I was sitting there listening to all of this, and I thought to myself, “If this were not her mother, it would be a real quick fix, wouldn’t it?” Just don’t see them anymore! Right? Friendship is not necessarily a committed relationship. But, because the problem was with her mother, it becomes, instantly, way more complex than that.
Now, you’ve probably heard jokes about how therapists always think everything is the parents’ fault. So, if you’ve laughed at those jokes before, if this woman were asking help from you, what would you say to her? What would you tell her?
I think it brings special emphasis for people who are Christians, because we all know one of the fundamental, bedrock values of God is that we honor our parents all our lives. So, today, we’re going to think about some of the factors in adult child/parent relationship and some of God’s thoughts on the matter.
The first thing I’d like to talk about is the nature of the parent/child relationship. Parents and children, whether they like it or not, are inextricably interwoven in relationship. When a baby first comes from the womb – if it’s naturally born and there is no drugs involved – it begins to move its eyes and head, and it’s looking for a face to lock on to. And that face is mother’s or father’s. It’s heard mother’s voice and it’s heard father’s voice and it looks for those people. It’s looking for a familiar face to connect to. Now, that’s not my thought; that’s science. They know that that happens.
When a child is held by a parent, it feels differently to the child and to the parent, than when holding someone who’s not biologically connected. Since I’ve learned that, I’ve kind of been noticing…. I have a job where I hug and touch a lot people of all ages every week. And I notice the difference between them and my own daughters and my father and mother. There is a difference. If you pay attention to it, you can tell it – at least, I can. I think most people can, too. So there’s a deep, biological, genetic bond that takes place between parent and child.
There’s also a psychological connection. I use that word psychological. I know that’s hard for some people to hear, but, by that term, I’m talking about the human psyche. That’s a Greek word that stands for the whole mind. We don’t have a word in English that really means quite the same thing, except for psyche and psychological. So there’s a whole mind connection between parents and child. As the knowledge and evidence about human attachment continues to pile up, we’re learning that humans stay connected, mentally and emotionally, to parents not all their parents lives, but all their lives as well – even after parents are gone.
My father died in 1986 and my mother died in 1988. That’s twenty-one years ago. That’s a third of my life. Yet there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about both of them. They’re still very much a part of me. So we’re inexorably bound to parents biologically and genetically, but also psychologically – with our whole mind.
Can you think of any scriptures that reinforce the science at this point? Well, one of the scriptures I think about is Psalms 103:17. It says there:
Psa. 103:17 – From everlasthing to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear Him, and His righteousness with their children’s children with those who keep His covenant and remember to obey His precepts.
So, if God loves someone and they’re a righteous person, that righteousness goes with the child for generations down through the family. The opposite of that is true, too, you know. If they’re a bad person, then that kind of gets passed along as well, sometimes.
Another one to think about is in Exodus 20. We have the commandment here about honoring parents, but that’s not what I’m referring to. It’s in verse 5. It says:
Ex. 20:5 – You shall not bow down to them or worship them – it’s talking about idols – for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me. But showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
Because behavior can be passed down , as well as genetics, the rewards and punishments – the sins and righteousness, the tendencies, the outlooks, the habits, etc. – often follow along from generation to generation in families. And so do the consequences of those behaviors – both positive and negative.
So there’s a huge connection between parent and child. And sometimes it is not immediate apparent to us. Profound implications. It affects us all of our lives – even after our parents are dead. And it affects our children to the third and to the fourth generation. That means that our relationship with our parents – good or bad – will affect our relationship with our children, and our children’s relationship with their children and on down. Powerful stuff.
Okay, so there is a huge, complex, unbreakable bond that occurs. Children are hard-wired to love and be loved by parents. And parents have a natural tendency to love, and take care of, and protect their children.
So, let’s talk about the two players in this – the adult children and, then, their parents. I want to talk to parents of adult children now. And I want to point out to you something about the way families work.
In a family, children do not take the lead. They do not set the tone. They do not create the relationships. They respond to the tone, the lead and the relationships – the environment created by parents. That’s why God holds parents responsible – not children. And it’s all about that environment that we’re talking about. It’s all about the relationship between the parents and the children.
