Why forgive?

parents of estranged adult childrenParents of estranged adult children wonder: Should I forgive?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, I share the story of Doreen, whose son no longer wants a relationship with her.

Doreen asked, “Why should I forgive my son? He hasn’t apologized. And he’s not making any effort to reconcile.”

Another mom explained her thoughts this way: “Forgiveness comes when the person wants to make things right. My estranged daughter doesn’t.”

So, what does it mean to forgive? And if you are the parent of an estranged adult child who is or isn’t sorry, should you forgive? Or will it only open you to hurt?

Forgiveness can mean many things to many people. For some, forgiveness holds deeply spiritual roots, and perhaps implies a divine sense of the word that completely erases past errors. Therefore, forgiving someone who has hurt us deeply may seem impossible, or even wrong – – particularly if the person hasn’t apologized or changed. Some parents of estranged adult children may wonder if it’s right to pardon error when someone doesn’t repent.

For others, substituting another phrase such as “letting go,” in place of “forgiveness” more accurately expresses the idea. The intent has less to do with the person who has wronged us, and is more focused on dropping unhealthy responses that can hold us back. Whatever your thoughts on forgiveness, read on for more discussion and why forgiveness may be helpful to you.

Forgive and forget?

For many, the saying, “forgive and forget,” comes to mind, but forgiveness doesn’t always require forgetting.

If we’re lied to, stolen from, treated with indifference, subjected to angry outbursts, or in some other way hurt, forgetting the past and letting our guard down completely is probably not the wisest course. That sort of forgiveness may come across as an invitation: “I’m a doormat. Walk on me!”

Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me.

Forgetting bad behavior can make us vulnerable. If a dog bites us, we’ll be wary of that dog in the future. That doesn’t mean the dog will definitely bite us again, but expecting that it won’t isn’t logical.

Forgiveness also doesn’t erase the consequences of bad behavior. A crime victim may “forgive” their assailant, but that doesn’t mean the jail sentence is automatically lessened – – even if the perpetrator admits wrongdoing and promises to change.

An excessive gambler may stop betting, but havoc wreaked on finances doesn’t disappear with a changed mind. If a person borrows money and never pays it back, their reputation suffers.

It’s similar for us and our adult children. Once relationships are damaged, even if a son or daughter wants to reconcile, our forgiveness doesn’t instantly restore trust we once shared. Our forgiveness of past behavior does not require we forget and act as if nothing ever happened.

Forgiving when there’s no apology. Why?

In a 2001 article in the Journal of Counseling & Development, the term “forgiveness” is defined as ceasing to feel angry or resentful. This meaning focuses on letting go of emotions that can cause distress. It’s the definition intended in most discussions on forgiveness today.

Letting go of deeply embedded emotions and resolving unhealthy resentment that can contribute to anger and guilt can be beneficial. That’s why the concept of forgiveness, regardless of the wrongdoer’s presence or attitude, has become so popular. Forgiveness, for your own benefit, is therapeutic.

In an earlier article, I offered accepting the need to forgive as one of the first steps to letting go of anger. While anger can be a natural response to the experience of your adult child’s rejection, and anger can be healthy and help you move beyond sadness, if the anger is troubling to you or becomes overwhelming, forgiveness can help.

Doreen was miserable about her anger toward her son. She was frustrated, hurt, and consumed by thoughts of him, their relationship, and her rage. Then she felt guilty for feeling so angry.

Forgiveness: Take back your power

What Doreen didn’t immediately see was that in refusing to forgive, she couldn’t quite let go enough to move forward in peace. By holding onto blame and anger, she gave her son power over her emotions. She’s the first to admit those emotions made her miserable.

If you believe forgiveness is impossible, unjust, or are angered the topic is even proposed here, don’t feel badly. Perhaps in the future you will feel differently. Or perhaps you can substitute another word such as “releasing.”

Doreen was able to accept the idea of releasing without pardoning her son’s error. Doreen came to believe that making the decision not to hold him accountable every day, while he was off happily living his life, freed her. “I was then able to get on with my own life.”

In the book, there are information and tools to help release resentment and release troubling emotions – – in other words, to forgive.

Related reading:

Rejected by an adult child, why do I feel guilt?

Five ways to move on after an adult child’s rejection

When your adult child rejects you: First steps to getting past anger


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35 thoughts on “Why forgive?

