You Can Validate Your Adult Child’s Complaints About Their Childhood While Still Cherishing Your Own Positive Memories
I work with many older adults who struggle with their relationships with their adult children. These adult children often have deep-seated and long-standing grievances about their childhoods, and they desperately wish for their parents to recognize and validate these feelings. Often, the parent feels deeply hurt and shocked by their child’s memories of their upbringing and believes that the child is, for some unknown reason, purposefully forgetting all the positive things that the parent did with the child, and creating a false narrative where the child’s childhood was entirely negative.
Since the parent has many positive and happy memories of activities with their child, and remembers the child as a happy child, at least a lot of the time, the parent tends to act defensive and argue that the child isn’t remembering their past accurately and is retrospectively painting the parent as a villain. The adult child, who is usually not discounting their entire childhood as a horror show but instead asking the parent to validate certain key experiences that hurt the child, feels misunderstood and defensive in response, and focuses even more on the grievances versus the positive times.
In this age of increased awareness of the connections between dysfunctional upbringings and later emotional issues, many adult children hold their parents to a new set of standards without recognizing how it was virtually unknown in previous generations that a difficult or sad upbringing often sets a child up for a difficult and sad adulthood, or at least a tendency in this direction that often requires therapy and profound effort to overcome. But now that this is more widely understood, many sad and angry adult children may predicate their ongoing relationship with their parents on their parents’ ability and willingness to reconsider how their missteps may have impacted their child in various negative ways. Parents that can open their minds to do this have a much better chance at having a positive relationship with their adult kids.
In this post, I discuss ways for mothers to have happier relationships with their adult daughters, and one of the ways I mention is asking yourself:
“Am I emotionally open to feedback?” It is likely that your daughter or daughter in law has been trying, over the years, to gently or not-so-gently tell you what her issues with you are. But if every time she tries, you get so defensive and bent out of shape that she retreats, then you’re not trying to be close and genuine yourself. An authentic relationship is one where each person respects the other person’s boundaries and feedback. So, if your daughter always says you criticize her, and you’ve been dismissing this for years, it’s time to take a step back and examine if what she says may be true. And if it is, you need to start working on it.
This goes even more for recognizing and respecting your adult child’s feelings and memories about their upbringing. Usually, a parent hears “You didn’t try hard enough to be a good parent to me, and that ruined my life” when the child is actually saying, “I have X specific feeling about X specific thing that happened when I was growing up, and I deeply wish that you would hear me and empathize.” If you are able to be present for and truly hear what your adult child is saying, they will finally feel understood and validated by you. Then, they will likely be able to have more of the close and connected relationship with you that you both wish for.
Often, a parent feels that by admitting that their adult child’s childhood was deficient in whatever way(s) that the child brings up, they are being forced to erase their own memories of all of the happy times, and to only view their child’s upbringing through a negative lens. This could not be further from the truth. You know, as any parent does, when your child actually feels joy. There are very very few cases, and those are stories of horrific abuse and neglect, when a child does not feel any joy in their life at all. You remember seeing joy on your child’s face when they were small, and that is and was real. You can remember those moments with pride and happiness WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY admitting to yourself and to your child that you also failed them in many key ways. You can tell them that you wish you had known at that time how badly they were struggling in certain ways because, at least in part, of your lack of understanding of how your behavior affected them.
Here is a fictional example that is similar in flavor to many of the clients I work with:
Mary is 65 and her daughter Jessica is 43. Throughout Jessica’s childhood, Mary had a lot of marital conflict with Jessica’s dad Fred, an alcoholic with anger issues whom she ending up divorcing twenty years ago. Jessica is a sensitive, anxious and depressed woman who struggles with her own parenting and marriage. She tells her mother that the marital conflict that she observed as a child was incredibly stressful. She wishes her mother wouldn’t have waited until she, Jessica, was an adult to divorce Fred. She has told Mary that Mary’s fear of being alone condemned Jessica to a stressful upbringing where she was constantly walking on eggshells around her father, from whom she is now estranged. The main memories that Jessica recounts to Mary, especially after Jessica started therapy, involve times when Mary and Fred had loud fights in front of her and one time where Fred punched a wall and left a hole that Jessica remembers was not fixed for months and made her too embarrassed to bring friends home from school.
Mary feels terrible when Jessica brings these things up. She in fact feels that staying with Fred was not primarily due to fear of being alone but because Fred and Jessica had a close relationship that Jessica now repudiates entirely. She remembers family trips during times that Fred’s drinking was more controlled, and sometimes even sends Jessica family pictures from those trips to show “how happy we were.” She also insists that Fred repaired the hole that he punched in the wall within a few days. These responses enrage Jessica and she has now threatened to “go no contact” with Mary because Mary is “gaslighting” her, phrases which terrify Mary and make her even more hell bent on “proving” to her daughter that she was not a bad mother and that Jessica’s childhood was nowhere near bad enough to merit estrangement from both parents.
