Psychology
31 Aug 2018

When children need to break up with their parents

Toxic parents will never change and children will continue to suffer their parents’ abuse years later, even when they’re fully grown.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
When  children need to break up with their parents - NewsMavens
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The following fragments are from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with psychotherapist Ewa Chalimoniuk which appeared in “Wysokie Obcasy” in November 2014.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Why would adults cut ties with their parents?

Ewa Chalimoniuk: Most often these adults come from dysfunctional families in which they had experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse. It can also happen to those who had never felt accepted by their mothers and fathers -- their religious choices or sexual orientation didn’t comply with their parents’ expectations. Another group are those who never received any attention at all from their parents.

I had a patient, whose mother never “remembered” her daughter’s date of birth, was completely oblivious to her education and career path and every time her daughter came around for dinner, she would serve meat -- even though the girl was a vegetarian. When my patient turned 60 and her mum 85, things still looked the same. Her mother was never interested in loving, only in being loved.

Frankly, children cut ties with their parents because this situation is never going to be resolved. These abused or invisible children will continue to be confronted with repeated rejection, even years later, when they’re fully grown.

AJ: What does repeated rejection look like?

Let’s say that at some point this mistreated adult child builds up the courage to remind their parents about all their wrongdoings, and demands respect and approval for their decisions. He or she hopes that their parents will admit to their faults and that they will eventually be accepted. These grown-up children aren’t looking for apologies -- they are still full of anger and resentment – they simply want acknowledgement of the suffering they endured.

AJ: Do they want to hear: “We love you just the way you are”?

That’s their greatest dream, but it is one very unlikely to ever come true. They would at least like to hear: “You’re right. It’s true that we never noticed you and we didn’t realize how it affected you, because we were too focused on our own needs and  fears”. The words don’t have to be exactly the same, it’s all about the intent behind them.

AJ: And what do these grown-ups usually hear?

“What are you talking about?!” or “You’re making this up!” One of my patients was sexually abused by her father. And after years of therapy, supported by her husband and his family, she decided to confront her dad. All she heard from him was: “You got what you asked for”. And as if that wasn’t enough, her mother supported her father’s opinion. Once again, the child was rejected and blamed.

AJ: What about their hope that their parents could change?

It’s still there, and still alive.

When the child separates from parents for the first time, the objective is to make the parents realize the potential consequences -- to understand what they might lose and because of this, finally notice the child, understand their mistakes and show themselves willing to change.

Even though it almost never happens, sometimes such radical detachment prompts parents to reflect on their flaws. Then, if both sides are inclined to work together, the parent-child relationship might be rebuilt on brand new, mutually agreed upon terms. But this can only happen on the condition that the parents are being genuine and that they are not faking their transformation out of fear of a potential loneliness. But it’s also worth remembering that no matter what, this newly restored bond will never be as perfect as the child wants it to be.

AJ: What can help the child accept the fact that their parents will never change?

Recognizing and understanding the reasons behind their parents’ behaviour. Perhaps they were mistreated by their parents as well and blindly followed that harmful upbringing model when their own children were born? I’m not trying to justify toxic parents, but I always advise looking at them from a broader perspective.

AJ: It’s difficult if the wound is deep.

Sometimes it’s impossible. And it requires considerable strength. Some people do manage to do it with help of therapists, close friends or their new families. They start to realize that the voice they hear in their head is not them being dysfunctional and pathetic. Eventually they find enough courage to stand up to their parents and draw the line, making sure they will never be hurt again.

AJ: Why do children let themselves be crushed by a feeling of guilt and responsibility towards these harmful parents?

Because in the situations we’re discussing, children often switch roles -- becoming “parents” to their own parents. Usually, this is due to their mother’s and father’s lack of empathy and blindness to their child’s needs, which can be caused by a parent’s sickness, depression or alcoholism. They feed the child not because it’s hungry, but to gain satisfaction from a fulfilled duty.

These children quickly learn to recognize and meet the parent’s expectations, fully aware that they won’t survive without it. They give up on being children and grow up prematurely to take care of their parents and younger siblings.

When they become adults and finally manage to say: “Enough! You will never again threaten me with your death again!”, they’re also finally reversing the pattern. Now they are saying: “I’ll start looking after myself, not you”.

AJ: What do is lost when children cut their ties with parents?

Part of themselves. Separation from parents is like the amputation of an infected limb in order to stop gangrene from spreading. The child will live, and will be healthy, but they could also feel one-handed or lame to a certain extent.

AJ: There are people persistently abused by their parents, yet they decide to stay in that toxic relationship. Why?

Fear. They’re afraid of what people would think or what they would think of themselves if they dared to cut loose from their mom or dad.

Recently, I heard about a woman who used to have an incredibly complicated relationship with her mother. She insisted on taking care of her mother until her death, simply because she was afraid of her. Her whole life she kept convincing herself that as soon as her mom passed away, she would finally start living. The mother died when the woman was 60 and it was too late to realize any of her initial plans: she never opened the flower shop she had always been dreaming about and never met or married anybody. She wasted her whole life.

AJ: So her mother’s death didn’t liberate her after all?

Death is never a solution. If a person doesn’t separate from their parents before they die, their demise won’t change anything.

They’ll keep visiting their graves -- if not physically, then symbolically -- torment ourselves with guilt and repeatedly live through all the anger, abuse and pain we experienced when they were alive. Only a healthy bond allows for a healthy separation – even if they are grieving. When the relationship was unhealthy and the parent has passed away, the adult child must continue to work to shed the torment they have  – otherwise the pain will never go away.

***

Ewa Chalimoniuk - is a psychotherapist (Polish Psychological Association - PTP) working with the Psychoeducation Laboratory in Warsaw. She runs individual, family and group therapy sessions and specializes in grief and loss counseling, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder treatment.

--Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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