Many parent-child relationships aren't as rosy as a Mother's Day greeting card. For children with a difficult or abusive parent, celebrating the upcoming parental holidays raises an emotional dilemma: How can you best honor your parent on Mother's Day or Father's Day without debasing yourself?
"The very nature of the parent-child relationship is filled with highly charged emotions," says Leonard Felder, a West Los Angeles psychologist and author of seven books; his latest is "The Ten Challenges" (Harmony Books, 1997), which explores a modern-day ecumenical approach to the meaning of the Ten Commandments. Felder says the fifth commandment, to honor our parents, was never meant to be an easy task.
"The original Hebrew text used the word cahbeid, which has a double meaning--both 'honor' and 'difficulty' or 'burden.' Honoring your parent doesn't mean not having conflicts or power struggles," he says.
"Many children are stuck in their childhood memory of their parents," says Nancy Belshaw, a Los Angeles family therapist who treats children of chemical and alcohol abusers. She suggests trying to see your parent as an outsider would.
"If people are really honest with themselves, they often see their parents are different than when they were kids," she says.
Children of abusers need to realize that they will never get back what their parents did not give them in childhood. Chemical or alcohol abusers are locked into their disease and cannot meet the needs of their children, Belshaw says.
Whether parents irritate us with misguided advice, hurt us with criticism or physically and mentally abused us as children, experts say forgiveness allows the letting go of resentment and can heal bruised emotions that make our relationships so tense.
"Forgiving is not whitewashing or letting them do it to you again," Felder says. "Forgiving means letting go of feeling bitter your whole life or the need for revenge."
Experts advise that if you're planning to spend the day with a difficult parent, stay away from what hasn't worked in the past and look for diversions in tense moments. "Doing something creative together is a lot more fun than waiting in line at a restaurant with hordes of other people," Felder says.
"Take Mom or Dad for a walk by the ocean or in the prettiest part of town. Try something that you both will enjoy whether it's going to see a comic or going to an art museum. Putting yourself in a different setting may soften the tensions between you."
If you don't want to commit to a visit, Felder suggests writing a note that lists three things you appreciate about your mom or dad and leave it at that, or sending a gift that can be enjoyed without you.
And, if you don't want to send a card, note or gift, then don't. Writing a letter on that day expressing anything that parent has done to make you happy or grateful and keeping it to yourself will help to begin resolving your feelings.
"Mother's Day or Father's Day is the day you might need to remind yourself 20 times that you are an adult and not a powerless child," Felder says.
"It's more important that the adult children begin to take care of themselves on these symbolic holidays," says Brentwood therapist Sharon Dunas. "Getting help and telling your parent you need to explore your relationship with them is a first step."