It's another holiday season, another time when adult children may be reconnecting with their parents — or remembering why they’re not.
Some of those reasons can be frightening; memories of severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of parents can later lead to severed relationships when the child is able to stand on his or her own.
But is this kind of cut off protecting the child-cum-adult from further abuse, or possibly inflicting more harm?
Dr. Monica McGoldrick, director of the Multicultural Family Institute in Highland Park, N.J., and author of the book, You Can Go Home Again, recommends that adult children always be open to the possibility of reconnecting with abusive parents.
During a recent interview, she explained that no one starts out wanting to be a lousy parent. But its impact can be lingering and far-reaching.
Adult children may wind up imitating their parents’ abusive behaviors without realizing it. So understanding why their parents acted the way they did can actually help the children entering into adulthood understand their own mean streaks or the times when they shut down emotionally, she says.
And with better self-understanding, adds the author, early victims of abuse can change and end the cycle.
McGoldrick adds that reconnecting with an abusive parent should not be a relationship entered into blindly, however. If a parent resumes his or her abusive behavior, the son or daughter should put a hold on the relationship.
But the child shouldn’t give up on the idea that a better outcome could happen in the future. McGoldrick says that people/ parents do change, even if it’s not until they are on their deathbed.
On the other hand, Dr. Marion Lindblad-Goldberg, director of the Philadelphia Child and Family Therapy Training Center, says adult children reconnecting with their parents is a decision they must make themselves — possibly with the help of a counselor, but without feeling forced into it.
Goldberg reviews the situation with a client and helps the patient weigh the pluses and minuses. But ultimately, it’s still the client’s decision.
If adult children choose to disconnect, Goldberg does recommend that they work through their family issues. She says disconnecting with a parent is tough, no matter how abusive a parent has been, and an adult child should not disconnect out of anger, out of a desire to hurt a parent.
Instead it’s best that adult children explore their options and decide if disconnecting works better for them and their own new families.
Rabbi Fredi Cooper, former family therapist and current assistant professor of practical rabbinics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College as well as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, says that reconnecting with a parent may not be beneficial, depending on the severity of the parent’s abuse.
Despite the Fifth Commandment to honor thy father and thy mother, the Jewish tradition has also made allowances for children who can’t honor their parents, he advises.
For example, when Maimonides, the renowned medieval Jewish thinker, discusses repentance, he says that a person should ask forgiveness from a wronged individual three times. If forgiveness still isn’t given, the atoner is not obligated to ask again.
Cooper says if a parent attempts to be forgiven three times, and the child still can’t forgive because the parent’s abuse was too serious, the child shouldn’t feel guilty about being unable to forgive.
Biblical stories illustrate how family dysfunction isn’t a modern dilemma, says Cooper. For example, Cain killed his brother, Abel; Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac; and Esau threatened to kill his brother, Jacob.
Cooper recommends that if adult children decide to reconnect with parents, they need to be realistic. Given the past challenges in the relationship, they probably won’t start meeting the parent for dinner every other week. It’s also helpful to have an exit plan in case the meeting turns out even worse than expected.
Cooper emphasizes that every family has some checkered history. Despite the happy images of families getting together for the holidays on TV or in magazines, many people go to these gatherings with clammy hands.
Asked what is the ideal family, Cooper replies that the concept of an “ideal family is mythical.”