Adult children who hate parents: The ties that bind
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Thirty years ago, my mother’s sudden death left my father in a state of flux. When he moved to a smaller apartment, he asked what furniture we kids might want. Without thinking, I said, “Mom’s China cabinet.” I didn’t really have space for the walnut cabinet with its leaded-glass doors, yet something compelled me. We’d find a spot.
On the day we set it up, I remember feeling sick—and years later, I wished I’d never taken it. The China cabinet had become a dumping ground. The drawers were packed with odds and ends. The shelves behind the ornate glass doors were cluttered with seldom-used dishes. And the lower storage areas behind carved doors with decorative brass pulls bowed with items that had seen their day: A tough-to-clean waffle iron like the one my mother had cherished, a countertop quesadilla maker, and beautiful casserole dishes with insulated carry bags ready for potluck parties that, after my mother died, had dwindled to rare events.
I didn’t need or want the cabinet that neither fit my taste nor décor. Yet, the thought of selling or giving it away made my gut tighten and my chest constrict. I shifted it to another wall—where it sat for another five or six years.
At one point, I sat down to explore my compulsion and remembered my mother’s brown eyes softening with joy as she chose that cabinet from a furniture maker’s catalog. I was five or six at the time, and in those days, fine furnishings were still crafted to order in the United States. My mother had pointed to the picture with dreamy excitement. The stately cupboard would stand in the dining room of her first owned home—a roomy four-bedroom bought while still under construction. My father had done well for himself. With the high school diploma he had recently earned in night classes, a strategic mind, and a hefty dose of Southern-boy charm propped up by ambition, he had risen from maintenance man to executive and was appointed President of a large company. My parents’ dreams were coming true.
Home, family, security
That year, as the home we frequently drove by grew from bare studs to suburbs glory, my mom talked about having dinner ready when my dad would arrive, like clockwork, each night. In the picture she painted, we all sat down to eat the meals she’d lovingly prepared in her kitchen with its new, efficient appliances. Afterward, she’d do dishes while gazing through the over-sink window at her planned rose garden.
My mom kept the glossy furniture catalog open to that China cupboard. She would dream out loud of the dishes she’d trade for Blue Chip stamps to fill it. That China cupboard was just a piece of furniture, but it embodied a bigger ideal. Mom envisioned a home and security for us children that sharply contrasted with the rare bits she shared about her own fragmented childhood.
We were happy at first. We took family vacations to Yellowstone National Park and owned a boat one summer. But my dad’s success brought new demands and attitudes. He became involved with people and activities that drew him away. He was frequently out of town, and my mom cried a lot.
Even the neighborhood wasn’t all they’d expected. There were troubles there. Strange neighbors and happenings.
One night when my dad was away, my mother received a threatening phone call, and the wire to our lamp post at the corner of our lawn was dug up and cut. We kids were awakened to an atmosphere of fear and swept off to a hotel room. The next day, we boarded an airplane to another city to spend the summer with relatives. My family never returned to the dream home my parents then sold. We returned to renting, and we frequently moved. My dad’s career took a dive and my mom worked nights to make ends meet.
Reflecting on my mother’s shattered dreams and early death shined a light on my compulsion. Holding onto her China cabinet was a way to honor her dreams. A demonstration of loyalty to the mother I had so loved.
This realization came as a surprise. After her death, I had done a lot of work around wellness and following my own dreams. I talk a bit about that in my book, Done With The Crying (2016). The truth is many of us carry unconscious loyalty to people we have loved. Sometimes an object such as my mother’s China cabinet embodies their ideals or dreams. I was able to keep that China cabinet all those years, in my own “dream home” where I lived for more than three decades and raised my kids. Despite times of hardship, I fulfilled my mother’s dream—even while pursuing some of my own.
Loyalties? Or binding chains?
In my work with life coaching clients, we sometimes uncover unconscious loyalties that limit choices and hold people back. What shows up as an impulse buy of heavy, ceramic-clad kitchen pots in the brand your mom always loved may be tied to beliefs about a mother’s role, unconditional love, or the threat to one’s identity triggered by an abusive, rejecting adult child. Often, the body provides a clue. A gut feeling, nausea or tightness. A lump in the throat, a headache, or a constricted chest.
How do you feel about your teapot collection that started with the one your mom gave you when you got married? Maybe your now-estranged adult child added pots to the collection over the years. So, donating the pretty pieces you no longer have room for feels like dishonoring your mom—and giving up hope about your relationship with your child.
Sometimes, people unwittingly live out loyalty that limits their ability to earn—or keep—money. Gaining income triggers negative but unconscious beliefs about “rich” people, or goes against a family’s beliefs about who they are in the world. Ideals about being givers (not greedy), that “Murphy’s Law” (the idea that if something bad can happen it will), or that money is the root of evil (which is not what the Bible actually says) can wreak havoc, like an unseen and unconscious wrecking ball.
One of my clients, Suzanne, stored her immigrant parents’ bedroom furniture for decades, to the tune of thousands of dollars spent, because dumping the furniture felt like dumping them. They worked multiple service jobs and bought the bed set after becoming proud U.S. citizens and buying a modest home. Her parents worked their entire lives to give her a better life. They sold the home to keep her in graduate school, and they both died soon after her graduation.
Despite her advanced degrees, Suzanne worked at low-paying jobs and lived in rented rooms for most of her life. At age 59, she identified her inherited pattern of always striving. Keeping her parents’ bed set long after their deaths represented a form of loyalty that matched their devotion to her. Holding onto the furniture cost her money, freedom, and time. When she finally donated everything, turned in the storage unit keys, and said good-bye to the monthly bill, she secured a well-paying job, and eventually retired with a small nest egg in a home of her own.
