Dear Doctor: Therapy Has Hurt My Relationship with My Daughter. How Do We Move Forward?
Dear Dr. Coleman,
My daughter has started psychotherapy, and as a result is rewriting her childhood. At least it seems that way to me. We were once very close, and now she's saying that I was emotionally abusive to her, which frankly is ridiculous. Our conversations about this are not going very well, as you might imagine. I'm at the end of my rope. And I worry that if it continues like this, we’ll hit the point of no return, which scares me to no end. What should I do?
A worried mother
Dear worried mother,
I’m sorry to hear that you’re being faced with this situation. Many parents are unprepared for the reflection of their parenting as seen through the eyes of their child’s therapist. I commonly read letters from adult children similar to hers: “I used to think I had a pretty good childhood, but since I’ve been in therapy, I’m learning that it was really all about you, not me.” “I’ve learned in therapy that my problems with intimacy stem from how I watched you treat my mother.” “My therapist said that you were emotionally incestuous with me when I was growing up.”
While some parents are able to find the kernel if not the bushel of truth in their children’s complaints, others are shocked by how dissimilar their versions are from their own memories or perspectives of the past. These disparities are especially challenging for parents who believed they had a close relationship prior to their child’s entering therapy.
So, let’s start with her observation that you were emotionally abusive during her childhood.
It’s important to understand that however poorly your daughter is approaching this topic, in all likelihood she’s raising it as a way to feel closer to you, not to shame or reject you. I understand that it doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t to most parents, but this gets to me my second observation:
Today’s adult children want relationships with parents that are in line with their ideals around mental health, personal growth, and happiness. From that perspective, a discussion about her childhood is a way—not only to help you repair whatever harm she perceives that you have done—but to understand her. Since she is in therapy, she now has theories about how your behavior impacted her self-esteem, her confidence, or other aspects of her life that she seeks to master or overcome. Her therapist may be 100% wrong in his or her diagnosis of you or how your behavior affected her development. But, since she has concluded that your behavior is problematic, your best approach is to listen, learn, and to empathize.
Be a co-investigator
Instead of defending yourself—get curious. Ask her more about her memories. Not to prove her wrong, but to understand. See if you can find some aspect of what she’s saying with which you can empathize or agree. The more you can demonstrate an interest in learning about her feelings and perceptions, the more she’ll experience you as caring and trustworthy, which will also help her think more deeply or sympathetically about you. You might say something like, “It’s clear that I have significant blind spots that I didn’t see how hurtful that was to you. I’m really sorry, and I’m glad that you’re letting me know. Going forward, I hope you’ll tell me if and when I do that again.”
Because younger generations are more interested in personal growth, ask her if there’s something that she would like you to work on either in your own therapy or with her in family therapy.
*Note to those wanting to discuss your childhood with your parents: Calling your parents emotionally abusive, narcissistic, or borderline is almost certain not to get you what you want if understanding, repair, and change is your goal.
Different people/different perceptions
It can be helpful for both parents and adult children to accept that there are separate realities in every family. From this perspective, individuals may have a different experience of others in the family based on their temperament, their role as siblings, parents or children, and their experiences outside of the family. Given these dynamics, you could reasonably feel like you provided your child with good, even ideal parenting—and your child could reasonably wish that you had behaved very differently.
Avoid getting into the right and wrong of it.
Don’t pull out the Mother’s Day card from last year where she wrote that you were the “Best Mother Ever!” Don’t send her a bunch of photos from her childhood beaming up at you from a playground swing or from a chair lift above Tahoe when she was 23. She’ll just experience you as trying to persuade her that she’s wrong, and this will make her more distant and discouraged.
Hold onto your own narrative of yourself as a person or parent.
While it is important to your relationship with your adult child to understand her and try to repair whatever harm you might have done, it is equally important to forgive yourself for those mistakes, large or small, and to not forget the ways you are or were a good parent. Empathizing and understanding doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing that you were abusive; only that you are concerned and interested in why your daughter has that belief. In addition, empathizing and understanding is a way to demonstrate a willingness to address or change the behaviors she finds challenging or upsetting in her relationship with you.
Parents and their adult children seem to be talking past each other these days when it comes to the language of abuse. According to Australian psychologist Nick Haslam, definitions of harm and neglect have grown in the past three decades to incorporate more and more symptoms and to pathologize experiences that were once considered normal. Stresses, struggles, and painful incidents once viewed as existential problems in families (and something better kept to oneself) are now seen, for better and worse, as life altering and transforming. On the positive side, this orientation can create greater self-awareness and provide a language and road map to stronger relationships, not only with parents but with friends and romantic partners. On the other hand, it may cause the now-grown child to assume that their problems in adulthood have more to do with their parents than to sometimes more likely causes such as genetics, social class, neighborhood, random good or bad luck, siblings, or the generation into which they were born.
In addition, it can be helpful to remember that the framework guiding family interactions has shifted over the past four or five decades from Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father; Respect Your Elders to an emphasis on the preservation of mental health, the pursuit of personal growth and the protection of one’s identity. From that perspective, nothing compels an adult child to be in contact with that parent beyond that adult child’s desire to do so. Your attempt to gain more time, influence, even empathy with your daughter by focusing on aspects like duty, gratitude, or obligation will likely fall on deaf ears. Worse it will trigger accusations that you’re gaslighting her, not respecting her boundaries, or behaving in a narcissistic manner. Given this reality, you will have to take the lead in healing the current divide between you and your daughter to avoid more conflict, distance, or possible estrangement.
I understand that what I’m asking you to do is hard. It is for most parents—impossible for others. Especially since those raising children in the past three or four decades have arguably been some of the most dedicated, psychologically-minded, and invested parents of almost any generation that preceded them. This is also why discussions of the child’s perspective on trauma, harm, abuse, or neglect are so confusing if not infuriating to parents. “You wanna know who had an abusive childhood?” I commonly hear parents say. “I did. Alcoholic father; checked out mother. Compared to my childhood, my kid’s was a walk in the park.”
Perhaps that was the case for you, and you never emotionally abused your child. But you have to start the discussion somewhere, and the most productive place to start is with her. Her memories, her feelings, and her perceptions, including those highly uncharitable ones of you.
Very little progress will be made in your relationship until that occurs. And—sad to say—failing to start there may mean there can be no new beginnings, only endings.
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Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. is a psychologist and Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. He has written for the Atlantic, the NYTs, Behavioral Scientist, CNN, NBC, among others and has appeared on Sesame Street, Today, 20-20, NPR and many other media outlets. His latest book is Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. Dr. Coleman offers CE trainings to professionals on the topic of family estrangements. His next training is Sunday March 5th from 9AM-5PM Pacific. Learn more at www.drjoshuacoleman.com