  1. chardon

    Honestly, I want them to approach me for forgiveness so I can tell them I can’t. Let god forgive them, I cannot. I’m having a bad day today. I see them on facebook enjoying life as I sit crying with all this anger and hurt. I think to tell them I reject them after they came to me, would make me better and vid be the one on facebook showing them they don’t matter.

    1. Laura

      Hi Chardon
      Not sure I can forgive either. I want to but as the articles here say some people might feel, forgiveness feels unjust. Have heard mine too are enjoying life. None of it makes sense. I can relate to your comments.

    2. Marybeth L.

      Not many put the crying, anger and hurt on social media. The things that make others hurt are the smiles and apparent joy. Don’t be fooled, everyone is hurting.

  2. Abby0

    Forgiveness or letting go if you like frees you up from the hold these adult children have on our lives. Until we can do that those feelings control us, we can’t move on, we can’t live our life as we should, it is like we are the puppet and they control the strings.
    I don’t think any mother/father can ever forget that relationship we’ve had with our children when they were small and those lovely memories are what we can hold onto. If these adult children were a friend or acquaintance we would more easily allow ourselves to move on. We can’t force others to have a relationship with us, even our adult children. When those times of heartache arise because of a memory of how things were I allow myself a small window of grief, maybe even a couple of tears then I move on, let go, forgive yet again if you like. How do I do that you ask?

    1. Abby0

      How do I do that? This may sound strange, but here goes. I actually give myself a good talking to telling myself it’s ok to have a small window of grief, it seems to work for me and also keeping busy whether it be a hobby or helping others it helps and there is much joy in helping others or seeing a project finished. It’s not easy around holidays and times of celebration, but not impossible either to get through. The most important person in my life is the Lord Jesus and my faith in Him and sharing my pain with Him. I believe He has helped me to see when all I could do was feel.

  3. Lori

    Hello, my name is Lori and my youngest daughter has not spoken with me much in a long time. She became a member of CoDa and at one point came to my house to make amends, however, she still remained estranged to her twin sister and to her older sister. One day, not too long ago, when she came over for breakfast and her twin, who loves her dearly was here, she got mad at me for not “warning” her that her sister would be here too. Actually, I didn’t know until that morning, but felt that I should not buy into warning her of her own sister’s visit to my house. The next day, even though breakfast went fine and her sister left shortly to go out of town on a business trip which left me and my youngest daughter to spend a nice day together, my estranged, youngest daughter called me and yelled at me over the phone. She accused me of trying to trick her into spending time with her twin. Nothing I said back to her mattered. She said that I was not respecting her boundaries. When I thought about this and discussed it with my husband who felt that my estranged daughter was again acting badly and did not have the right to tell us who/when her sister could visit our home, I wrote her an angry message and told her not to call me just to reprimand me. I told her that she was not respecting my boundaries and I can not tolerate her accusing me and yelling at me. I also explained to her that I love her and her sisters equally, and that I would not keep one person away so that another could visit, and vice versa. I added that her sister loves her very much as well. I want for us all to get along, etc.
    Anyway, since then, she is again ignoring me and not speaking to me. It also hurts me so much to see her sisters, especially her twin, in so much horrible pain from being abandoned by someone she loves so much.

    1. Michele

      You sound awful. Your daughter is clearly stating what she is can/cannot handle and you are in a position to afford her this by simply letting her know when her sister is visiting. Your job as a mother is to help. What’s so bloody difficult with that? Ugh.

  4. Blueskies

    The thing I learned through all of this is to never let another person change your character. I was so hurt and so angry at times, but my husband kept telling me to take the high road always and never act in a manner that I would ever have to explain away, even when I was falsely accused or was deeply hurt. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I could never have done it without the support of my husband and dear friends. But six years later, things are healing in ways I never imagined. If I hadn’t forgiven, I wouldn’t be in the place I am now with my formerly estranged child.
    The sad and painful thing is that I have some dear friends who were with me through the worst of it who have been unable to forgive my child for the pain that I went through. They don’t understand how I have been able to forgive, and suspect that I am just swallowing my anger in order to have a relationship. I’ve lost them because they are unable to forgive the hurt that I suffered, even though I have moved past it myself.

    1. Dorothy

      I’m glad you have a supportive husband. I don’t. We have been married 35 years & not really all that happily. The kids WANTED us to get divorced. He doesn’t want to talk about them. Doesn’t want to reconcile with the one who’s been gone five years. Doesn’t do anything to correct situation with daughter. Sides with her against me. I should leave but I’m weak. When I bring up separation, he says we can’t afford it. 3/4 of the world is divorced. How did they afford it?