Conditioning around money and success are frequently tied to inherited and limiting beliefs, or even to fears around who you might become. One father who, as a teenager, tagged along with elders of the Mormon Church to collect the tithing from struggling families, developed negative feelings about power related to money. He recalls people in poor circumstances jiggling coins from jars to give—and he vowed never to be like those elders. This father has given far more than his due to people he encountered his entire life—including adult children.
Wounds or excuses?
Today, I often see the concepts of limiting beliefs or unconscious loyalty being tied to labels such as the “mother wound.” The idea is that, as an adult, you’re carrying unconscious wounds from a mother who withheld approval or love. That wound, the theory reports, keeps you bound to old ideas of service and striving for mother’s love that can hold you back today. I don’t intend to minimize the pain of anyone for whom that’s true. However, in a society that enables victimhood and is all too ready to blame parents or even an entire generation for just about any weakness, failure, or unhappiness, labels such as “mother wound” demand caution and analysis.
In the past, children were taught the Biblical commandment to honor their parents. Even without the religious tie-in, a great many adult children still follow this ideal. However, the opposite exists.
Adult children who hate their parents: Do you owe them?
When I was a kid, preparing for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was a big deal in school. Teachers valued the idea of honoring parents. As children shaped crepe paper rose bouquets or made plaster of Paris paperweights, we were reminded that our parents gave us life. For this fact alone, we were taught to be grateful. Life was precious, and we were to work hard, be kind, and do good things with the life we were gifted with. Contrast that idea with emails I frequently receive from adult children who hate their parents. Some rant about parents who owe them. “They chose to give birth,” is the argument I hear. “They owe me everything. Forever.”
“I didn’t ask to be born,” is the reasoning used to validate the hate spewed toward parents minimized to the labels of “egg-” or “sperm-donor.” These adult children who hate parents are not grateful for life. The belief is that they are owed for their parents’ choice. If their parents weren’t ready to sacrifice everything for the child, even into middle age or beyond, they should have chosen to abort. In other words, they’d rather not exist than exist without parents who can afford to serve them, agree with their opinions, and do what they’re told.
I know this is difficult for some to read. It’s difficult for me to fathom, too. But reality has a way of waking people up. Not “woke” as our culture currently packages trendy ideas to make them sound good, but awake, as in aware of reality. Not all adult children who reject parents or go no-contact are this extreme. Yours may not be so callous. It’s also possible you’re not facing the truth. You decide.
Regardless, we can still “love” adult children who reject us. They are, at least in part, a product of modern culture with its me-first and victim mentalities. But we don’t have to buy into their blame, entitlement, or abuse. We can reflect upon and recognize where our own limitations, perhaps in the form of unconscious beliefs about unconditional love or family devotion, or fears about being alone, set us up for more hurt. We don’t have to accept the ideas of a society that excuses bad behavior. We can open our eyes and see clearly. We can “love” our adult children from a distance, hope and pray for change that will benefit them (even when we no longer want to reconcile), but disavow what isn’t ours to take on as blame or that hurts us.
We can recognize our loyalty to a mother whose broken dreams are embodied in a piece of furniture we don’t need or want. We can realize that an impulse to buy heavy pots in a brand our mother admired is triggered by a threat to our identity caused by an abusive adult child. Or even that we’ve given far more than our due because of old vows equating positions of power to taking money from the poor (and giving to others, including entitled adult children).
What loyalty are you holding?
I think my mother would have been glad that, despite one son’s rejection, estrangement, and other hardships over the years (we all have rough times), I’ve managed to find joy and live a mostly fulfilling life that honored her values. She wouldn’t have wanted me to hang onto her China cupboard in an act of misplaced loyalty that reminded me of her heartache. When a younger relative expressed an interest, I happily (finally!) passed the cupboard along where it was wanted. This much younger relative doesn’t have the history of my mother’s broken dreams—and she’s making the China cupboard part of her own loving family, security, and home. My mom would have liked that, too.
The science of genetics is growing ever brighter, tying one’s emotions to those of ancestors, and connecting the turning off or on of one’s genes to ideals and activities a person is exposed to. I talk about this some in my 2022 book, Beyond Done With The Crying. You can read in the book about the possibility of unconscious pursuits rejecting adult children may be playing out.
These ideas about genetics segue into unconscious patterns of behavior like the “always striving” and “giver” mentalities of the parents mentioned earlier. And even my “home, family, and security” conditioning, which, although a worthy pursuit, can have a shadowy side. In my case, my compulsion around the China cabinet was strengthened by negative history including my mother’s sudden death and my memories of her joy, dashed in the neighborhood where her dreams were shattered.
Who or what are you loyal to?
Adult children who hate parents leave human wreckage in their wake. Traumatic experiences that can influence parents who may cling to values that, although decent, loving, and right, end up hurting them and holding them back. Unfortunately, there are many voices out there that keep parents stuck, always striving to prove themselves as good parents (as discussed in my April 17, 2023 YouTube video here).
Have you been rejected? Perhaps you’ve been dehumanized by terms such as “egg-” or “sperm-donor.” Or, you’ve been assigned labels such as “toxic” and “narcissist,” which are often the projections of adult children who hate parents—and perhaps also those of irresponsible therapists who encourage them to blame the parents who gave them life (as was discussed in this article). Is it time to awaken to reality?
This article intends to prompt you to look at your own patterns, limitations, or loyalty expressed in unconscious ways. Are you holding onto things, beliefs, or pursuits that no longer serve you? Even the noblest of values can have a downside when taken to extremes or affixed to compulsions or fears that make no sense without reflection and insight. Are you caught in an unhealthy pattern of giving, clinging, or self-sabotage? Consider life coaching with me to identify where to break free, And, to help other parents, share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.
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