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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

 

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

adult child's rejectionby Sheri McGregor

When an adult child abandons parents, or in some cases the entire family, the what-ifs and how-coulds can limit recovery. What if my child returns to reconcile? How can I move on now yet still hold onto hope?

After an adult child’s rejection, the idea of moving on can feel like giving up, so trying to move forward brings guilt. You might question your character. What kind of a parent just gets on with life as if nothing has happened? Few parents move on with such abandon. Most, on some level, hold out hope for reconciliation. But staring at the silent telephone, desperately waiting for the uncertain return of your adult child can lead to despair. Getting on with life despite what’s happened connects you to other people and activities, helps fill the void of loss, and can help you to heal. In my book, Done With The Crying, tools, the latest research, and insight from more than 9,000 parents of estranged adults can help you move forward and heal.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. When you are betrayed by someone you love, perhaps particularly an estranged adult child who you nurtured and helped to shape, it’s as if the bottom falls out. You may question everything you thought about your child, your relationship, and how your life will continue in relation to your son or daughter, and perhaps in relation to your prior expectations. Getting to a point where you feel you’ve moved on may take time, so be kind to yourself. Expecting that you can go to sleep one night determined to leave the pain of an adult child’s rejection behind, and wake up over it, isn’t realistic. Recovering from deep emotional wounds takes time. I’ve gleaned a few tips from my own experience with my estranged adult child as well as from studies, books, and articles that can help.

An adult child’s rejection hurts.

One: Don’t pretend you’re not hurting.

Fearing judgment, you may be embarrassed to share your painful truth.  And you may be right to hold back with people at work, or certain friends you feel won’t understand or will judge you. It’s helpful to reach out to a trusted, empathetic friend or two, but whether you can or can’t confide in others, don’t deny your feelings exist. Accept your emotions as normal in the situation.

Some common feelings of rejected parents include:

*Guilt: I must not have raised my child right. An adult child’s rejection may cause parents to look back critically at their parenting skills, even magnifying some incidents or interactions during the child’s growing up years as proof they did a poor job.

*Anger: I raised my child better than this. What happened to honoring one’s parents?

*Helplessness: How can he/she refuse to take my call? Parents realize they have no control over their adult child’s actions.

*Fear: What if my other adult children leave me too?

*Denial: This can’t be happening. Surely it won’t last.

*Uncertainty: Am I crazy? Is this all my fault? Am I that insufferable? Will this ever end?

*Failure: I feel powerless. Parents may have a sense of failure at having tried everything, but nothing has worked to restore the relationship.

These are just a few of the feelings you may encounter in response to an adult child’s rejection, betrayal or neglect. Keeping a journal or simply free-writing about your feelings may provide a safe way to offload them. Some find an online group designed as support for parents of estranged adult children useful. We host an online group to help. Acknowledging your feelings, whether in a journal or by sharing with others you trust can be healthy, but not to excess or in a negative way.

Two: Don’t Ruminate

Listen to your thoughts. Do you catch yourself saying aloud or thinking, “I’ll never get over this..” Are you continually asking questions, such as, “Why do these sorts of things always happen to me?” Called “ruminating,” this sort of negative thinking spurs more negative thought, perhaps even calling to mind the other things that “always happen.” Clinical studies have linked ruminating to high blood pressure and to unhealthy behaviors such as binge drinking and overeating, so steer clear.

How do you avoid ruminating? Turn your statements and questions around with positive thoughts. I am moving past this. Good things happen in my life. This suggestion may sound trite, but if negative thoughts can produce more negative thoughts, positive thoughts can be as fruitful.

When you catch yourself thinking negatively about your adult child or the situation, notice your physical body as well. Are you holding your breath? Clenching your jaw? Tightening your fists? You may be experiencing a stress response that isn’t good for you.

As reported in the Harvard Health Newsletter, researchers at Hope College in Michigan found that changing one’s thoughts about a stressful situation, perhaps by considering the parts you handled well or imagining offering forgiveness, changes the body’s responses. In short, the way we think about things can reduce our physical stress response

Take a few deep breaths, loosen up or even get up and move around. Drink a glass of water. Do something to aid your physical body and health as well as positively altering your thoughts.

Three: Focus on the Good

Take time out each day to consider the positive situations and good people in your life. A journal of good thoughts written down at the end of each day is a healthy habit, and a formal record is fun to re-read later. However, a more casual approach can be effective.

Keeping a positive focus after an adult child’s rejection.

Here are a few suggestions:

Instead of joining everyone in the lunch break room each day, take a short stroll outdoors instead, or perhaps before you join the others. The benefits of nature to the psyche are well-documented. Be sure to experience your surroundings to the fullest, by taking notice. The dappled sunlight beneath this tree is pretty. The breeze feels good as it goes through my hair.

If getting outdoors isn’t an option, you can still focus your thoughts in a positive direction. Perhaps recall moments from your morning that went well.  I’m glad I was able to make that telephone connection and cross the task off my list. I arrived at the office earlier than my boss this morning. I’m lucky my co-workers are helpful.

Looking to the future with a positive focus promotes the well-known attitude of gratitude that’s so helpful. My dog will be waiting for me with a wagging tail. I look forward to my favorite television show tonight. I’m so thankful my aging mother is well.

Four: Forgive.

Parents have known and loved their children for so long that forgiveness may be second nature – – or not. Perhaps you blame other people who are involved with your adult children. Or maybe you blame yourself. We all make mistakes, so work to forgive. Because of the personal benefits, forgiveness is a gift you can give yourself. Forgive for the sake of your own happiness.

In a study published by National Institute of Health in 2011, researchers found that older adults (median age 66) who forgive others report higher levels of life satisfaction. Forgiving freely, without requiring an act of contrition, (such as an apology or admission), was particularly beneficial. Holding one’s forgiveness hostage to some act or condition was associated with psychological distress and symptoms of depression.

Five: Accept.

Accepting the reality of an adult child’s abandonment, and your helplessness to change it, may feel like letting go of hope. Reconciliation may eventually take place, but in the present, accepting what’s happened allows you to make the most of your life now.

Most of us have had to accept other disappointing realities during our lives: a loved one’s death, the inability to finish college due to other responsibilities, or an unrealized professional goal. We all have disappointments, but the vast majority of us accept reality and move forward, perhaps in more fulfilling directions. Even after an adult child’s rejection, you have the right to enjoy your life. Dwelling on the past or struggling with pursuits that, at least for the moment, are futile, rob you of precious time.

Acceptance may take determination, but is worth the effort. Acceptance has allowed me the freedom to be who I truly am: A strong woman blessed with many people, including four other adult children, to love and share my life with. By accepting the sad reality of one adult child’s rejection, I can better spend my time and energy on people that want my company, on interests that are meaningful and fulfilling to me, and where I can make a difference.

Recently, a parent told me she had reconciled with an estranged adult child after nearly two decades of estrangement. Her story illustrates the fulfillment of hope. Like she did, you can live your life now—-in a way that’s meaningful, fulfilling, and happy—-and still hold out hope for a future reconciliation.
parents of estranged adult childrenDone With The Crying is available through popular booksellers. Ask your local bookstore to order this book for parents of estranged adult children for you. Or order online. And fathers–this book can help you, too.

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