  5. Mjmom

    I certainly understand everyone’s point. I have forgiven my daughter in my heart. I don’t discuss the way I was treated to others, but unfortunately my daughter talked hateful about me to her siblings. They were forced to take sides and the sided with me. They knew their sister was wrong and perhaps had mental issues as they had been subjected to her rage although not as vicious. They know me best and have been a source of comfort. Life is so short. I feel so bad that my daughter felt she needed to divide a family. I won’t be here on this earth forever, and each day that goes by without resolve is a day lost forever. I have let her go in every sense of the word. She tries to be a part of the family at times, but her under lying hatred comes through. I smile and will allow a superficial relationship but my heart is broken for her. Estrangement is sometimes like death. It can’t be part. It can only whole.

  6. MRossmiller

    Thanks for the supporting information. I wonder why indifference to the
    adult child’s behavior was not discussed in the topic of forgiveness.
    I am a victim of PAS, my adult daughter has chosen to carry on the
    cruelty as instructed in her youth by her vengeful mother. I hold my
    daughter responsible for her behavior as an adult, she continues to be
    cruel of her own volition, and it does both me and her a disservice to
    give her a free pass for her disrespecting me – so I am indifferent to
    her until she learns to be a loving caring daughter I taught her to be;
    that lesson is more important than attaining her affection.

  7. sameboat

    I am struggling with the forgiveness issue right now. I read an article that suggested to keep trying to connect and another that advised to remember estrangement is the result of the adult child being triggered by past childhood unresolved issues. In my case there was significant traumas in our family life when my daughter was young. I am exploring her emotional pain from these traumas, while still struggling with my own pain and anger at her rejection. It seems she has no memory of any of our good times when she was growing up.

  8. Thebluesky

    I feel…what are we forgiving? My two distanced children…no drug crap…no arguments… no anything that caused a chronic distance. From either of us.
    . A one time life event.. Hard, yes, horrific, no.

  9. rparents Post author

    Hi Thebluesky,

    Your question is one that I never antitipated! Perhaps forgiveness is not applicable in your situation–although your child’s actions or perhaps inaction hurts you (or you wouldn’t be here). Among the some 4300 parents I have heard from, many don’t have horrific stories … just a horrible distance and often with no explanation. In some cases, they feel as if their child has let them down and hurt them, and so they feel to move on they need to release the hurt.

  10. Lynn

    My son who is married and is an alcoholic and cheater has treated me horribly. My two other kids still talk to him after what he did to me, and that hurts that they haven’t stood up for mel

  11. rose

    My daughter and I have had no contact for 3 years. I don’t even know how to contact her. She interacts with her dad and my other kids (with whom I have good relationships) Within the past year, she has married, had a child and bought a house.
    I am so sad. I also worry how this affects my other kids.

  12. Mirabelle

    It’s 10 years now. I feel my daughter rejected me for no apparent reason. She then became really friendly with everyone else in my family. They forget that she also had issues with both her brothers, separately, but for a shorter length of time. When her brother got married he was so hurt that she refused to come to the wedding. In the end she apologised 2 days before and went.
    Now it’s just me. My husband who she adores has tried many times but is fed up of me talking about it.
    Most of the time I have moved on and try to look on the bright side, but everyone now and then something happens and I can hardly function for the pain. She comes to family events.
    I feel as though she has died and I have never found the body!
    Last night I desperately wanted to email her and ask the big question why? but I know in my heart that will be seen as a weakness. Indeed to be strong but it is so so hard.

  13. mrc

    I’m feeling a little guilty over this; but I’ll put it out there in case someone has any suggestions. My daughter rejected me 6 years ago. She was very cruel about the final dismissal, but the decade leading up to the rejection was terrible. Twisting my words and actions; angry, volatile outbursts; screaming insults. I’m hurt that she doesn’t want to talk to me, but deep down I’m also relieved that I’m out of this tornado of emotions. I want a reconciliation but I’m very, very reluctant too.

    1. Jan

      My story is exactly the same as yours with the exception of the time frame. My final dismissal was given 6 months ago and I am clueless as to why. However, I have endured over the years everything you mention in your remarks above. I lost my husband recently and I miss his love and support during this tragic circumstance. Never did I imagine my own child could treat me like this.

