Loving a Parent Who Doesn’t Love You

Jul 27, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Community,

So often I am asked, in these or similar words…

“What do I do if my Mom and Dad really didn’t love me when I was young and don’t love me now? How do I love them anyway, Dr. Peter? They think they loved me and raised me well as a kid, and they insist that they love me now. But they don’t even know me. We can’t have a discussion about whether they love me or not – the slightest criticism makes them hurt and angry. And they think I owe them certain things now as a good son, and I’m finding that I’m reacting strongly and internally rebelling against them and their demands. I don’t want to hate them, Dr. Peter, but I think I do.”

I get calls and emails like this so frequently.  Adult children from dysfunctional families of origin who are struggling to figure out how to be in relationship with their parents.  Especially after those adult children have had some perspective and insight about their parents’ defects — especially deficiencies in love.

When unloved children have their own children and are consider how to love them, it often casts a painful retrospective light on their own upbringings.  At the same time, their parents are aging, sometimes in cognitive decline, and any veneers of social niceties may be wearing thin.

Unloving Parents: A Common Problem – Too Common

First off, I want to say that having unloving parents is extremely common.  So many parents are self-focused.  They don’t really see, hear, know and understand their children for who their sons and daughters really are.  These unloving parents don’t really see and experience their children as separate persons on anything like a consistent basis.  Rather, so many parents view their children, by default, as accessories to their own egos.  Their children are in orbit around them.  It’s not the parents are malicious.  Malice isn’t necessary for love to be lacking.

And let me be clear.  I’m not talking about the kind of abuse or neglect that gets noticed at school or by the neighbors and brings Children’s Protective Services knocking at the door of the family home.  It’s not that extreme.  The lack of love is more subtle.

The lack of love is more about omissions that commissions.  And it can lead to so much tension and bitterness in families, so much sadness and anxiety, and the problems multiply when adult children of these families have families of their own and the sons- and daughters-in-law are wanting to limit contact with the toxicity of the parents’ relating.

At the same time, the parents are feeling entitled to connect with their grandchildren and to spoil them and even treat them with the same lack of attunement as they treated their own children.  What to do then, Dr. Peter?

Two Mistakes that Adult Children Make with Unloving Parents

There are two primary erroneous courses that adult children make.  The first one is enmeshment with the parents and the second one is estrangementEnmeshment and estrangement.  And it makes sense to me why in desperation, adult children choose one of these two courses..  It can feel like they are the only two options that the parents allow.  It’s either “my way [enmeshment] or the highway [estrangement].

Parents can be very adept at undermining limits and boundaries that their adult children try to hold – they know what levers to pull and what buttons to push to manipulate children – they know how to weaponize guilt and shame and fear and approval-seeking and hope and so many other internal experiences of their children.  After all, these parents had so many opportunities to practice when their children were small and wielded such huge influence in their children’s human formation.

And parents can be so out of touch with their own lack of attunement that they be sincere in their belief that their criticism, their punitive attitudes, their rejection of limits and boundaries, their demands are for the good of the children.  So that parental sincerity adds to the confusion that children experience in relationship with them.

So often adult children of unloving parents either go along with their parents program in an enmeshed way that violates their integrity and enables parental dysfunction or they move to a position of complete estrangement – saying, in essence, “You are dead to me.”  A third option is the “distant but superficially pleasant for the absolute minimum time possible in relationship” position.

Honor thy father and thy mother…

As I listen to the stories of those adult children struggling in their relationship with their parents, they often ask “What does it mean for me to honor my father and my mother in the relationship we have now?  What is God asking of me in this really difficult situation?”  The adult children experience guilt about feeling that do not love their parents, and are also at a loss about how to love their unloving parents, what loving their unloving parents would even look like.

Let’s be real about this.  Loving unloving parents is really difficult. There might be no more difficult person in the world to love than an unloving parent. This is so important that I will repeat it again, later in this reflection.

Some guiding principles for loving and honoring unloving parents

But honoring and loving those parents who didn’t love is still possible.  Let’s start with a high-level view and then later we’ll move on to more specific recommendations.

Here are some principles for loving unloving parents.

  1. We Catholics are called to love our parents, even if they are unloving – even if they are our enemies. There are no exceptions in Scripture that exempt children from loving the parents who did not first love them.  That rules out completely disregarding unloving parents and cutting them out of one’s life and consciousness.
  2. We are not called by God to do the impossible with our parents, or to make them respond in any particular way. We are called to do what is possible, and to rely on God’s grace to help us love them.
  3. Genuine love for unloving parents doesn’t necessarily look similar to love in other, healthier relationships. Genuine love could be frustrating to the unloving parents.  Jesus loved everyone perfectly, and not everyone accepted that love.
  4. Loving unloving parents is not about “being nice” to them and just giving them what they want, regardless of its effect on the dignity, integrity and well-being of others – compliance and enmeshment with controlling parents are not the solution. As an adult, honoring your parents does not mean obeying them.
  5. Loving your parents means loving them as they are, not as you may want them to be. It’s better to see our parents more accurately, even if they are now who your parts may want them to be.  That may mean relinquishing the expectation or hope that they will start loving you.
  6. Loving your unloving parent does not mean that you no longer love yourself in an ordered way. What is best for your parent is also what is best for you and for everyone else in God’s Providence.

