Parents on the Firing Line
ON THE FIRING LINE
I have decided that I don’t want to have any contact with you ever
again. Please don’t write or call me anymore. I can’t stop thinking
about all of the ways that you were never there for me when I was
growing up. Whenever I see or talk to you, I just end up feeling
depressed, angry, and upset for weeks afterwards. It’s just not worth
it to me and I need to get on with my life. Please respect my wishes
and don’t contact me again.
Letter from Clarice, 23,
to her mother Fiona, 48
Fiona sat on my couch in her fi rst visit without looking at me or
saying anything. She reached into her purse and handed me
the letter from her daughter as if to say, “This says it all.” And it
did. As a psychologist, I’ve counseled many adult children like
Fiona’s daughter; in some cases, I’ve helped them to craft letters
just like hers, or supported them in cutting off contact with a
mother, a father, or both. I know the fi nality that these letters can
portend. It’s a deadly serious business and the stakes are huge—a
therapist has no business giving advice in this arena unless he or
she has carefully thought about the long-term implications of
I felt for this desolate mother sitting in front of me because I
knew that the letter could be the last contact that Fiona would ever
have with her daughter. A fl ood of questions were already circulating
in my mind. “Why is her daughter so angry at her? What
has Fiona done to try to repair it? How capable has she been of
taking responsibility or listening in a non-defensive way to her
daughter’s complaints? How receptive will she be to my recommendations
for how to respond?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, handing back the letter. “That must be so
Fiona looked relieved, as though she had expected me to blame
her. “I worry about her all of the time and can’t stop wondering
what horrible thing I did to make my own child turn against me?
I’m sure I made my fair share of mistakes, but I wasn’t that different
with her than I was with the other three.” She started sobbing.
“Clarice was always the hardest of my four children. Even when
she was young, she seemed so impossible to please. We did everything
for her: individual therapy, family therapy, medication, you
name it—nothing seemed to make her feel happy or connected to
us. My other kids resented her because she sucked all of the time,
energy, and money out of the family that should have gone to all
four of them. She won’t talk to my other kids, either, except for the
youngest. It’s really heartbreaking,” she said, grabbing for the
Kleenex. “It is so goddamned heartbreaking!”
ARE PARENTS TO BLAME?
Not that long ago I would have assumed that Fiona must have
done something terribly wrong to cause her daughter to respond in
such a dramatic way. My training as a psychologist taught me that
the problems of the adult child can always be linked to some form
of mistreatment from the parent. While this is often true, it doesn’t
hold for all families. And when it is true, it’s often a far more complex
picture than most therapists and self-help authors realize.
As I worked with Fiona over the next few months, I came to
understand that she had been a reasonable and conscientious
mother. As her story and others illustrate, it is possible to be a devoted
and conscientious parent and still have it go badly. You can
do everything right and your child can still grow up and not want
to have the kind of relationship with you that you always hoped
you’d have. You can do everything right, and your child may still
end up with a drug problem that costs you thousands of dollars
and endless heartache. You can do everything right and your
child may still choose the kind of friends or partners that you
never imagined she would have chosen because these people
seem so lost and are dragging your child into losing more. You
can do everything right and your child can still fail to launch a
successful adulthood despite being gifted and talented or possessing
an IQ that most people would kill for.
Very few of us escape feeling guilt toward our offspring. It may
be part of our evolutionary heritage, a way that nature hardwires
us to stay sensitive to them, even after they’re grown. And some
parents are responsible for transgressions that are harmful to their
children: child abuse, incest, neglect, and alcoholism are a few of
the more egregious examples. However, whether the parenting
mistakes are subtle or serious, real or imagined, today’s parents
are completely confused by their children’s failures and accusations.
They need guidance and support for themselves, not more
advice about their children.
WHO IS THIS BOOK FOR?
This book is written for:
• Parents who carry enormous feelings of guilt, shame, and
regret about how they treated their children. • Parents raising children
with a diagnosis or temperament that makes them harder to parent, and
maybe harder to love.
• Parents whose divorces have created a profound change in
the quality of their relationship with their child. This includes
children who are rejecting or blaming them, refusing
contact with them, or seem to be damaged by the divorce.
• Parents whose current or ex-spouses are dedicated to bringing
them down in the eyes of their child.
• Parents who were devoted and conscientious, yet their adult
child refuses contact with them.
• Parents whose partner (parent/stepparent, boyfriend/girlfriend)
makes it diffi cult to provide the kind of safety or
nurturance that they want to give their children.
• Parents who are mismatched in some important way with
their child: for example, a successful and driven parent with
a learning disabled child; a vulnerable, insecure parent with
an aggressive and rejecting child; a depressed parent with
an active/risk-taking child.
• Parents who are wounded by their grown child’s inability to
launch a happy or successful life.
THE WOUNDS CAUSED BY TEENS AND ADULT CHILDREN
Since parenting a child at any age has its challenges and provocations,
I could have started with childbirth and continued through
each developmental stage. However, I have chosen to limit my
topic to the wounds caused by teenagers and adult children: I
start with teenagers because adolescence is the place where some
of the hardest confrontations begin to be waged between parent
and child. While many parents hope or pray that their young child will
one day outgrow her problems—her trapeze-like mood
swings, her diffi culty “fi tting in,” her defi ant and insufferable
temperament—most begin to realize by adolescence that their
soon-to-be adult may be no different and no easier than the very
same child was at ages two, fi ve, and ten; it’s only the hair and
clothing that have changed.
