Adults Honoring Parents 2

How can adult children resolve long-standing differences with parents? The second of this two-part Adults Honoring Parents shows how.

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In the first part of this presentation, we discussed the parent-child relationship. Today, we’re going to look at some ways to resolve parent and adult-child conflict, and talk some about how to forgive each other of past problems.

I want to talk first about the path to healing – if there is a relational breach. In the attachment literature, they talk about relational rupture. They like the alliteration, I guess. And that’s what I’m talking about here.

Healing comes from two elements. It comes from the expression of regret and it comes from forgiveness. From my experience – in working with a lot of parent/child relationships – both parents and adult children, generally, need to feel some of both – regret and forgiveness – though I’ve seen cases where children really didn’t do anything wrong. And we say, “Oh, that’s just so hard – you know, that forgiveness thing, that feeling regret thing.” Well, it seems hard and it’s hard for a reason. Anger prevents forgiveness and regret. If we’re angry, it’s hard to feel those feelings of regret and to forgive.

So how do we reduce anger? I think I’ve told you before about the girl who was mistreated repeatedly by a string of her mother’s druggie boyfriends through her life. Her earliest recollection was two years old. She could remember being mistreated that early. She came to therapy because she was raging. She was going off on people for the slightest thing. Well, after working for several months on her problem, she stopped raging. She was able to overcome that problem. How did that happen? Well, she processed her pain and her fears.

Pain and fear prevent the reduction of anger. That’s what causes anger – is pain and fear. So we took a history of every painful and fearful thing that happened to her – very systematically – and we systematically talked about each one, and we used the brain-cell healing mechanism to reduce the pain and the fear. In her case, she didn’t forgive her mother, because her mother continued to do hurtful things to her. But she accepted her mother as a hurtful person. She quit saying, “You shouldn’t be like that.” She accepted the fact that that is what she was. She also understands now that her mother hurts her because of hurtful things that were done to her mother. She has an understanding – persepective – that she didn’t have before. I asked her what she felt like – what it felt like – to do that work. She said that it felt like she let go of it. She quit thinking about it in hurtful terms.

So what was that that she did? Well, we call that processing the event. What is processing? Well, processing is to resolve the painful feelings so that anger and fear can melt away – to understand one’s own experiences and feelings, to understand the experience and feelings of parents or children, depending – to just let go – to not bother with it any longer – no longer angry, no longer sad and no longer afraid.

And we say, “That’s so hard!” Actually, you know, that can be pretty easy sometimes. I was talking with a man who had been afraid all his life. We took a history with him, too. He recounted a time when he was four years old when his grandfathers got into a fist fight at Christmas at his house. When children witness violence, it’s as though violence was done to them emotionally. So I asked him what emotions he got when he thought about it. He said, “Fear,” and he put his fists up on his chests – you know, to indicate that that is where he felt it. So we activated that healing mechanism with him, and, as we went through the process, he started out saying, “I was so afraid. They were so selfish. They were so mean. There was nowhere I could go to hide.” And he ended up, fifteen minutes later, saying, “Neither one of them really realized how it was affecting me,” and “years later they resolved it between themselves,” and “time for me to get over it; they didn’t even know how they were affecting me. It’s in the past.” So I said, “How do you feel now?” He said, “It’s no big deal.” “How’s your chest?” “Feels fine. Whoa! That’s weird!” He really said that. In just a few minutes, he took the scariest thing that ever happened to him in his life and took all the fear and the pain out of it.

If you want to know the brain science of that, those memories are locked into a painful, emotional state in the emotional part of the brain when we’re little. That doesn’t just happen to children. It can happen to people in war or auto accidents or any kind of traumatic thing. The brain, when it’s under stress…it’s memory storing mechanism malfunctions and puts memory where it doesn’t belong. It puts it in the limbic system quite often. We, through the process that the brain has, move those memories into the logical side of the neocortex. So it’s not experience that is fearful any longer, but something that he can think about. While he was processing, he forgave both of them, because he wasn’t afraid any more. It was easy then.

So how does one process painful emotion? If you have a history with your parents or your child, how do you process that? Well, I had an excellent example come to my office once – a ninteen-year-old college sophomore. She told me how angry she was with her father. At the same time, she hated feeling that way. So she really had a lot of ambivalence. She hated the way he treated her, but she desperately wanted him to love her and to love him. She just cried her heart out. I just felt so sorry for her. I asked her, “What do you want to accomplish in here?” She said, “I want to stop being so angry and so sad and so hurt. I know my father will never love me, but I need to get past that. I’m nineteen years old.” Such a brave young girl – much braver than a lot of guys I know, actually – willing to tackle that one at nineteen. Pretty impressive, actually. She can do that. She’s going to be able to do that. We’re going to talk about all of that, and we’re going to process it with EMDR, and, in the end, she’s going to feel a lot better. And she’s going to accept the fact that her dad is the way he is and she’s going to go on. That’s going to help her to be present with her children when she has them. It’s going to help her, because she won’t necessarily need to marry somebody that is abusive like her father – or disconnected. I don’t think he ever abused her. It will help her in every way. It will help her with her sense of self and she’s going to be fine in the long run.

