Reconciling with your child after traumatizing your child

Psychologist Joshua Coleman talks about the difficult situation of trying to reconcile with your adult child who you have abused or neglected
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Reconciling with your child after traumatizing your child

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So sometimes I work with parents who have done really egregious things and it’s not very surprising to anybody that their adult child wouldn’t want to have a relationship with them. Perhaps they molested their child, or they were physically abusive or they were neglectful or they abandon their child. I don’t think anybody could really blame child for having those feelings yet, so many of these parents have been traumatized themselves. So many of them come from child abuse themselves. Those who go on to molest their own children have typically been molested themselves, so some parents really have traumatized their child. But a certain percentage of those parents are able to reconcile with their adult children because they’re able to really speak to the trauma that they induce in their children. If you molested your child or you physically abused them or you were an alcoholic or a drug addict and you neglected your child or you raised them in a chaotic household, you actually do owe your child as an adult, not only an apology for that, but an apology that may take years. Your adult child, if they’re willing to talk to you and be engaged with you, it may take them years to reconcile with you. And the biggest thing you have going in your favor is your dedication, your love, your honesty, your sincerity and your ability to take responsibility no matter how mad and hurt your child is, to keep staying in the game. Your child says, “You screwed you my life,” you have to say, “You’re right. I did and I feel awful about that and I will carry that feeling to my grave.” Your kid says, “I can never forgive you,” you say, “I don’t blame you. What did happen to me I couldn’t forgive my father either or my mother either. I totally understand. I’m not excusing it but I’m saying you don’t have to forgive me. I’m not actually asking you to forgive me. I hope you will. I really am hoping that you will but I will not blame you if you don’t.” So sometimes it will happen that the adult child will say, “Okay, you can be back in my life but only this far. You can’t play with your grandchildren. If we meet, we’re going to meet at a café for 20 minutes and see how it goes. If that goes okay maybe it will be more than that, maybe I won’t see you again for a year.” What you have to see as a parent, and not only cases where you’ve traumatized your adult child, but in general these days, if an adult child doesn’t want to have a relationship with a parent, they’re not going to have a relationship with a parent. So it is particularly true if you’ve really done things to harm your child. So if your adult child says you can’t play with the grandkids, “I don’t feel comfortable with it,” say, “Okay, sweetheart. I understand. I’m just thrilled that you’re willing to let me even have any kind of a relationship with you.” The more you meet your child where they are, the more you accept where they are and don’t push them one inch past that, the more credibility you have, the more they feel like the potential for trust can be rebuilt. The more you say, “Look, I did the best that I could. Or it was your mother’s fault or your dad’s fault. I’ve been in recovery. I was an alcoholic at the time,” you lose credibility. You don’t explain, you don’t rationalize or any of those things.

Psychologist Joshua Coleman talks about the difficult situation of trying to reconcile with your adult child who you have abused or neglected

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Expert Bio

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Joshua Coleman, PhD

Author & Psychologist

Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-partisan organization composed of leading sociologists, historians, psychologists and demographers dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. He has lectured at Harvard University and The University of California at Berkeley and blogs on parent-adult child relationships for the U.C. Berkeley publication, Greater Good Magazine, the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

Dr. Coleman is frequently contacted by the media for opinions and commentary about changes in the American family. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, and The BBC, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, PBS, AARP,  America Online Coaches,  and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. His advice appears often in The New York Times, The Times of London, Fortune, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Psychology Today, U.S. World and News Report, Parenting Magazine, The Baltimore Sun and many others.

He has served on the clinical faculties of The University of California at San Francisco, The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology, and the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books:  When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along (HarperCollins) The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin's Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin's Press); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. He is formerly a contributing editor to Twins Magazine.

 Dr. Coleman is a sought-after public speaker on topics related to the family. He is also co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of the yearly online volume, Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.  He runs a popular webinar series for estranged parents and a free newsletter for parents, The Coleman Report.

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