Grief and the Parent/Child Relationship

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Proverbs 3: 5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

I think when we hear the word grief, we automatically assume it has something to do with death. I know I used to view grief this way. But I learned that grief does not only occur when we lose someone or something, it also occurs when we experience changes.

In my book RENEWED:  A Mind, Body, Spirit Approach to Self-Renewal, I wrote a chapter about grief and the stages we go through. I explain that we go through this grief process with any kind of change or loss. This process includes the following 5 stages: denial/resistance, anger/blame, bargaining/shame/guilt, sadness/depression and acceptance.

There are two things we grieve when it comes to the parent/child relationship. The first is the changes that occur in our children as they grow older and how grief affects our relationship with them. The second is the expectations we have of them and in our relationship.

Grief and Change
It has been my experience both working with children and being a mother of three that our relationships with our children evolve over time. When our children are little, it is our job as parents to protect, teach and care for them. Our children develop personality traits early in childhood that help us to determine how we parent, but our role as the parent is the same for all children. It is to guide them. This is somewhat easy for us to do because ultimately we are in control of them. It is a time when we instill our values, beliefs and ideas onto them. It is a time when we dictate the schedule of their lives and have control over what they do in their lives.

Around age eleven something begins to shift in our children. Age eleven is when the beginning stages of pre-adolescence begins. At this age children begin to experience a sense of self or identity. They begin to have their own thoughts and feelings about things. They are able to process the meaning of things and make connections between those meanings and their feelings about those meanings.

As the child continues to get older, the boundaries and rules change. There is a shifting that evolves over time in the parent/child relationship when the relationship is healthy.

The explanation for this shifting is the systems theory. Systems theory says that we are one part of the whole and that any change that happens to one will affect the whole. I believe this to be true as children develop. As they evolve through the developmental stages, we too as parents must evolve.

So what does this have to do with grief? Well, as I talked about earlier, we grieve change and loss. As our children evolve into more independent human beings, we too will evolve with them. Evolving is a process that involves going through a series of feelings much like grief. At first we may have difficulty recognizing or even resist the changes our children are going through. We may become triggered by their independence and feel angry when they express thoughts and feelings we don’t understand or agree with. We may bargain with them in order to gain control again. We blame and shame them when they don’t live out our expectations of them. And lastly, we feel sadness and sometimes even depression as we come to realize that they are becoming their own person, rebelling against our desires and wishes for them. Eventually we learn to accept them for who they are and love them no matter what. And when we reach that place of acceptance, we find peace in our relationship with them. They are no longer shut down from us or fighting us.

Grief and Expectations
The second thing we grieve in the parent/child relationship is our expectations. Our expectations come from what we were taught. They are instilled in us through our culture and society. Our teens have expectations of how we will parent them and parents have expectations of how their parenting will turn out. Neither one will be right though.

I can remember envisioning my family before I gave birth to my first son. I envisioned the family from 7th Heaven, you know that cheesy show where there was sunshine and rainbows after every argument. I learned the hard way that in order to be a better mother to my children, I needed to be aware the expectations I have of myself as a mother and of their paths of my children. Having expectations of people, places and things will always lead to disappointment and puts pressure in the relationship.

I believe that every child is different and we need to assess each situation as it comes. The situation that most comes to mind when I think about expectations is grades. Parents have expectations that their teenager will get certain grades. I don’t think there is anything wrong with challenging your child to get those grades if he or she is academically capable of getting them. But often times, these expectations are not even discussed with the teenager. And if they are, many times we are not listening to what they are saying as to why they are not fulfilling those expectations.

I had a teenager I was seeing and she had A’s and B’s on her report card. She was bright and worked hard in school. As she got into high school her grades dropped and she had a harder time keeping up with the expectations in the classroom. She would forget to turn things in and would not get grades for missed assignments. Her parents insisted that she was being lazy. As I started learning more about this client, I decided to recommend some testing. Long story short, we found out that this teenager had a mild learning disability. Her parents were shocked as they had no idea their child was struggling the way she was. They never expected to get the results they got, but once their child received some help, her grades improved and she was back to getting her usual A’s and B’s. The relationship was also restored.

I can’t tell you how many times I have a teenager in my office that is telling me about their struggles and the parent is in denial that there is an issue. They are convinced that their child is being lazy or oppositional. Some even use the excuse that it is a phase instead of taking the time to sit and talk with their child and really listen to what is going on. I too am guilty of having expectations of my children. I expect them to get up in the morning without an attitude, help around the house, go to school, then sports and also maintain friendships. I expect them to be nice to their siblings and respect their parents. I expect them to do this all with a smile. But then I reflect on my own life and realize that I don’t do this all perfectly either and I am a grown adult. As I began to understand what my expectations are of my children and in my family, I experienced grief. Why? Because in order to accept the reality of the things I am expecting, I go through resistance, anger, blame, shame, sadness every time they don’t turn out exactly how I expected them to.

I am not telling you it is bad if you have expectations of your children. I am telling you to be aware of your expectations and be aware that you will grieve if they don’t turn out the way you expect. And during those moments grief you will experience denial, resistance, anger, blame, shame, guilt, sadness resulting in ups and downs with your children.

What You Can Expect
As the parent and child go through the changes in their relationship, it is common for the both the child and parent to feel stress and become reactive to the stress they encounter. This is why you will often see a child shut down or become argumentative or resistant to the parent during these changes. The stress that is triggered comes from the feelings of grief we experience as the child develops and changes and as we are forced to let go of things being exactly the way we expect them to be.

The grief we experience in the ever changing parent/child relationship is a process and it happens over time and in layers. I share this explaination with you to help you understand why you may feel some of the feelings you feel in your relationship with your child. Be compassionate with yourself and with your child as you become more aware of these patterns. Allow yourself to feel these feelings without judgement of yourself or your child.

God gave us feelings for a reason. He also gave us the process of grief, therefore I know it is not bad to feel these things. But what does He want us to do in times of grief? I believe He wants us to lean on Him. And He wants us to teach our children to lean on Him. When we lean on Him, He will guide us and comfort us through our times of grief. He will make our paths straight if we trust and obey His will and desires for us.

Questions for Reflection
Find a quiet space where there are little to no distractions. Take a moment in quiet to reflect on what you just read. When you are ready, answer the following questions in your journal.

  1. Is grief triggering stress in your parent/child relationship
  2. What kinds of changes are happening in your parent/child relationship that are causing grief?
  3. What stages of grief have you experienced in your parent/child relationship? Explain.
  4. Please list your expectations (“should” or “should nots”) that you have for yourself and your teenager. Have you experienced grief with any of these expectations? Explain.

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