I generally keep Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven playing. It keeps my brain organized, it keeps me at peace. It makes me smart.
Yalom: So, I'm in the 10-15 year category. You're in the 40 year category. What would you want to tell people like me and my colleagues about what you've learned?
Pittman: Read novels, go to movies, and normalize what you're seeing in your office. Turn it into the human condition. Turn the crises of life into stages of development.
Yalom: You talked about the old generation of men: that you had to fit into certain roles.
Pittman: I don't know if I had to. I had the opportunity to.
Yalom: But there weren't a lot of choices in that regard.
Yalom: So now we do live in a different world. And you're saying, "There's some great value in these obligations. These expectations that you'll grow up and be a man, and a woman, and accept that responsibility."
Pittman: The beauty of it is that it's now possible. Because we've largely done away with gender. Gender no longer has to be determining. That helps enormously.
Yalom: I think we also have a greater opportunity that we can do that: that we can be men and women and yet have a much fuller, broader definition of what masculinity or femininity is.
Pittman: Life is fun, therapy is fun! But only if you're not feeling like a victim.
What people don't understand—and this is the reason I keep talking about it—is how much happier they'd become if they'd accept the responsibility for the give and take of their relationships. If they accept the responsibility for parenting or marriage or careers or their social responsibilities— picking up the trash on the highway, or whatever it is. If they see that they're privileged to live with these people who are willing to put up with them, they're privileged to live in this society, on this planet and that they owe something back, they'll end up feeling very good about themselves.
Yalom: That sounds like a good place for us to stop.
Copyright © 2001 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published June 2001.
About Frank Pittman, MD
Frank Pittman, M.D. is the author of Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult (1999), Private Lies: Infidelity and Betrayal of Intimacy (1990) and Turning Points, a book about treating families in transitions and crises.
About the Interviewer:
Victor Yalom, PhD
Victor Yalom is a psychologist, group & couples therapist, and cartoonist in San Francisco, as well as founder & president of Psychotherapy.net. Source
Estranged adult children
Retrieved from nytimes.com on Feb 3rd 2011 for readers in remote Canada and Australia.
Parent & Child By LAWRENCE KUTNER Published: March 01, 1990
''I HAVEN'T spoken to my parents in eight years,'' said Nancy S., who is 31 years old and lives with her husband and daughter in a suburb of Minneapolis.
''I was very close to them when I was growing up, but they just can't accept me as an adult,'' said Nancy, who asked that her full name not be used.
Nancy's unwillingness to be identified reflects the expectations that people have for parent-child relationships in adulthood. People who might speak freely and without embarrassment about their divorces, for example, worry what others will think of them if they say they are estranged from their parents or from their adult children.
It seems unnatural for a relationship that is expected to be lifelong to turn sour. It is often viewed as a failure by the people it happens to, and they wonder if they are the ones who have failed. Nancy frequently says that she is ''a good person,'' as if her relationship with her parents called that into question.
Mary W., also of suburban Minneapolis, and her husband have been estranged from his 20-year-old son for three and a half years. ''Other parents don't understand it at all,'' said Mary, who also asked that she not be fully identified. Although her stepson reluctantly agreed to accompany Mary and his father to a family therapy session, he refused to speak and sometimes threw tantrums, she said.
''Outsiders blame us,'' Mary said. ''Even other people in our family blame us. The psychologist we've seen for the past five years says that our son needs time to grow out of this. I honestly don't think that will happen.''
Dr. Bonnie J. Kin, a clinical psychologist, said that ''estrangements are much more common than most people realize.''
''I've seen a lot of people who've been estranged from their parents for more than five years,'' said Dr. Kin, who is also an associate professor of psychology at California State College in Dominguez Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. ''They wonder if there's something wrong with them because they don't have that close attachment. A lot of people just don't talk about it.''
There are many reasons for severing the relationship, including physical or emotional abuse, an upsetting divorce or marriage, or a difference over fundamental values or religion. Nancy's family reflects the reason that researchers say is most common.
''This comes up when families try to shift their relationship from adult-child to adult-adult,'' said Dr. Jill S. Grigsby, an associate professor of sociology at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who studies relations between young adults and their parents in several cultures.
For some families, the clashes that parents and their children have when they share a house as adults disappear when they live independently. For others, the old roles and perceptions are more firmly fixed and do not change.
Nancy said she felt the first tremors of a family breakup about a decade ago when she announced her wedding plans. Her parents had trouble accepting her adult roles as wife and mother.
''They don't like my husband, and they still spend time with my old boyfriend,'' she said. ''It's difficult for them not to think of me as a kid. When I got married, it was as if they'd lost their baby.''
Both she and her husband get along well with his parents, as does their 8-year-old daughter. ''She's never really known my parents,'' Nancy said. ''She doesn't ask about them.'' The barrier between grandchildren and grandparents that comes with such estrangements worries some psychologists. They say parents should pay close attention to the messages they are sending their own children.
''Grandchildren learn how to treat their parents by the ways in which they see their parents treat the grandparents,'' said Dr. Matti Gershenfeld, an adjunct professor of psychoeducational processes at Temple University in Philadelphia. She also teaches workshops on being an adult child and being the parent of an adult.