Although of course we can understand how scared and sad Mary is and why she is reacting in these ways, she is unfortunately doing exactly the wrong thing if she wants a relationship with her daughter. Mary fears what would happen if she admitted what is at the edge of her consciousness, namely that there was a lot of stress in the house and she seems to have made the wrong choice, in retrospect, by staying in her marriage for so long. She is scared of what would happen if she verbalized this feeling. She fears that (1) her pride in herself as a mother and all the joy she took in her daughter’s childhood would have to be completely destroyed, and (2) that Jessica would say, “Ha! You admit it! Now I can entirely dissociate myself from you without any guilt.”
In fact, the opposite would happen, from what I have seen in my older adult clients in this situation. When the parent validates the adult child’s sad, angry, or hurt feelings and memories, the child finally calms down, as does any human who receives empathy and validation. Then, a conversation can actually begin that can bring the parent and adult child closer, instead of an argument about whose memories are “right.” The parent can keep their own memories and is in no way forced to erase them because of admitting that their child experienced pain in their childhood that impacts them today. And in a wonderful irony, the adult child can often begin to access their own positive memories of their upbringing, because they don’t need to focus on only the negative in order to convince their parent of their viewpoint. Here is one possible way this could go:
Mary: You know, I have started therapy, as you have always suggested I do.* I have realized that my defensiveness about staying married to Dad is pushing you away. I do have many regrets about things. I may be wrong about the wall, for example. Maybe it’s what I want to remember. Either way, I am embarrassed that I kept you in a home where a hole ever got punched in a wall. I know you tell me that you are not the best mother you can be because you learned so little from me, and that you may have been drawn to a man with anger issues because of seeing me with Dad. I am sorry. I do know though that I have never seen anything like hole punched in the wall of your home and for that alone you should be proud of yourself for giving your kids a more stable upbringing than I gave you.
Jessica: Well. I mean, thank you. It shouldn’t be a high bar for parenting not to have a hole punched in the wall, but, I mean…. Well, that’s what I’ve been saying for years. You’re really in therapy, Mom? What do you and the therapist talk about?
I don’t lie in these posts or to my clients for that matter, so I did not write that Jessica’s response would be throwing her arms around her mother, thanking her for her kind words and bringing up the fun family trip they took for her tenth birthday. But, you can see that Jessica’s response is cautiously forward-looking, and you can see her desire to talk more about her mom about this topic. Jessica and Mary are in the very first stages of a more authentic relationship that can provide both of them with at least some of the healing parent-child closeness that they yearn for. If Mary stays openminded, their relationship will only deepen over time.
Apologizing to your adult child for your parenting regrets can be transformational. Parents who can genuinely do this can often entirely change the frame of their parent-child relationship no matter how many years have elapsed. And apologizing DOES NOT MEAN that you are giving your adult child permission to end their relationship with you. It is the exact opposite. Validating their memories brings them closer. They are not looking for “proof” from you that they would be correct to stop talking to you. They have all the proof they need in their own memories (and they do not need your permission to stop speaking to you). They are looking for the opposite: proof that you love them enough to validate their pain, so that they can have a relationship with you that feels genuine and is based on reality.
To continue our hypothetical example, picture that Mary knows that Fred and Jessica used to play Monopoly and Jessica loved it. She often soothes herself with this memory when she feels any doubts about having chosen to stay with Fred. But if she harps on this memory and insists to herself and to Jessica that playing Monopoly and taking some trips made up for what Jessica herself remembers as a stressful and trying childhood is disrespectful, unkind, and disingenuous. Mary knows in her heart that she saw joy on her daughter’s face at times and she can always keep this memory safe and cherished. But inflicting it on her daughter to counter her daughter’s own feelings about her past is disrespectful, invalidating, and will prevent both Mary AND Jessica from having a loving relationship in the present day.
If you are an older parent in this situation, introspect deeply about why you have discounted your adult child’s retrospective narrative of their own childhood. Think about how this feels to them, and recognize that their desire to have you validate their feelings is BECAUSE they want to be close to you. You can keep your own memories safe and secure in your private heart, and also have a real and close relationship with the adult child that exists in the present. This is a best case scenario where everyone wins. If you have the emotional fortitude and courage to validate your child’s unhappy memories, you can be confident that you are CURRENTLY being a loving parent, no matter what your child remembers you as. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Your Child Is Not Rewriting History, They Are Asking You To Recognize Their Pain So That They Can Be Close To You Again.
* Note: it is very common for adult children to urge a parent into therapy and for the parent to react with defensiveness because of the exact reasons outlined in this post; they incorrectly assume that the therapist will “force” them to admit they were a terrible parent and this will somehow irrevocably erase all their positive feelings and memories of their child’s childhood. This does not happen. The therapist can help you figure out why your child is so upset, and how to balance maintaining your own self-esteem with empathy for your child in a way that allows your relationship to flourish.
Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.
This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.