I was talking to a sixteen-year-old sometime ago. She wasn’t going to school because of a number of problems. If I took the time to explain it, you’d understand why. And her mother repeatedly would tell her, “You’re getting fat. You’re lazy. You need to get off your backside” – only she didn’t use that word – “and go get your GED.” Well, this girl is thin as a rail. There is nothing fat about her, for one thing. So this is an extreme insult. This girl wanted to get her GED, but she needed her mother to take her around to get signed up – had to have her mother’s signature. So when the girl would ask her to take her out to do those things, her mother would find an excuse not to go. So she was blamed for the problem and then not allowed to solve it. That’s called a double bind, isn’t it, when you do that to somebody. So that worked for her mother for a long time – when she was little – because she didn’t figure out what was going on. She just knew that she felt guilty and bad all the time. But, as she’s getting older, she’s able to see what her mother was doing to her and she’s starting to get really angry about it. So she’s growing up angry with her mother.
As I listened to her explain this situation, I thought, “Boy, that would really make me angry, too. I’d get pretty fed up with that pretty fast.” I think you would, too, if that was happening to you. So, let’s look at what the Bible says about parents’ responsibility towards children. Let’s to go Colossians 3:21.
Col. 3:21 – Fathers, do not embitter your children or they will become discouraged. Well, what will they become discouraged about? Well, they’ll become discouraged about their relationship with you or discouraged about the faith, because you are embittering them instead of building a positive relationship.
So, the biblical teaching about the cause of embittering or discouraging children is with parents. They set the tone. I don’t know many parents that intend to set a negative tone with their kids. Most of the people who come to my office – that want me to help their child – have no idea that they’re causing the problem – most of the time. It’s unwitting. They have the best intentions for their children. They love them. But they don’t realize how they’re affecting their children.
Let’s take another look at that same statement from another direction – in Ephesians 6, and verse 4.
Eph. 6:4 – Fathers, do not exasperate your children. Instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. So there’s another little piece added there. What can we learn from it?
This scripture is rich with meaning for parents. This is an either/or thing. You know, you can either raise your children up in the Lord, or you can frustrate and anger them. It’s one way or the other. If you look at an angry child, 99.9% of the time, it’s because we didn’t raise them up God’s way. That’s what happens. And it’s not just about biblical learning and training, but also about modeling God’s way and relating to our children the way God relates to us. That’s what causes the problems – when we can’t do that. Of course, who can? Who’s the perfect Christian? And who has the love of God? See, that’s the problem. We’ve been assigned an impossible task as parents. So this “not exasperating our children,” but helping them to have a good attitude really is about meeting all of their needs – spiritual, relational, emotional, physical and the needs of the psyche – all of them.
But no human knows enough to meet all of another human’s needs. So it’s so frustrating – and I’ve certainly experienced this – to learn twenty years too late that we failed to supply all that was needed. We don’t get feedback until later, usually, about those things.
I have a quote here that I found while I was researching for this. It’s from the book, Tunnel of Love, by Peter DeVries. It says, “Who of us is mature enough for offspring before the offspring themselves arrive? The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.” Actually, I think the value of marriage is both of those. Children, certainly, are valuable, and so is maturity in the parents. So children help us face our inadequacies if we’re adult enough to face them.
He also said, “There are times when parenthood seems like nothing but feeding the mouth that bites you.” And this also is an exercise in maturity, because as we grow more mature, and understand what is going on in our family, when we have “a mouth biting us,” we realize that we created the desire to do that by our own inadequacies. So that, also, is an exercise in maturity.
It’s, also, doubly frustrating to realize that the reason, quite often, that we fail to supply what our children needed was because it was never supplied to us. Have you ever tried to play solitaire and find out that one of the cards was missing? You can’t win. The term “not dealing with a full deck” kind of plays off of that a little bit. We’re all kind of like that. We don’t get what we need and we don’t have that to pass on in a lot of cases. In all of this, there are also things that we do get that we do pass on, so it’s that blessings and deficiencies are passed down from generation to generation. And we don’t often think about the blessings. We think about the things that are causing us problems – the deficiencies. That’s a good thing. That’s how you solve problems – you think about them.