What else can people do? We’re talking about psychotherapy – that’s one thing. But just making sense of life is very helpful for people. Right? Well, we don’t seem to have time until we turn forty or fifty – a lot of us. But it’s a good thing to do.

We can pray and ask God to give us insight and guidance about problems that we have in our lives, and to show us what to do to help us with our emotions. Come to understand family history and know how we got to be the way we are, and what our parents and grandparents were like, and our siblings, and our cousins, and aunts and uncles. Talk to people who know the family. To journal is a good thing to do – to keep a record of your thoughts so that you can look back on it after the event and logically understand what happened. Some people process things very well with art and music. Yeah, that’s what that is all about. Art is all about expression of feelings. Working on the family narrative. What’s that? The greatest predictor of secure attachment is an unbiased, coherent, well-ordered story of one’s life experience.

When I was talking with this nineteen-year-old, she was kind of all over the place. There was no orderly story about how things happened. That is an indicator of an insecure attachment. Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that, listening to her. That’s what she is complaining about. But when she’s done, she’s going to be able to tell a story about her life’s experience with her father and her family. And it’s going to be orderly and it’s going to be matter-of-fact. She’s going to be able to explain the good and the bad. Right now she’s just focusing on the bad. But she’s going to be able to tell that story, in a more mature and orderly way, than she can now.

So all of these things – and there are many more things – but anything that can help add clarity and maturity and help us put things in perspective is going to be really good for us to help us get past things that have happened in the past – to let go of hurts and anger – to help us see what we need to regret, what we need to be forgiven for, and what we need to forgive other people for. It helps us to be humble when we can tell that coherent story and admit our part of the problem, if there is one.

Something else that can be done, too, is family therapy. Once people have done enough individual work, if they can be present with each other without upset, then it is possible to delve into relationship problems.

I was talking with a couple for the first time some time ago and they couldn’t even explain the problem to me without going off on each other. They both just went ballistic. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that nothing good is going to happen there if all they do is rip each other apart in the sessions. I was able to look at them and see that they were both angry people suffering from wrong received as children. I suggested that they drop the marriage counseling until they both did some individual work. I have a feeling that, if they both do their individual work, they won’t need marriage counseling anymore. But that’s a problem sometimes for some people. When parents and children can’t talk about the issues with some success, that’s usually an indicator that unresolved stuff is undermining the family work. So it would be good to seek help on personal issues before engaging in relationship issues.

If a person does that, then that’s going to help all their relationships in their whole life – work, family, marriage, children – everything. Especially children, because children trigger our kid stuff. They remind us of our kid stuff.

I did a workshop in Grand Blanc, Michigan, the other day at a school. One of the people there – a lady – mentioned that…. The exercise was to ask, “What is it your child does that really sets you off and why is that?” This lady said, “Well, when my daughter won’t listen to me, I get instantly angry.” And she said, “The reason for that is my mother never listened to me.” So when people don’t listen to her – it doesn’t matter who it is – she gets upset. She probaby gets upset when her husband does that, as well. But that’s because of stuff that happened to her when she was a child.

Another thing that I’ve got…. I have four areas here when we talk about processing – psychotherapy, making sense of life, family therapy, and then communication with the family, eventually.

Now I’m going to talk to you for awhile about how to communicate to enhance relationships. Now I’ve taught this before. Some people with good memories may remember it. In fact, everywhere I go I teach this because it works so well. It’s actually a good thing for me that most people forget it or blow it off or don’t use it. Because it’s such a powerful tool for healing that if everybody used it, I’d be out of work. It would take care of so many problems. Such a powerful tool! It’s a three-step process for effective communication in families between parents and adult children. I think, probably, teenagers could do this, too. If a child is actually too young to participate in the process, if parents do their part with the child, everything will be fine in short order. I’ve definitely proven that.

So there are three skills involved here. The first one is called the listening skill. Here’s what it entails. You listen to what the other person is saying. But instead of responding to them immediately, you say back what you heard. You reflect back to them what you got. And you add in the feelings that you think they might feel. Well, what if I don’t get it right? All the more reason to really attune yourself to them – pay attention to body language and see if you can pick up how they’re feeling. Then, once you’ve done that, you ask if you’ve got it right – if you’ve understood them correctly.

For example, if someone says, “Everytime we talk, it always end up the same way. You don’t listen.” The other could say, “It seems to you that I don’t understand you. And that has discouraged you from talking to me. And it hurts you and makes you angry all at once. Did I get that right?”