    2. Betty

      don’t feel guilty—i feel the same way. After so many years of on and off (mostly off) my heart is harder now and I just want peace. Husband and lovely other daughter recently reconnected but ed totally ignores me. I still struggle but i just keep my distance from even thinking abt her. We do not deserve this and many times I want to lash out at her, but what good would it do? I still harbor some ill feeling toward them (husband and other daughter) for their acceptance of her treatment of me but I will not let her have the power of fracturing our family. I really don’t need her in my life anymore and unless i dwell on it, I do not miss her and the drama. WE all share the same pain, don’t we?

  14. Blendia

    Are Mother’s the only one to experience this or do fathers of adult children experience this also my youngest daughter is pregnant she is angry with me over a minor complication that I had no control over maybe things could have been done differently on my part but I’ve asked her forgiveness over and over again and she refuses to she had trouble with my husband as a teenager and was very very angry with him but she has forgiven him and he has never apologized

  15. DLH

    My husband and I have been married 36 years. We have 3 beautiful sons and 3 beautiful grandchildren. Our middle son has been a musician and left home to pursue his dreams right out of high school. He decided to return home and make a go of things. We have always been there to help him. Through his difficult relationships (one resulting in the birth of our beautiful granddaughter) to horrific financial, emotional difficulties. Back surgery, hip surgery. We even employed him for 3 years Through it all I have tried to be loving and supportive. He is now married to a person who does not enjoy our family. They did not invite any member of our family to their wedding. Only her family and their friends. His brothers are very angry with him and do not speak. We take our granddaughter whenever we can so she can know that we all love her. I invited them to Christmas but they don’t respond until the day of the event and then they have other plans. Their Christmas gift sat in our basement until May of last year. Every time my son decides to correspond it is with a text and always finds fault with me. I am worried about my marriage and also my other sons and granddaughter. Is it wrong to block all correspondence from him and his wife at this point. I always in the back of my mind am hoping things will change, but they never do. Really struggling with what to do

  16. Annie

    I don’t like to advise anyone as it’s such a personal journey. But with that said I think this. You probably fear loosing your grandchild over the disconnect. It’s a tough call. On the other hand you don’t need to be taking the abuse you have
    from your son whether it be verbal or emotional. For him to not invite you to his wedding speaks volumes. I am so sorry you are dealing with so much pain and rejection. I know you don’t deserve such treatment. You mentioned you are worried about your marriage. Is your husband supportive of you? That makes such a difference. I’m sorry you are going through such heartache. You do what is best for you. You are worthy! Blessings, Annie

  17. Isa

    Hello.. I am so happy to have found this site… I am going through the same problem as many parents here.. But in my case I am being rejected by 4 of my five kids. People tell me to move on, but I can’t. I would love if one of you would write to me, maybe we can share our pain, I just need someone to understand.
    Thank you.

  18. Annie

    Sorry you are going through this painful journey. We are here for each other. Please continue telling your story. You will not be judged here. Also, Sheri’s book, ‘Done with the Crying‘ will help put things in the proper perspective. It is so worth the read. None of us would wish this on anyone. You will find comfort here. Blessings, Annie

  19. Trudy

    Thank you I just let go after 35 years,, of head games and playing with my emotions,,Shes just a spoiled brat.. And I was an enabler… never wanting to make trouble.. I let it happen,, NO MORE,,

    1. BasPgh

      Yep. Spoiling your children has consequences. My husband explained that one to me, he said “You created the monster”, and yes I take the blame, but as a single mother for the first eleven years of my son’s life, I was building my business all by myself, and I wanted my child to have everything. I mean, I had been spoiled myself, so I guess I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
      But there’s plenty wrong with it. We as parents realized some of the horrible things our kid said to us was complete ungratefulness, it was hurtful and horrible, and I doubt either one of us will ever get over it.
      Spoiled children can be really horribly mean when not getting everything they want.

  20. Dixie

    My daughter has rejected me hates me and manipulate s me once a year have been able to see my grandchildren. I get so depressed no one understand since what’s it’s like with no family.

  21. Animaluver

    Yes, it is difficult to forgive the unrepentant, which is the polar opposite of coming to you with a (sincere) apology. There isn’t one reason to tell an estranged child we forgive them. In their eyes, they do no wrong and all is our fault anyway so why should they be sorry? They’re not. They have gone happily on their merry way not knowing or caring how we feel. But, If we carry any unforgiveness in our hearts, we are only hurting ourselves.. Since those children have deeply hurt you, showing no remorse, then forgive them to God. Just tell Jesus that you forgive him/her. That way, we release the burden, casting our cares on Him who loves us, knows all, including our situation and pain and heals the wounded heart. Also, remember forgiveness is a decision and when you decide to forgive, it doesn’t mean that your emotions will fall right in line. It is a process. Any forward movement toward wholeness and healing is good, even baby steps. God is with you!