So, parental deficiencies can create relational problems. And quite often, that is expressed as anger. I had a father and a child in my office sometime back. His parents were divorced. I think he was a third-grader. Mom was pumping venom into this child about his father – at least, that was the father’s version of what was going on. On a daily basis that was going on. The court, he said, in an effort to rectify the situation, mandated family therapy for the father and his son. You wonder what they were thinking sometimes, but I got a chance to do that family therapy with the father and his son. The father would sit there and tell me his side of the story in a tactful way without mentioning the ex. He was just trying to tell me what was going on. And his third-grade son was sitting over there, ostensibly playing with toys. Now this kid could do algebra when he was in kindergarten. And he is not missing a turn. He understands everything that is being said.
So I asked him what it felt like to listen to his dad. He said, “It felt like being in the middle.” I said, “Your mom and your dad – in the middle of that?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Could you draw me a picture of what that’s like?” He got some paper and he started drawing. When he finished, he showed it to me and it just blew my mind! He drew a face with two ears and two wavy lines coming out of the ears, with two adults on each side – each line. And on the line was written, “Blah, blah, blah,” on both sides. So here were the parents, both pumping in their agenda. The face was bug-eyed and frantic and he colored it with a deep plum marker. It looked like a face that was about to explode. I gave the picture to his father and he completely missed it – didn’t get what was going on at all. So he and I had some more sessions about that later, but I suggested he take that picture to his co-parenting class, where a trained therapist was working with him and his ex about how to treat their son. See, they got us all divided up. Therapists working with the parents never get to see the kid. I never get to see the mother. But we work as we can. I don’t know about the mother – I’ve never met her, so I’m not going to judge – but the father was doing the very dead-level-best he could to help his son. He knew his son was in a bad place. He knew there was a problem. He knew his son was suffering. He knew he was partly the cause of it. It doesn’t matter whether parents are doing it intentionally or unintentionally. It still hurts just the same to children.
I mentioned that most of the angry adult children I meet were raised by well-intentioned parents. The result is always the same. Neglect always causes anger. And underneath the anger is always hurt. Anger can only be removed from the heart when the hurt is addressed. It can’t be addressed until it is acknowledged by the one who is hurting and the one who did it. So, that points to listening and understanding, doesn’t it, and talking, and admitting. More about that later. So, the cause of most unmet needs is unmet needs in parents, and that gets passed from generation…. You know, if you lack something, it’s hard to pass it on.
I was talking to a young woman sometime back – and this is not from my practice, but from church – terribly hurt and angry towards her father – as an adult. “One day,” she said, “I was talking to him and I realized that he had a terrible life as a child himself, and that he did the best he could. He wants the best for me, even if he doesn’t know what that is. So I’m an adult now. I can take it from here. And I let him off the hook.” There was that awareness. He’s still the same. He doesn’t see what he’s done to hurt her. It’s a mystery to him why she’s been angry with him. He’s just glad that she’s not anymore. And at thirty now, she’s mature enough to see the bigger picture of his life, and his life with her, and to realize that she doesn’t have to let it keep bothering her. Now that she’s coughed up that furr ball of anger and forgiven him, she is able to have a more positive relationship. It could be better if he could understand where he failed her, but he doesn’t understand his daughter. And so that still hurts her. But she did what she could.
So that’s something for parents of adult children to think about. One of the most important things to realize when you’re getting ready to have a child is, it’s going to humble you in about twenty years.
So let’s talk about the adult children. We’ve looked at the profound connection between parents and children and we’ve looked at the parental responsibility to children. Now let’s look at an adult child’s responsibility to parents. Let’s look in Exodus 20, and verse 12.
Ex. 20:12 – Honor your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. Paul said this was the first commandment with promise, I believe.
Some believe that the promise is to the nation, rather than to individuals. It makes sense, but it also is an interpretation. I think it’s whichever way you think it fits. But in any event, we can take from that that there is a lot riding on our ability to obey this commandment.
What does it mean to honor? Well, the word is an intense form of respect. That’s what it means. Parents are God’s chosen instruments to provide all that a child needs and to serve as a conduit through which they are introduced to Him. That’s pretty important. So a boundary of respect has been drawn around that sacred role. God have mercy on any of us that violates that.