Action plan for honoring and loving unloving parents

So what can we do?  I’ve pulled together the following action plan to help you think about how to love an unloving parent if you are in that situation.  The order of the following points is important.

  1. Pray for unloving parents. Start with prayer.  Pray for them.  Remember that God loves them – in all their faults, their sins, their failings, their weaknesses, God love these parents.  They are his beloved sons and daughters.  Pray to your guardian angel and to their guardian angels for their intercession in your relationship with your unloving parent.
  2. Offer sacrifices for unloving parents – just in little things, offering up good works for unloving parents.
  3. Work on your own human formation – listening to and caring for the parts of yourself that were wounded by your parents’ lack of attunement, lack of love – so that you can be in a place where you can love them anyway. Each of us has parts that so want to be loved by our parents. Parts who are young and small.  Parts who are in need of parental love.  Parts that wish there was peace and joy and harmony in the parent-child relationship.  Parts that may not want to really acknowledge how Mom and Dad have behaved in the past and how they are acting now.  Parts that hate Mom and Dad.  We need to acknowledge where we are with our parents, not just steamrolling our parts and silencing them and failing to attune to them, or we will be reenacting the same dynamic as they experienced with the unloving parent. We don’t want to go into relating with our parents, blind to so many of our unacknowledged and unconscious internal experiences of them.
  4. Seek out God as your Father and Mary as your Mother to meet your needs for parental affection, warmth, attunement and love – so that you can be nourished with the best of parental love as you try to love your earthly parents. I wrote about this in last week’s email reflection.
  5. Consult with a person who knows you well about how best to love your parents. Seek counsel, seek wisdom from a person you respect, a person who will listen to you and help you discern a loving response to your parents.
  6. Seek to offer your parents the best of what you have in your behavioral repertoire in the moment – don’t try to offer them something you can’t give. Offer them the best of what you have to give.  Sometimes the best response is to get away from them – anything else might lead to greater harm.  Sometimes we can give very little.  Sometimes we can give more.
  7. Consider the long haul – consider what would be best in your relationship with the unloving parent in the long run. Sometimes that may mean no direct contact with the unloving parent if that is too destabilizing for you – in that case, the focus is on the first five points of this action plan, none of which require direct contact with the parent, but all five of which are loving your parent and can help you become much better grounded for direct contact in the future.
  8. Titrate or regulate the contact so that it is manageable for you. You can limit contact in a number of ways, including
    1. The length of time in contact – it’s different to go on a two-week vacation with Mom and Dad, sharing a cabin in the woods vs. dropping off an apple pie in a quick visit.
    2. The form of contact can range from moving in with them at one extreme to an annual Christmas card at the other extreme. If immediate, in-person contact with your parent is destabilizing, consider talking via videoconference, or stepping that down to a phone call.  You can consider asynchronous ways of communicating that don’t involve immediate interaction – like email, texts, letters, cards and gifts.  That way you can work through exactly what you want to express.
    3. Limit the topics of conversation to avoid the hot-button issues that may destabilize the relationship.

The merit in loving unloving parents

Unloving parents still carry out the will of God – you have the parents that are absolute best for you to have for you to work out your salvation.  Your parents will bring up the very things you need to work on, even if that means being your tor-mentor.  In doing that, they are offering you a gift, even if they don’t intend to or realize what they are doing.  If you respond to the challenge of loving them, this pleases God.  There might be no more difficult person in the world to love than an unloving parent.  If that is the case for you, you will receive manifold graces from God to help you persevere in your love for them.  And if you do persevere in loving your unloving parent, there are great rewards in store for you.

Calling all Catholic therapists, counselors, and graduate students in mental health fields…

If are a Catholic clinician and my weekly reflections and my Interior Integration for Catholics podcast speak to you, considering joining me in the Interior Therapist Community. Join 90 other Catholic clinicians and clinicians-in-training on this adventure of deepening and solidifying your own human formation, informed by Internal Family Systems and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.

If you’re not a therapist, please forward this to some therapist, counselor or grad student you know who might be interested.

New podcast episode

Next week, on Monday, August 1, be ready – the next Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode will be released —  I am really excited about this one, it is titled “I Am a Rock: How Trauma Hardens us Against Being Loved.”  So sign up for the IIC podcast on your favorite podcast player (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc.) and never miss an episode.

Thank you and keep me in your prayers!  I will be praying for you as well.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S.  Don’t forget – every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 5:30 PM Eastern time, I reserve for you and for all my other weekly reflection readers and podcast listeners.  Those are my conversation hours.  Reach out to me on my cell at 317.567.9594 or email me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com with any feedback, comments, questions, concerns, suggestions — anything at all that is relevant to the weekly reflections or the podcast.  This whole reflection was inspired by a call from a reader last week Thursday – so I do listen and respond.  If I don’t answer the phone, I’m on another line.  Leave a voicemail and I will call you back.  I’ve never failed to return a call.

P.S.S.  And forward this email.  You know someone you would benefit from reading this.  Forward it to him or her.  Someone with a difficult relationship with their parents.  Someone who might need to hear what is in this email.  Discern a bit and then go with what you discern.  Word-of-mouth and personal recommendations are the best way that Souls and Hearts has found to broaden our outreach.  So send this far and wide to those who need it.  And thank you.

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