Dear Doctor George...

I'm a middle-aged man and my parents are getting older, to the point where they don't have all that much time left. I would like to reach some resolution about unpleasant things that happened in my childhood. They were not the best of parents, but I feel a sense of forgiveness now, especially since I've had my own kids and know firsthand how hard it is to be a parent. Also, I recognize they had rough childhoods themselves.

They have admitted some of their mistakes and regrets and I don't want to rake them over the coals or anything. I just want to make sure things are right between us before they die. But I'm having trouble getting up the courage to talk to them and I'm not sure what I would say.

What do you recommend, Doctor George?

... Wanting to Reconcile with Parents




Dear Wanting...

Maybe the best way to answer your question is to share the experience that Doctor George had with his own father.

Before doing that, however, there's something worth mentioning. In order for one to reconcile with their parents, it is necessary that parents be willing to change (as best as they are able), admit their mistakes, and make every effort to correct them. If the parent persists in dysfunctional behaviors, rigid self-righteous justifications and self-deception about the past, then the adult child may need to abandon hope for reconciliation.

There are cases where it is better if the relationship does not continue because it will only result in further emotional wounding and pain for the adult child. Here's what someone can ask themselves: Did their parent do the best job that she or he could do? It is more appropriate to forgive a parent who can acknowledge their failure, than a parent who persists in distorting the past without admission.

One of the reasons Doctor George became a psychologist was to understand and heal the emotional wounds that were caused by his dysfunctional family upbringing. Doctor George's father was a World War II vet who had never fully recovered from the emotional trauma of the war. His unresolved emotional trauma overshadowed his parenting, making him irritable and angry, and impossible to relate to (something like Clint Eastwood's character Walt Kowalski in the film Gran Torino).

In his old age, Doctor George's father had to be admitted to intensive care for a serious medical condition. This made Doctor George realize that there was unfinished business in their relationship. At the advice of another psychotherapist who works with traumatized veterans -- yes, psychologists need to see therapists, too -- Doctor George, standing by his father's bedside, told him two things: "I love you," and "I understand what the war did to you and how it affected your parenting of me in my childhood."

His father replied, "I love you too and I am sorry for the mistakes I made as a father. All of them." Then his father let out a huge sigh of relief and broke down crying. Doctor George was then able to comfort his father by telling him, "Everything is okay, Dad. It's all okay now. Don't worry." His father said, "This makes me feel so good." This was the best moment Doctor George ever had with his father and one of the best moments of both of their lives.

One more thing worth mentioning: For a longer conversation, and when someone wants to get something big off their chest, it's often best to tell the other person your purpose before getting into any detail. Otherwise, as soon as the topic becomes clear to the other person, they can get unduly defensive. On the other hand, if you start off with something like, "I love you and I want to have a conversation to help bring us closer," or words similar to that effect, the other person can relax and hear what you have to say.

Best wishes in healing your relationship with your parents.

   Doctor George