Safe Haven Counselling
son with his senior father at home.

How to Forgive Your Parents and Heal Your Attachment Wounds

“We need to foster emotional competence in our children, as the best preventive medicine.”

Gabor Mate

If you’re in therapy and starting to explore attachment wounds or early childhood traumas, it’s normal to experience a surge of unexpected emotions—especially towards your parents or primary caregivers. This is because attachment theory suugests that our relational struggles in life are closely connected to our early relational experiences with our parents.

It may surprise and even distress you to feel anger, disappointment, and even resentment towards the people you were dependent on for the first part of your life. But, this is a very normal part of the healing journey and only the beginning of your voyage.

As you come full circle and acquire more understanding, those feelings of anger and resentment will hopefully pass. As the full picture of your childhood comes into focus, you will see your parents (or primary caregivers) in the fullness of their humanity, with their own flaws and wounds.

What is a ‘Good’ Childhood?

When we talk about our attachment experiences, we are referring to early childhood—most importantly, the period between one and 4 years of age.

When I ask clients about their childhood experiences, some will tell me they don’t remember, while others will say it was awful. But the majority look back on this time as being good, and struggle to understand how their good childhood could reflect any kind of relational issues.

So then, what is a ‘good’ childhood?

Of course, what makes a good childhood for one person may be an awful childhood for another. In this post we are focusing specifically on the kind of childhood that results in secure attachment .

If you look back on childhood days and remember camping trips with the family, playing ball in the schoolyard and biking with your friends, you likely remember this season of life as being a good one. But good or happy childhood does not automatically amount to a well rounded, mentally and emotionally healthy, adult.

Secure Attachment in Adulthood

For a child to enter adulthood feeling resilient, emotionally aware, and able to contribute to healthy relationships, they need to have been cared for in a couple of different ways:

  1. The child’s physical needs for shelter, clothing, food, education, and recreation/play need to have been met.

2. The child’s emotional needs need to have been met. This means the caregiver needs to have been tuned in to the child’s emotional world, responding to and affirming their emotional needs, allowing them to express their emotional needs, and being present to them as they navigate their relational world. Such parenting styles enable a child to feel seen, soothed and safe.

For many of us in developed countries, our physical needs were likely taken care of as children, even if finances were scant. However, it is only in the last couple of decades that we have come to realize the importance of attending to the inner being of a child, and not just their physical needs.

Many of my clients tell me they had a great childhood, however when I ask them what their childhood looked like from a relational perspective, they tell me their emotional needs were rarely met. This can leave clients with a different perspective on their childhood than when they first came into therapy.

Why Do I Feel So Angry?

Unraveling attachment wounds involves looking at times in your life when your basic needs for safety, connection, and love might weren’t adequately met. It’s natural to feel angry and hurt about this.

Think of it this way: as a child, you’re entirely dependent on your caregivers. Imagine your upset feelings when, as a fragile being, you reached out for comfort and received little or nothing in return. That unresolved need doesn’t just disappear because you’ve grown older. Working on attachment issues brings those old feelings into sharp focus.

Here are some more reasons why anger and resentment surface during the healing process:

  • Understanding Your Experiences: Therapy helps you gain perspective and understand how early experiences may have led to insecure attachment styles. That can bring up frustration about events that seemed “normal” but actually had significant consequences.
  • Seeing Patterns: You might start noticing how your attachment style impacts current relationships, leading to a feeling of resentment that these old patterns continue to cause difficulty.
  • Mourning What Could Have Been: There’s a sadness in accepting what you didn’t receive as a child. This mourning can feel intertwined with anger at the unfairness of it all.
  • Dealing with the Aftermath: It’s hard not to feel angry or resentful when you see the correlation between your relationship with your parents/ early caregivers as a child and the relationship struggles you have as an adult. You may think, if they had just opened up, or listened, or paid more attention, things may have been different.

Forgiveness: Is It Necessary?

Forgiveness is deeply personal and looks different for everyone. It doesn’t mean excusing or condoning harmful behavior and it’s not about saying what your caregivers did was okay. It also doesn’t diminish the validity of your feelings. Forgiveness is also far easier for some than others, depending on the severity of your attachment wounds and whether there was any abuse present.

The focus of forgiveness in therapy is primarily to release yourself from the grip of buried anger and resentment. These feelings are heavy burdens that interfere with your well-being in the present. Forgiveness, in this context, is an act of self-love. It’s about choosing to let go of the emotional weight of the past to find more peace and freedom within yourself.

Working Towards Forgiveness

Here are ways to work towards forgiveness whether your parents or primary caregivers are still in your life or not:

If Your Parents Are Accessible:
  • Understand Their Limitations: Your parents are people too, and they likely carry wounds of their own. We parent with the tools we have been given and acquired on our life journey. If those tools are limited, our capacity to give is also limited. While this doesn’t excuse our parents’ behaviours, trying to see their struggles with empathy can offer perspective. Remember, understanding is not the same as condoning.
  • Set Boundaries: It’s okay to protect yourself from further hurt, especially if your parents haven’t taken responsibility for past behaviors. Clearly communicate what feels acceptable and unacceptable for you.
  • Consider Careful Conversations: If it feels safe and appropriate, you might choose to have open conversations with your parents about your experiences. However, do this only if you feel supported and have realistic expectations for the outcome.
  • Prioritize Your Well-Being: Whether your parents fully understand or take responsibility, remember, your healing journey is about you.
If Your Parents Are Not Accessible:
  • Write A Letter (That You May Never Send): Express all those complex feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment. Even if you don’t share it, putting your thoughts and emotions on paper can clarify what forgiveness looks like for you.
  • Rituals of Release: Symbolic acts like burning the unsent letter or releasing it into flowing water can be powerful ways to signal to yourself that you’re choosing to let go.
  • Empty Chair Work: This therapy technique allows you to speak to your parents as if they were present, even if they aren’t. It helps process emotions and offers a sense of closure.
  • Focus on Self-Compassion: Forgive yourself for any feelings of guilt, unworthiness, or even anger at yourself. Remember, you were a child at the time, and you did the best you could.

The Weight of Unforgiveness

Holding onto anger and resentment is like carrying a heavy stone within you. It burdens your spirit and can hold you back from finding peace within yourself and your relationships with others. Forgiveness isn’t about absolving your parents of the past; it’s about giving yourself the gift of release from old pain.

We cannot live our lives with one foot in the past. Our parents did the best they could with the tools available to them at the time. If they could have done better, they probably would have. In all likelihood, they were just not aware.

Remember, none of us gets out of this life unscathed. We all make mistakes. Offering compassion towards your parents for their own struggles can be a step on the path of your own healing.

One day, your parents will no longer be around and the opportunity for direct resolution may pass. Is the weight of guilt and regret over the words unspoken a burden you want to carry? Forgiveness is the path to a freer heart, regardless of whether your parents are fully able to acknowledge their role in your hurt.

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