    1. Laura

      Thank you. I just saw my estranged daughter tonight. She’s a stranger to me, a lot of moms have mentioned that it is like a death. It’s so much harder because they are still living and in and out of our lives. I want to say that to her, but It seems to be cruel and I can’t bring myself to tell her that truth. She’s been “gone but not” for 8 years. She was 17. It is getting harder to believe she will act as a daughter to myself or my husband. Weird. Why? Praying for her. and me.

  22. NORJIM

    I feel for all of you and can so relate. New to this party! My oldest and only daughter was raised in a loving home, no abuse and two brothers. We are happily married of 28 years and she was Ace’s growing up. No drinking, drugs or many boyfriends for that matter. She was the strong shoulder her friends would lean on. She did date a guy later in HS and we loved him, he became family. Senior year of college we get a phone call, boyfriend is out and this new guy is in the picture. The only thing is, he was married twice before and has three kids. Tattoo’s from head to toe and HORNS! Yep Horns on top of his head. After two and half years of keeping him out we decided to met him to have our daughter in our life. Few months later things blow up and as happy as I was that it was over they got back together
    a few months later AFTER us telling her we will not revisit this again. When this breakup started he sent me text messages of their personal life, sex life and all the issues there were having. Who does that? so now I have a front row seat of their deepest nastiest life style. We’ll now that they are back together she has informed us she is expecting. My husband and myself and her brothers and whole family are heart broken she has made this big big mistake. SO there is nothing as parents we feel quilty about doing but still estranged I guess on our terms because how do we let this MONSTER in our lifes. I just cant see it happening and SHE chooses him. I’d love to hear from some of you because I could use the support and advise. Bless you all and I hope you all find peace and the happy lives you deserve.

    1. peachy19

      Who knows why or how our kids select their partners, we may feel sometimes they do it to punish us! But I think it is their way of showing their independence . I remember my own rebellion selecting my spouse who was the total opposite of what my mom would have wanted for me a long haired hippy with and earring beer drinking construction worker who would get so drunk he would loose his paycheck weekly. My family hated him so i got pregnant had my son realized the only one i hurt was me and I divorced him when i realized we had nothing in common…. but i didnt listen and nor would our kids the more we try to help the more they pull away and blame us for trying to run their lives . What should we do Pray but most important take care of ourselves and know we did the best we could and the rest is up to them.

  23. Luisa

    I’m very happy to have found this website. I find so many things in common with you stories.
    I’m 52 years old and have 2 children. A son, 30 and a daughter, 23. I raised them giving my all. Always there in their adolescent years ready to help them in their hardships. I sacrificed a career, my youth in being the perfect mom considering my husband was always busy due to work.
    For some reason I can’t understand, my daughter in spring of 2017 decides she doesn’t like what she’s studying in college and drops out without saying a word! She decides to change her major and enrolls in a different university. She was living at home while doing this. The fact that she decided to make changes in her studies disappointed us but it can happen, it’s her future. What horrified me, was the fact that she did all this in secrecy, never sharing a single word. Anyway, I come to believe it was all an excuse to drop out of college altogether. In the beginning she began full time, then part time and then just stopped going.
    Unfortunately that’s when it all started… I kept telling her how important it was to get an education and the job she was doing unfortunately didn’t offer her a future. It’s a horrible environment (horse riding center on the outskirts of Rome, Italy). Anyway it’s a long story. That’s when she started cutting us out and it has only gotten worse. My mom passed away in October 2017, my son injured his knee shortly after and underwent 2 surgeries. It was a difficult time because it took 6 months before he started walking again. Was she there? She became a total stranger always speaking to me with resentment and no respect. I keep asking myself what it is that I did wrong. After an argument on the day of my birthday 10/2019 she stopped speaking to me and has left home. Unfortunately her father is of no support and now blames me of her leaving.
    I’m so tired and feel so betrayed. How can a daughter that was raised so lovingly turn her back on her family like this? She is so ungrateful, resentful. It seems like I’m the worst enemy.
    I’ve come to the decision that I’ve done my duty as a mother and am unwilling to understand her behavior any further. I will respect the decision she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore and move on.
    Blessings to every single reader of this website. I relate to your pain .


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