Okay, so notice what this does in the conversation. It slows it way down – way down. It also keeps us in the thinking part of the brain, instead of the “lose it” part. If you’re thinking, you can’t lose it. If you maintain your ability to think clearly, you don’t lose it. It also gives us accurate information, confirmed by the person we’re trying to understand. There has to be a mental shift here, because most of us aren’t trying to understand. We’re trying to be understood. So there has to be a shift here with what we’re going to commit to. It also requires that we listen, instead of thinking of what to say next, because we have to repeat back what we heard.

You’ve had a conversation before with people, where you know they were just waiting – like in the starting blocks – for you to get down so they could blast off with what they wanted to say. You can’t do that in this, because you have to listen to what they’re saying and think about it. This fulfills Covey’s rule: Seek first to understand, then to be understood – which we all agree with and never do. We all try to express ourselves first and don’t worry so much about understanding the other person. It requires that we atune ourselves to the other person and really try to understand them.

I have people come into my office all the time, and they say, “I understand them already. I know they are blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And then, when we get into this, they find out they really have no clue what the other person thinks or feels.

It also reduces defensiveness. So that’s very important, isn’t it? When you’re having a conversation with somebody, if you make them feel defensive, you’re not communicating anymore. Everybody has the walls up and it’s just lobbing hand grenades back and forth at each other. Or it’s trying to pull the other person into the mud puddle over the tug-of-war. It’s not about real understanding.

Okay, so did I cover that well enough? It’s pretty simple to do, really. It’s easy to learn – well, not so easy to learn, because most of us are not used to actually doing that. We’re not used to thinking about how other people are thinking and feeling. But, if we do that, some really amazing things begin to happen.

So that leads us to the second skill – the talking skill. What you do know? There’s a listening skill, and then, when we finally understand, we actually get to talk. But we have to talk in a specific way. So this skill is about how to respond once we have understood the other person and they have said, “Yes, you got it.”

Since the point of talking is to be understood, we have to weed out any words or thoughts that would not be accepted by the other person. That makes sense, doesn’t it? So, if you want somebody to understand you, do not insult them. They’re not going to take it. Right? If somebody tells you, “Well, you always say that!”, what are you going to say back? “I don’t always say that!” Nobody’s says something all the time, right? So always and never are never to be used, unless you use it like I just did. You can never accuse somebody of always or never doing anything, if you want to get your point across.

The second thing to think about is, you have to be an expert on your own feelings, not the feelings of other people. Any time somebody tells you how you feel, you automatically think, “Well, how do you know?” So we don’t want to do that to people. Just to give you an example: Not just our own feelings, but what we thought we heard. Instead of saying, “You said you were going to pick me up at eight o’clock,” we say, “I thought I heard you say you would pick me up at eight o’clock.” That makes you an expert on what you heard, not on what they said. And doesn’t it just sound so much kinder and more easy going?

What would be another example? We could say, “Well, you hate me!” So there we are – being an expert on their feelings, right? “When you yell at me, it feels to me like you hate me.” Expert on how it seems to me. Right? Can anybody argue with that? No.

Let’s go back to the example and add in the talking – if someone says, “Every time we talk it always ends up the same way. You don’t listen.” Well, the other could say, “It seems to you that I don’t understand you and that has discouraged you from talking to me. And it hurts you and makes you angry all at once. Did I get that right?” “Well, almost. It also makes me not want to be around you.” Now, while that’s not fun to hear, it’s really important to know that, isn’t it? And we wouldn’t have known it, except for this process. When people hear their own words coming back to them, it helps them realize, “Oh, there’s more to it than that,” and they divulge more information. So they get more out on the table. And this deepens and creates more authentic communication all the time. It’s what counselors do. So we reflect that. “Oh, not only are you discouraged about talking to me, but you’re so angry you want to stay away from me now. Is that correct?” “Yes.” So, okay, now it’s time to answer. “Okay, now that I understand how you feel, I hope I can begin to correct what I’ve done. And I hope you know that I haven’t gone about to make you feel this way deliberately. I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t listening. Could you help me? Could you tell me how to know that I don’t listen, or give me an example?” “Yeah. Well, you were unaware of how your behavior has affected me. You want to understand more about what you’ve done. You might feel embarrassed. Did I get that right?” See, there’s the reflection – asking for an example. The person may say, “Yes, but I’m more ashamed than embarrassed. The last thing that I wanted to do was hurt your feelings.” So the reflection is, “You feel ashamed and didn’t intend for this to happen. Is that correct?” “Yes.” “Okay, then, to answer your question: When you go over and turn on the TV – to the football game – and yell, ‘Go Bears!’ while I’m talking to you, it makes me feel ignored.” “Oh” – here’s the reflection – “you remember last week, when the Bears game on, you were trying to tell me about your mother and I tuned you out – very frustrating, like you don’t matter to me. Did I get that right?” “Well, almost. It’s not just that. It’s like I’m not even there.” “Oh, you were talking about your family, and I turned on the TV, and tuned you out, and it made you feel invisible – like I don’t even see you.” “Yes.” “Okay, well, I’m sorry I did that. I know your mother is important to you and I’ll try to be more atuned to you. However, I recall that I missed the last three Bears games because you wanted to talk to me about your mother. It almost feels like there’s a campaign to keep me from watching TV.”

