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Forgiving your Mom, Dad, or Caregiver

How to forgive your parents for their mistakes?

Black and white photo of young African American woman hugging an older woman.
Your caregivers may have made some big mistakes, or they might have been absent. It's hard to know how to forgive your parents sometimes.

This Mother’s Day, there are a lot of emotions that might come up from you. If you had developmental trauma, it might bring up anger, sorrow or disappointment. If you were lucky and had a good attachment to your caregivers, you might have an easier time with this time of year. You might have heard that you're "supposed to" forgive your parents because they were "doing the best they could" with the level of awareness they had at the time. And certainly, no caregiver does a perfect job. But forgiving your parents or caregivers can be tricky if they were abusive, neglectful, or absent for a big part of your life. This post addresses some of the issues to consider in forgiving your mom, dad or caregivers for what they did to you.

Insecure Attachment can Make it Hard to Forgive your Parents/Caregivers

If you did have an insecure attachment to your caregivers as an infant or small child, you may feel the need to hold onto past grudges is mostly for survival. You don't want to keep being hurt by the same situation or person. For example, if a family member has hurt you in the past, you may come to avoid or resent them. The problem is, that does not leave much room for flexibility in your response to that person. If the person who hurt you was having an off day and was generally an okay/safe person, the tendency to avoid or resent them is overkill and disproportionate to their offense.

However, if they have repeatedly hurt you despite your attempts to communicate how they've hurt you, then it makes more sense to avoid them. This self-protection is adaptive in many cases, but sometimes it is beyond what is needed to remain safe. Therefore, forgiving and having ongoing contact is not a great idea. Yet neither is dwelling on how the person hurt you. You need to remember enough about the situation to stay safe from being hurt, but you do not need to foster resentment towards that person. In fact, doing the latter is more harmful and toxic to you that it will ever be to the other person.

Will your parent take responsibility?

Some parents or caregivers realize that they didn't do that good a job. Parents in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse, or who used to have uncontrolled serious mental illness but are now practicing better self-care, can sometimes admit this and may even make amends to you as part of their recovery program. This can be very satisfying, but you might still be wary of them because they have hurt you so badly in the past.

If a person is willing to admit that they've hurt you, and seems sincerely interested in making efforts to be kinder, more available and to take ownership, it's much easier to trust them than if they minimize what they did. Some parents or caregivers who are narcissistic, may make it seem like you're the one who had the problem, or that you deserved mistreatment. This, obviously, makes trust harder, and for good reason.

How to Trust your parents or caregivers again?

Sometimes, trauma survivors do not know who to trust. This makes it hard difficult for you to distinguish trustworthy people from those who are truly malevolent. You may have developed a policy to avoid everyone, even people who are benevolent. This might have seemed simpler to avoid being hurt again. Yet this is a lonely choice.

At the other end of this spectrum of responses to harm is someone who repeatedly returns to an abusive situation or person. There is a trauma response called the "fawn response" where you try to make your abusers calm and happy to avoid further harm. This is a survival strategy that works when your parents are volatile, unpredictable, violent, or scary.

White parents and adult child eating meal together.
Sometimes you can get along better with your parents when you're not dependent on them for survival, and they've matured too.

Quite often, others are baffled if you continue to have a relationship despite repeated instances of abuse. Sometimes, if you're in a relationship with Intimate Partner Violence (aka domestic violence), you might have returned to abusive situations even after escaping the danger initially. Learning how to trust wisely is a big part of the interpersonal healing that must take place in trauma recovery.

To forgive or not forgive your mom, dad or caregiver?

In situations where a person is continually unkind, unfair or abusive to you, I don't see much point in subjecting yourself to that any longer. I do think that you can forgive a person without seeing them or communicating with them on a regular basis. This is something you do for yourself, not for anyone else. It's meant to release you from feeling hurt and resentment whenever they pop into your mind. Going no contact is a reasonable option if you've tried to communicate with them and they keep re-offending.

However, sometimes the situation is not as clear. The person hurt you in the past but might seem pretty harmless now. When you’ve been hurt, you want someone to pay for the injury. Sometimes, that is possible. However, many times it is not feasible or realistic. If you get caught up in demanding justice where none can be found, you waste your energy on retribution, rather than investing that energy on recovery.

With that in mind, here are some questions you can ask yourself to help to consider when thinking of forgiving your mom, dad or caregiver:

· Did the offender seem to have the intention of harming you? If so, what was the context for this harm?

· Was the harm great or small? Was it one time or repeated?

· Does the person have the opportunity or access to hurt you again?

· Is the harm over?

· What can you learn about the situation to protect yourself?

· Are your methods of self-protection all or nothing?

· Do you have a flexible response to various people and situations?

· If you applied your new information to your life going forward, could you avoid being hurt in that way again?

· Who does it serve to remain angry and upset about this?

· What can you do with that angry energy that will help you live a better life?

· Do you need to stay this mad to be safe, or is it a placeholder for your grief and hurt?

· Who would you be without the anger?

· How does the anger serve you, and how does it hurt you? One way to get new perspective on an old story that you keep replaying is to write it down. Then, write it down from the perspective of someone watching it, a neutral third-party, as if it were a video you were watching. What can you see each person doing in the video? Then, right the story from the perspective of the offender. This may be difficult, but it can help you think about what that person's true intentions were, at least from what you can gather by observation.

These questions can be journal prompts, or they can be questions to work on in psychotherapy. You can also talk to a trusted friend about what happened to you and what information is valuable for you to hold onto. The emotions are only there to let you know that something needs your attention to be safe, healthy, and secure. Beyond that, your prolonged emotions do not serve much purpose other than to let you know that you have unfinished business with this chapter of your life.

If you want to release traumatic memories and explore forgiving your mom, dad or caregiver, please give me a call at 661-233-6771.

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