3 Tips On How To Forgive Your Parents

And become a great parent yourself

Image by skalekar1992/Pixabay

“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them”

— Oscar Wilde

All parents begin as superheroes in the eyes of their children. Though, very few can live up to the title once their kids reach adulthood. The term “family estrangement” refers to the emotional distancing and loss of affection within a family unit over some time. According to research conducted by Stand Alone, a UK based charity that supports those who are estranged from their relatives, one in five British families are affected by family estrangement. A US-based study of 2,000 mother-child pairs found that 10% of mothers were estranged from their adult children. Another study in the US found that more than 40% of participants had experienced family estrangement at some point. In certain groups of participants, such as US college students, estrangement is almost as common as divorce.

There exists a large group of people who have complicated and or toxic relationships with their parents. It’s an enormously complicated issue to tackle — one that requires years of counseling and self-work to adequately address. The following three examples are subjective tips on how to begin the process of forgiving your parents, while simultaneously learning how to be a great parent yourself.

Understand Their Childhood Before Criticizing Your Own

One of the many challenges of entering adulthood is, for the first time, seeing our parents as ordinary people rather than know-it-alls. Every parent makes mistakes, and those mistakes become more and more apparent as we get older. It’s easy for us to play the blame game. We say things like “I am this way because my mom did that” or “I say this because my dad use to say that”

Rather than playing the victim, we ought to investigate our parent’s upbringing before passing judgment on our own. Consider the following: Say you grew up with a highly critical father. No matter what you accomplished, no matter how many accolades and prestigious awards you racked up, nothing was ever good enough. This upset you as a child, and because of your upbringing, you’ve become highly sensitive to criticism from others as an adult.

The default for most people in this situation is to blame their parents for the way they are. This projects the responsibility onto someone other than ourselves — and it feels good. However, it’s important to always explore what our parents endured when they were growing up. Maybe they had an equally overbearing father or mother. Perhaps they’re suffering from low self-esteem, and the only way they know how to cope with it is by putting down others (which is what their parents did). It doesn’t excuse their behavior by any means, but it provides essential context to the way our parents behave.

Whether it’s your parents, your boss, or some jerk on the street who said something offensive, people become far less evil to us once we’ve taken a look behind the curtain — once we’ve walked in their shoes and understood what they’ve been through. You must seek to understand your parent’s childhood before criticizing your own. Develop empathy for them, and then use that empathy to overcome your pain. Empathy is always the first step to forgiveness.

Maintain Emotional and Physical Boundaries — For You Alone

Many families try to embody the sayings “family is forever” or “love is unconditional.” And while this is a cute way of thinking about family dynamics, it’s not how a successful family environment functions. There are conditions to every relationship we have, romantic or not. We keep the company we keep because our lives are better with them in it. But sometimes, we have to set boundaries with people — both emotional and physical.

Emotional boundaries usually surround prohibited topics of discussion or a specific behavior. Establishing clear guidelines and telling your parents what topics are off-limits is a great place to start. These topics will be unique to every situation, but the goal is to refine your exchanges with your parents so that every encounter is as positive as possible.

Physical boundaries are just as important, particularly for those with toxic parent-child relationships. One might think that it’s easy to keep our distance from our parents after they’ve hurt us, but it’s unbelievably difficult for many. The phone rings, you see it’s them, there’s a knot in your throat — butterflies in your stomach. If you answer, you’ll be subjected to an hour-long conversation that is emotionally exhausting. If you don’t pick up, you’ll feel guilty. It feels like a lose-lose situation, but it doesn’t have to. We all need space from our parents. It’s how we recharge and, frequently, prevents us from saying something stupid in the moment.

In order to forgive our parents, we must set and keep these boundaries. It’s in those moments of solitude, away from all the bullshit, that we’re able to think through those things that bring us pain and overcome them. It will be hard to communicate these boundaries at first, but the progress you’ll make is well worth the awkward conversation.

Be The Best Parent You Can Be, Not The One You Wish You Had

There’s a clear distinction between being a good parent, and becoming the parent you wish you had. The former focuses on being objectively good, while the latter is in pursuit of a subjective desire. Parents do this time and time again, much to the dismay of their children who, of course, have different needs than their parents did.

There’s a poem by W. Livingston Larned called “Father Forgets.” If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth the read. The poem depicts the story of a father who, realizing that he has neglected his child his whole life, is kneeling by his son’s bedside, apologetic and ashamed. The poem is heartwrenching, but all too real. As we grow older and begin having children of our own, we must accept that we will make mistakes. We will do the wrong thing, give bad advice, and overreact when all our children wanted was an attentive ear. Every parent is doomed to this fate, but we can be better. Not in a way that we give them everything they (or we) ever wanted — instead, we provide them with the life and tools they need to succeed.

The measure of a good parent is their willingness to sacrifice for their children. Not in the sense of sacrificing themselves per se, but showing a willingness to sacrifice their time, energy, and attention for their kids. We can’t go back in time or swap our parents out like a leased car. But we can choose to implement the above rules and forgive them for their mistakes. It’s the only way we can move forward and become great parents ourselves.

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