Because my boys are fraternal twins, I have my own ad hoc science experiment going, and can observe how reasonably consistent parenting results in radically different 15 year-old boys. For example, one of them seems wired for immunity to parental intervention. If a conversation is going to finally and gracelessly end in “Because I said so,” it will be with him. I adore him and admire his strength of character. However, he has trouble understanding the consonant and vowel combination that forms the word, “No” and that means that we’re going to tangle more than I might wish.
The other twin is the opposite. When I’m feeling impatient, I can see the shadow of my mood inhabit him like a low-grade fever. Where the first one seems oblivious to my behavior, this one tracks it like sonar on a shifting ocean floor. It makes him sensitive and thoughtful and vulnerable to taking things much more personally than I would ever wish for him.
My grown daughter lives temperamentally between the two. She is adaptive like the latter twin, but her nature bends and bends only to whip back up and smack you in the face if you aren’t paying attention. She was easy when young, but reclaimed every inch in adolescence and early adulthood that she ceded in childhood.
It’s through my relationship with my daughter that I decided to write my book, WHEN PARENTS HURT. I was married and divorced in my twenties and became remarried nineteen years ago--ergo, the twins. While my daughter and I are now very close, we went through several years, when she was a young adult, where she hardly returned my calls and expressed very little interest in seeing me. Those were hard and disorienting years. Scratch that. Those were the most painful and confusing years of my life.
We all expect to let go of our children at some point. In many ways, we start grieving the loss of them as they take their first wobbling steps away from us. But no parent wants it like that. Not, years later, when you find yourself staring at a 3x5 photo of her when she was sitting on your shoulders at the age of three, her head happily and innocently inclined against yours, smiling at a blue, cloudless sky. Never when you wanted so badly to be a good, loving parent and reap the rewards that seem so obvious and secure in a world where, increasingly, so little seems guaranteed. Never anticipating a future when you would have to constantly try to stitch something together: a weekend, a day, a letter, a phone call to try and mend the torn tissues of connection caused by the bomb crater of divorce and its unexploded shells. Never, never, never.
Yet, whether you’re divorced or married, it can happen. And, as judged by my clients and friends, it happens a lot. I constantly hear from mothers and fathers who are carrying deep feelings of loss and longing, guilt and grief, anger and shame. Regret about how they treated their kids. Regret about how their kids treat them. Regret about how both of their lives turned out. Regret, regret, regret.
And they all want to know: What are you supposed to do with those feelings? Who is supposed to understand your waking and sleeping sorrow about the life your child is living with or without you? Or the worry that your child may never, ever get it together and become a full-functioning adult? Or the prospect of never again seeing or being close to one of the most important people in your world?
How do you admit what you’re feeling to others when doing so risks inviting more shame from their well-meaning, but often hurtful or disorienting advice; advice generated from the premise, however inexplicit, that you must have done something wrong to create distance or problems in a relationship that most assume is inviolate.
I can write about this because those years seem safely behind me, or so I hope. Whatever needed to be bridged has been bridged and the water beneath my daughter and me runs relatively clear. Fortunately I had a few friends who had been through similar ruptures, or were going through theirs at the same time: friends whose teens or young adults were struggling with addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, cutting themselves, suicide attempts, school failure, or just pushing them away. Having other parents to offer their own wisdom and guidance--who can calm you down when you want to launch an outraged letter to your child, a payback of withdrawal, a deluge of unwanted advice--is priceless.
So, I decided to write a book for parents who were going through this struggle. The book has less to do with my desire for you to be a good parent, and more with my wish to get you back on your feet.
Please join me for a live tomorrow, Thursday, July 19th at 7:30pm ET for a live chat to discuss my new book WHEN PARENTS HUR and parent and teenager/adult child relationships on Gather's new Family Essential.
Sign up today for Dr. Joshua Coleman's FREE monthly ezine at www.drjoshuacoleman.com. Dr. Coleman is an internationally known expert in parenting, couples, families, and relationships. He is the author of 4 books, the newest WHEN PARENTS HURT: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins) was just released. A frequent guest on the Today Show, he has also appeared on ABC 20/20, Good Morning America, the BBC, and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, and NBC television. Dr. Coleman's advice has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Psychology Today, The London Times, and many other publications. He is a Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families and has a private practice in San Francisco and Oakland, California.