I am working with clients who had alcoholic parents. These clients, now adults, tend to downplay the seriousness of their parents’ addiction. In other words, the clients tend to say this: “My parents simply did the best that they could.” There is an obvious denial of injustice by the parents. Here is the complication: The clients in so denying any wrongdoing by the parents are taking out their anger on their own children. What do you suggest I do to break this hurtful denial in my clients?
Denial can take time, but I find that emotional pain can break through the denial when you ask about that inner pain. So, to start, I suggest that you ask these questions of your clients: How are your children doing? Are they having any adjustment problems? What is the nature of these problems? Do you feel sad or frustrated or scared when you see the challenges in your children?
Give the clients a chance to see the children’s adjustment challenges and to assess their own (the clients’) pain regarding those challenges. Once the clients can see their own pain with regard to their own children’s struggles, now it is time to ask the clients: Are your children possibly inheriting your own discontent, anger, sadness, or other emotional challenges?
It is at this point that you can begin to explore the family-of-origin hurts that the clients had experienced. In summary, start with the clients’ children’s difficulties which likely are present. Then turn to how the clients’ own challenges are affecting their children. This can serve as motivation for the clients to see how they have inherited pain and now are passing this on to their own children. At this point, the clients may be open to forgiving their own parents.
Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.
A critic of forgiveness education said to me that forgiveness education will never be effective if the students keep getting contradictory messages between home and school. As teachers do forgiveness education instruction in school, this can be undone in the home as parents are passive toward or against the idea of forgiveness. What are your thoughts on this?
It is an imperfect world and we get contradictory messages all the time. Do we give up on that which can be helpful to students because parents have not had the opportunity to explore forgiveness in some depth? Having a chance to explore forgiveness and giving it a try in school might help the children to overcome unjust treatment even when parents give a different message.
I know that self-forgiveness follows a similar path as occurs when forgiving another person for unjust behavior. Do you think there is more to self-forgiveness than this?
Yes. As people realize that they have broken their own standards, it is common that they also have offended other people. For example, even if someone was intoxicated, was speeding alone in the car, crashed and broke a leg, this is not an isolated event. Family members may have to drive the person to work for a while. The employer may be inconvenienced because of days missed in rehabilitation of the leg. The insurance company now has to pay for this intemperate action. So, as you self-forgive, consider who has been hurt by your actions. You might want to go to at least some of them (family members, for example) and ask for forgiveness.
For additional information, see Self-Forgiveness.
Your critic has another issue on which I would like you to respond, please. He is a mental health professional who said this: One of his clients who was angry about her divorce sent a strong letter to her ex-husband asserting how unfair he was. This made her feel much better. There was no need for forgiveness. How would you respond?
The technique employed above is what we call catharsis, or “letting off steam.” Yes, this can help in the short-run. As you ask someone who just sent such a letter, you might get a report of feeling empowered or relieved. Yet, there is a 25-year longitudinal study by Judith Wallerstein who found that many people who felt unjustly treated in the divorce are still suffering from considerable anger 10 years after the divorce. In other words, the short-term catharsis may not last and may require a stronger approach to reduce unhealthy anger. Forgiveness may be more effective in the long-run, if the client willingly chooses forgives and is not pressured into it.
For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.
Melissa Ohden’s mother was 19 years old, unmarried, and eight months pregnant in August 1977 when she went to a hospital in Iowa for the first step in what the medical profession calls a “hypertonic saline abortion.” Five days later, and unknown to her mother, Melissa was born alive and the staff left her to die in a pile of medical waste.
Soon after the birth, however, another nurse entered the delivery room, heard a faint rustling noise, and discovered Melissa still alive. The nurse rushed Melissa to the neonatal intensive care unit where the 2 lb. 14 oz. child was treated for jaundice, respiratory distress, and seizures but miraculously survived.
Melissa was released from the hospital three months later to the care of a loving couple in a nearby community that adopted and raised her alongside their own children. Years later, when Melissa learned that she was adopted, she began a quest to find–and forgive–her parents.
After seventeen years of fruitless searching, Melissa was finally able to track down her father who did not respond to her queries prior to his death. Through her father’s relatives, however, she was able to get enough information to find her mother who had married another man. Her mother, who had no idea her daughter had survived the abortion attempt, said she had felt guilty every day since then about what she had done.
In an interview with the Daily Mail (a daily newspaper in London, UK), Melissa shared her incredible story and explained how she has forgiven her mother and father–as well as her grandmother who was apparently the major catalyst for the abortion.
“It’s been a long and painful journey from shame and anger to faith and forgiveness. But I refuse to be poisoned by bitterness — that’s no way to live,” Melissa told the reporter. “Through my Catholic faith I have learned to forgive. It doesn’t make what happened okay, but it releases you from the pain. We are all human and we all make mistakes. I have only forgiveness in my heart. . .”
Melissa, now 42 years old, is married with two children of her own. She has a master’s degree in social work , is an accomplished motivational speaker, and has also started an organization called the Abortion Survivors Network. She wrote an engaging book about her life: You Carried Me: A Daughter’s Memoir, and is the subject of the 2011 award-winning documentary, A Voice for Life.