''If you're estranged from your parents, the odds are your children will become estranged from you once they become adults,'' Dr. Gershenfeld said. ''That's the model they're learning.''
Nancy has resigned herself to limiting her communication with her parents to little more than an annual Christmas card.
''It's become easier as time has passed,'' she said. ''Life's too short to be sad or angry all the time.''
The Ties That Keep On Binding
PSYCHOTHERAPISTS readily admit that not all estrangements between adult children and their parents can or should be patched up. But many effects of severing the relationship are not always obvious.
The relationship will continue in some form, even after the rift.
''You can only be physically estranged from your parents; you can't feel psychologically free from them,'' said Dr. Eleanor Mallach Bromberg, an associate professor in the school of social work at Hunter College in Manhattan.
''We battle with them in our minds even after they're dead,'' Dr. Bromberg said. ''That's the paradox for these people. They spend so much of their time avoiding things that remind them of their parents that they become even more involved psychologically with their parents.''
The split may have an effect on grandchildren.
Children who have no relationship with either set of grandparents not only may have more difficulties in later relationships with their parents, but may also lack self-esteem.
Dr. M. Duncan Stanton, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester, cited a study of adolescents and drug abuse. ''Those most at risk often had little sense of their family history,'' he said. ''Even who their grandparents were.''
If you do decide to rebuild the relationship, recognize that it will probably take a few tries.
''Issues of pride are often involved,'' Dr. Stanton said. ''Relatively minor or petty issues may have gotten out of control.'' He recommended asking other family members for support in making the changes. ''The more people who are involved, the better it's going to be,'' he said.
Respect each other as adults.
This is especially important if adult children feel they are being treated like teen-agers. One man felt that the last straw was when his mother came to his home and rearranged the things in his refrigerator, said Dr. Matti Gershenfeld, a psychologist at Temple University and the president of the Couples Learning Center in Jenkintown, Pa., outside Philadelphia.
''I told the mother to treat her son as if he were her next-door neighbor's son,'' Dr. Gershenfeld said. ''After all, you wouldn't go into that person's house and rearrange the refrigerator.'' Source
Guidelines for Clearing the Air by Joshua Coleman
To the adult child
Here are some suggestions for talking with your parents about incidents that have hurt or angered you. Be aware that expressing your feelings, even in the most expert manner, is not a guarantee of a positive outcome and should only be attempted when you feel emotionally ready. Communicating in this manner, however, may help you discover whether a relationship is ready to move toward reconciliation.
1. Pick a time and place that feels comfortable to you where you can talk without interruption.
2. Tell your parent(s) what you would like from the conversation: ``I would like to tell you some feelings I have,'' or ``I just want you to try to listen and not respond.''
3. If possible, begin the conversation with something you like or admire about your parent to show that your goal isn't to humiliate them: ``I know that you really care about me . . .'' or ``I know you worked hard to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. I really appreciate that . . .''
4. Put your feelings into nonblaming language: ``I still feel very hurt for all of those years when you were physical with me. It really made me feel like I was a bad person,'' or ``When you talk to me in that tone of voice, it makes me feel terrible.''
5. Assume that your parents have positive intentions: "I know you wouldn't want me to feel this bad and that you care about our relationship,'' or "I know you probably want to work as hard as I do to make our relationship better than it's been,'' or "I understand that you might not have known how bad that felt to me.''
6. Say what you need in order to go forward: "I just need to hear you say that you're sorry for those years,'' or "I want you to call me more,'' or "I just need you to hear how bad that made me feel.''
To the parent
1. Realize that your adult child is raising these issues as a way to be closer to you, even if they are being expressed in a way that's difficult to hear.
2. If you find yourself feeling too upset or defensive to listen, tell them that in a gentle way: ``I know what you're telling me is really important and I'm glad you came to me with it. It is hard for me to hear and I think I'll be able to digest it better if I could first read it in a letter. I promise I'll call you so we can talk about it. I hope that feels OK.''
3. Validate their reality as much as you can, even if there's only a small part you agree with: ``Yeah, I can be really impatient. I can see how that could have come across as uncaring.'' If you're unable to agree with anything that's being said, empathize with their feelings without telling them they're wrong: ``I'm so sorry it came across that way. The last thing I wanted was for you to feel like I didn't love you. That must have been awful for you.''
4. Don't sugarcoat it if you blew it as a parent. The more honest you are, the more credibility you will gain to repair the damage: ``What you're saying is true. I wasn't there for you as a parent. I was too caught up in my work and my drinking, and you suffered because of it. I can't ever give you back those years and I feel terrible about that. I am committed to doing everything I can to make it up to you, if you'll let me.''
5. Take the initiative for talking again within a short period of time. ``I wanted to check in to see how you felt about our talk last week. I really appreciate that you told me what you'd been feeling. Have you had other thoughts about it?'' This may need to be an ongoing dialogue for a long time in order for change and healing to occur. Don't avoid revisiting it because it's painful territory. Show that you want to keep talking about it until there's resolution. If there is no resolution, make it clear that you value your child's attempt to bring the issues to the table and that you're open to talking about them more in the future.
You can learn more about these issues and strategies in my new book, WHEN PARENTS HURT: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along. Source
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