Adult children are another story. Financial strings aside, a
young adult has almost total discretion to spend time with you, or
not. The only time younger children have similar latitude is in divorce
where the courts or living arrangements enable the child to
have much more choice over how much time he will spend with a
In other words, adult children are even freer to launch salvos
against the parent’s happiness and well-being, to have their own
versions of how they were raised, and to state those claims with
authority. It was their childhood, not yours; their experience, not
yours; and now, in case it wasn’t perfectly clear, their adulthood!
With adult children, closeness or distance is negotiated on an equal
playing fi eld—a fi eld with rules unheard of before in history.
NOT A PARENTING BOOK
For all of its glory and gut-busting work, parenting is a dangerous
undertaking. You put in long hours, examine every decision and
action, do the best you can, and yet the child who once adored
and needed you can come to reject, shame, or belittle you. The
youth who was to be your greatest source of joy and pride can
become your greatest source of worry and disappointment. The
sweet kid who wrote you love notes and gave you hugs has written
you off, or gives you the fi nger instead.
This book is written for parents who have concluded, after
years of therapy, medication trials, soul searching, or family interventions
that they should stop listening to all of those other parents,
pediatricians, psychologists, and talk-show experts who say that if
they only do steps one through seven, they too can have the
relationship with their child that they always wanted. They have
decided that these well-meaning advisors are naive, misinformed,
or plain ignorant and wrong, because frankly, they are. Their
advice is based on a parenting model that offers little to those who
are greeted by pain, guilt, or disappointment every time they
open the door to their teenager’s room or try to get their grown
child to return their calls.
Chapter 2 will help to provide clarity about where you are right
now with your child and will help you understand how you got
there. It outlines the many ways that you can become hurt as a
parent, and will provide questions to help you begin to think
about how you got there and where you need to go.
While all parents experience feelings of guilt, some parents are
chronically plagued by the belief that they have damaged their
children, sometimes without any corresponding evidence. Chapters
3 and 4 are written to provide guidance for parents who feel
guilty about their behavior in the past, or who need help dealing
with their child’s accusations in the present.
Our current ideals about parenting and children are historically
unprecedented; most of our ideas about what children need and
who parents are supposed to be are fl awed in many, many ways.
These ideas greatly contribute to parents’ feelings of shame and
failure. They contribute to children and others feeling entitled to
blame parents for the children’s problems, inadequacies, or poor
relationship with the parent. “Parents” and “children” are constructs
whose defi nitions change with every century, if not every
few decades. Chapter 5 seeks to place today’s parent in a historical
and economic context.
Chapter 6 examines the shame that so many parents feel when
they have strained relationships with a child. We’ll examine the basis
for your vulnerability to shame and provide guidelines and
exercises for working through those feelings.
Chapter 7 details the problems that occur when a parent and
child are temperamentally mismatched. A mismatch occurs when
what comes naturally to the parent is completely at odds with
who the child is, and sometimes at odds with what he or she
needs. We’ll look at how temperamental mismatches can create
long-term confl ict in the parent-child relationship and provide
recommendations and solutions.
Teenagers can cause parents to feel inadequate, enraged, scared,
and hopeless. Today’s parents of teens face special challenges because
of the peer group’s increasing power to supplant the parent’s
authority. Chapter 8 is written to help parents manage the
thorny cluster of emotions provoked by diffi cult teenagers and to
provide guidance on how and when to intervene.
Chapter 9 looks at the guilt, disruption, and loss that parents
feel with divorce. It will also examine the ways that ex-spouses
and stepfamily issues may contribute to the alienation divorced
parents sometimes feel with their children. Guidelines and exercises
will be provided.
While divorce can strain the relationships between parents and
children, a diffi cult marriage can do the same. In Chapter 10 we
look at the wounds that occur when your spouse or partner makes
it harder for you to be a good parent. Some common situations are
spouses or partners with poor communication skills, anger management
problems, abusive behaviors, psychiatric disorders, or
addictions. Guidance and exercises will be offered.
In Chapter 11 I will provide help for those parents whose hurt
comes from having a teen or grown child who can’t get his or her
life developed and launched. This will cover those children who
have already moved out of the home and those who are still living
One of the most painful experiences for a parent is to have a
grown child who refuses to have a relationship, or who makes that
relationship extremely diffi cult. Chapter 12 is written for parents
whose adult children have rejected them, either through constant
blame or by completely cutting off contact. Guidelines will
be given about when to pursue, when to back off, and how to gain
Part of what makes parenting diffi cult is the way that children
can trigger painful feelings from our own childhoods. In Chapter
13 we’ll consider how your own childhood history affects your
parenting and your response to your child’s treatment of you.
Recommendations, exercises, and guidelines will be given.
WHO IS THIS BOOK FOR?
This book is for you if you have lost something important during
your years of raising children: your bearings or your self-esteem,
the opportunity to be the parent you desperately wanted to be, or
the potential to repair the damage from your own painful childhood.
While there are thousands of books telling you how to
better raise your children, there are none written on a topic that is
just as important: healing the wounds of the parent. If this is your
goal, this book is written for you.