Now, it doesn’t say that we are to love our parents. It says we are to honor them – to respect them. And I suspect that God knew that some parents would provoke their children and that would not be the fault of children. Sometimes it’s really hard to love somebody who has hurt you severely. But in spite of all the negatives that have occurred, God wants all of us to acknowledge the importance and the sanctity of the family. It doesn’t matter how angry we might be with our parents. So, in spite of all of that, cursing parents, failing to take care of them in old age, hurting them physically, deliberately being spiteful to them, punishing them, withholding the grandchildren – unless they’re damaging to grandchildren – is out of bounds. It’s not what we’re allowed to do. God tells us that violations will not be ignored.
Now, sometimes people do not behave in such a way that we can respect them. I, pretty much, determine whether other people respect me or not by how I treat them. And that’s true for all of us. But the office they hold – parents – is still to be respected no matter what. Since they are always going to be in the that office, for each of us, until we die, we must always respect them for the office they hold inexorably and forever in our lives.
Let’s look at some biblical thoughts on this in Proverbs 19, verse 26.
Prov. 19:26 – He who robs his father and drives out his mother is a son who brings shame and disgrace.
We’re supposed to take care of our parents and we’re supposed to live lives so they won’t be shamed. What is shameful to parents when their children run amuck? Well, according to the Bible, it points to faulty parenting. That isn’t always true, but most of the time, there is some part of it that is.
Then Ezekiel 18:20…you ought to read this whole chapter, because it’s all about the cause and effect in the relationship between parents and children.
Ezk. 18:20 –The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. Going back to the idea that psychologists always blame parents for everybody’s problems, how we were raised quite often explains why we act the way we do, but it never excuses it. It doesn’t matter how we were treated as a child. We all get to choose how we’re going to react as adults.
Statistics show that most people that abuse children were abused as children. But there are a lot of people that were abused as children that find a way to live in the world without abusing theirs. And we all get to make that choice as adults. So parents and children are all going to be called into judgment for their behavior. That’s how it works.
I foolishly assumed, when I began working as a therapist, that people would come to me blaming their parents for their problems. Now today, after about ten or eleven years now, the only people I’ve seen do that are addicts. And they always blame everybody. Most of the people that I see – that come to me with problems – have to have it pointed out to them that the reason they are having problems is because of the way they grew up. A lot people ask me, “Why do I do this?” or “Why am I like this?” So I don’t help them understand that their parents were part of the problem so that they can blame their parents for it, but to help them understand how the problem developed so they can do something effective about it. Their parents can fix it now. It’s too late. They’re adults. And most of us, as parents, we learn too late what we did wrongly. By the time we learn about the problem, they’re adults and they’re out of our range to help.
So, back to the woman in the beginning: what should she do? Being around her mother upsets her. It’s kind of toxic for her. It tears her down. She doesn’t want it that way. She wants to take care of her mother. She would love to have a loving relationship with her mother, but her mother resists all effforts to do that.
I kind of laid out a little scenario for her about what kind of mental health labels might be attached to those behaviors, and said, “So what can you do about those things?” She said, “Nothing. I’m just the kid. She won’t listen to me.” I said, “Exactly right.” Nobody can overcome their own mental health problems unless they want to. And she, right now, doesn’t want to. So there isn’t anything you can do about that. So what is she left with? Well, what she is left with is an internal tension between honoring and protecting her mother and, on the other side of it, protecting herself from her mother. So she’s locked in this struggle to take care of her mother and herself, And as long as she knows that, then the struggle –how imperfectly waged – is probably the best she’s going to be able to do with it. As she struggles with her mother, she’s going to learn a lot about her relationship with her son, about herself, about her mother.
I know those of us who are black and white thinkers find that kind of an answer very frustrating, but that’s just the way things are sometimes. Perhaps God isn’t as black and white as some of us are. Maybe He knows that neat and tidy isn’t always helpful. And maybe He wants us to struggle with messy things so that we can become mature in Jesus Christ. In fact, I think I remember a scripture about that somewhere. You can look for it, if you like.
I’m going to leave you with one thought. Struggling to resolve family problems is one of the most worthwhile things to struggle over. The benefits can be life-changing, if we’re willing to hang in there and fight that fight.
Now, you may have noticed that I stopped short of any concrete suggestions in this presentation. We were only wanting to paint a picture of the situation here. There remains the need to offer specific suggestions for struggling and changing. And we have lots of those to offer. And we’re going to do that soon, but not today. So watch the Website for the next one on this topic. You should be seeing it fairly soon.