Parents should admit their failings to adult children

Sometimes individual adults seek depth therapy. Though not in every case, it’s common for individual therapy to include an examination of childhood history. This means an honest inventory of what went right and what went wrong in relationship with Mother and Father. New appreciations emerge, as do deep, long-smoldering resentments.

It’s liberating for people to see their parents as they really are. Patients embrace a powerful pride in that part of the family legacy that is health, respect and honor. Patients set themselves free as they, perhaps for the first time, allow themselves to admit those actions of their mothers and fathers that were incompetent, thoughtless, cruel and, in thankfully rare cases, wicked.

On the way to freedom are often tears. Trembling outrage. Numbing incredulity. Like waking from a dream state. Like suddenly discovering one has been the butt of a practical joke for the past 20 years. Like casting off the spell of some enchantment. “I did not deserve to be (humiliated, neglected, abused, ignored, degraded, disrespected, exploited),” a patient will hiss through clenched teeth. “That was wrong!”

Often, then, the patient will get The Bright Idea. He/she will declare an intention to leave the session, go home and call the offending parent. With the newfound self-respect and righteous claim of anger, the patient now wants to call the parent to account. Confront the parent.

And whenever I hear The Bright Idea, I always have the same response:

“Great idea,” I say, my voice thick with affirmation and advocacy. “Why don’t we talk about that … for the next two or three … or 18 sessions.”

Why would I put them off? Why would I bridle at such an obviously righteous cause?

Because I don’t want my patient to get hurt, that’s why. And in the significant majority of cases when an adult asks, years later, for an audience of empathy and accountability from a mother or father, the patient just gets hurt again.

“It was wrong for you to humiliate me that day at the circus,” says the adult child.

“Circus? What circus?” says the parent. Or, “You still upset about that?” Or, “Get over it, sheesh.” Or, “Well, if I’ve done anything to upset you, then, sorry.” Or, “I did the best I could.” Or, “At least you knew I always loved you.”

Discount. Dodge. Dismiss. Defend. Explain. Justify. Obfuscate. Can’t remember. It is a rare, rare parent who can open his/her heart to an adult child and say: “I did that. The way I treated you was not OK. You deserved more. Deserved better. That was about me, not about you. I’m sorry, and I hope you can forgive me.”

Most parents can’t be accountable. Or won’t be. Which is why Jim is my hero.

Who’s Jim? He’s Cathy’s father. Who’s Cathy? I wrote about her last Sunday, a once deeply troubled, self-destructive teen who made it. A few weeks ago, she was graduated healthy and whole from a residential adolescent treatment program.

Her father spoke at her graduation. He was nervous. Not a polished public speaker, but it didn’t matter. Because he stood up in front of 100 people and set his daughter free. He accounted. He looked down from the podium to his daughter in the front row and said: “Cathy, when I got here they told me we don’t fix kids; we fix families. I didn’t understand at first, but now I do. I didn’t know how to talk. I didn’t know how to feel.”

And then he said it.

“I’m one of the biggest reasons you had to be here at all.”

The ceremony ended. Hugs and celebration all around. I saw the sweat on Jim’s head. He looked chalky. Parasympathetic reaction, I thought. That speech would have taken a lot out of anyone.

But I was wrong. Because Jim went back to his hotel room and had a massive heart attack. A few days later he was dead. Incredible. It’s like sci-fi. Cathy and her mom are reeling.

But he set her free. Before he left the planet, Jim set his daughter free. He owned his own patootie, as it were. Stood by his own life and his own choices. Which means that Cathy doesn’t have to spend another moment being responsible for her father’s life and choices.

She has to manage only her own life. Which, for most of us, is plenty to do.

Are you still breathing? Then you still have time to set your children free. Account. Unburden them. Tell the truth. Humble yourself.

You’ll be freer, too.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@review journal.com.

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