So notice how this skill causes the other person to listen without defensiveness. They’re both starting to get into that. The stuff is coming out on the table now. He’s tuning her out for one reason, and she’s not understanding what he’s done, and he’s not understanding where she was coming from. So, when you have that, then that opens the door for a solution, doesn’t it? They can start talking, then, about what to do about it – once everybody understands.

So that leads us to the third skill, which is the negotiation skill. What do we want to say about this? Well, first of all, any solutions that people come up with must work for both. If a woman is going to try to come up with a solution, she needs to remember that it has to be a solution provided by a woman who respects her husband, because that’s the biblical mandate for women with men. And a man – when he thinks up a solution for the situation – he has to remember that God commands him to love his wife as though she were a part of his own body. And he’s supposed to take care of that – to take care of her. If you come up with solutions where somebody’s a winner and somebody’s a loser, in the end, everybody loses, because resentment is created.

So let’s say we compromise and come up with something that is fair. But you know, there is even something better than that. Covey calls it the third alternative. That’s the solution that no one thought of while they were all upset and fighting and having this huge tug-of-war or grenade-throwing contest. This solution is better than a compromise, because it is something they never thought of before that works well for both.

There’s the story of the husband and wife, that both wanted the orange. Neither would give in. They both wanted the whole orange. The therapist said, “Why don’t you cut it in half,” and they said, “No, I want it all.” So they argued and fought. And finally the therapist said to the man, “Well, why do you want the orange?” And he said, “I want it for the juice.” And he asked her why she wanted it, and she said, “I want the peeling to make an orange cake.” When people explore what is important, without defensiveness and anger, a lot of times solutions can be found. Usually something that is being argued over might be important for two different reasons.

Maybe the solution to this football issue could be, “You love me and you’ll try to be more aware of me.” And “You want me to talk with you after the game about your mother, and you’re wondering if I’m being deliberate. Yes, except that it doesn’t have to be after the game. It can be before. It can happen anytime.” “So you don’t mind listening while I talk about my mother, but you also want to watch the football game.” “Yeah.” “So we both get what we want?” “Right. We don’t have get a divorce over the Bears or your mother.” See?

Parents and adult children can talk like this. They can understand each other and they can find solutions. I think, sometimes, a coach is helpful, but it can be done. We can’t talk this way if childhood issues keep triggering. But if childhood issues are out of the way, then things can go forward.

What is forgiveness? Is it undoing a wrong action? Well, you know, you can’t undo wrong actions. You can’t unring a bell. Those who have wronged us can’t go back and undo the wrong they did. That’s not what it is.

I looked at some verses in the Louw & Nida Lexicon and the first scripture was Matthew 6:12 – forgive us the wrongs that we have done. It says, to remove the guilt from wrongdoing; to pardon; to forgive; forgiveness. So it’s about letting go of the guilty thing. Matthew 26:28 – My blood, which is poured out for many – forgiveness of sins. Luke 6:37 – Forgive and you will be forgiven. Notice what the translators say here. (By the way, Louw & Nida have some of the best definitions you’ll ever find.) They say: It’s extremely important to note that the focus and the meaning of these few words is upon the guilt of the wrongdoer and not upon the wrongdoing itself. The event of wrongdoing is not undone, but the guilt resulting from such an event is pardoned. To forgive, therefore, means, essentially, to remove the guilt resulting from the wrong doing. Some languages make a clear distinction between guilt and sin, and terms for forgiveness are, therefore, related to guilt and not to the wrongdoing. Therefore, to forgive sins is, literally, to forgive guilt. So, somehow, if we’re going to forgive somebody, we can’t undo what’s been done, but we can let go.

Colossians 3:12. Let’s read that scripture.

Col. 3:12 – Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. See, that’s why Christians forgive people – because they have been forgiven of their guilty deed. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since, as members of one body, you were called to peace and be thankful.

So this is what God tells us to do. This is the bar – the standard. Sometimes it seems impossible for us to be able to get past some of these problems, but God will help us. But He expects us to put forth effort, too.

So today we’ve covered some of the steps that we can take to heal family relationships. It’s not as hard as we might think. There is help to do all these things and it’s all around us.