How can I overcome the bitterness I have about the way my parents treated me growing up? I don't want these memories to affect my relationship with my own kids. After all these years, I continue to struggle with negative feelings about my mother and father. When I think of them, I remember only their harsh criticism, dysfunctional parenting, and unloving attitude. How do I break this pattern?
The struggle you're facing is very real, and probably more common than you suspect. It's obvious that you were seriously wounded as a child by your parents' attitudes, words, and actions, and as a result you're still carrying around a great deal of anger and bitterness. You've taken an important first step in the right direction by recognizing that you need to deal with these emotions. In the long run, feelings of bitterness only harm the person who harbors them, not the one who inflicted the pain in the first place. You're also correct in supposing that the resentment you feel toward your parents could have a negative impact on your relationship with your own kids, particularly during the teen years. It's best to resolve this internal struggle before it begins to affect the rest of your family.
The best way you can do this is by learning and choosing to forgive. As we've already indicated, this is something you need to do for the sake of your own mental and spiritual well-being. Ultimately, it's not about your parents - it's about facilitating your own personal healing. Keep in mind that, from the biblical perspective, forgiving and loving someone is an act of the will, not the emotions. You may never experience warm and tender feelings toward your mom and dad. But you can choose to love them with the unconditional agape love of Jesus Christ. And you won't be able to move ahead with your own life until you give up your right to be angry at them for making your childhood miserable.
We have four suggestions for you. First, commit the situation to prayer. Ask the Lord to allow you to feel the emotions you've been trying to escape from for so many years. Remember the words of Jesus: "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). Then pray that He might deliver you from the negative memories that have been clogging your spiritual arteries, binding your emotions, and holding you captive for so many years. The Gospel declares that Christ has come to set you free (Luke 4:18; Galatians 5:1), and we believe that God will not fail to keep this promise if you look to Him in faith and lean on Him with all your heart.
Third, if your parents are still living, you may want to consider setting up a time to meet with them in order to discuss your feelings (of course, there may be some situations in which this would not be advisable - be careful to use discretion here). If your spouse is supportive, it would be a good idea to bring them along. Tell your mom and dad how much they've hurt you and how the memory of their words and actions continues to cause you pain. Keep your emotions under control, but be straightforward and honest. Explain that your purpose in bringing this up is not to hurt them in return, but to find release from the negative effects of your memories. This will take a tremendous amount of courage on your part, but it can be an important part of gaining the freedom you're seeking.
Finally, try to develop some empathy for your parents. Ask yourself what it was about their personal backgrounds that made them treat you the way they did. Find out what their childhoods were like. It's likely that they, too, grew up with harsh, unloving parents - that you're just on the receiving end of a problem that spans several generations. If you have a chance to talk with them about this, try to ask some carefully considered questions about their past. If they're no longer living, you may be able to locate a member of the extended family who can provide you with the information and insights you need. A deeper understanding of their backgrounds and motives will give you a broader perspective on their behavior. This won't excuse the mistreatment you received at their hands, but it may help you release some of your bitterness.
As you begin to work your way through this process, you may find yourself in need of some outside assistance. A trained Christian counselor can be a tremendous help to you in this regard. Focus on the Family's Counseling staff can supply you with a list of referrals to licensed family practitioners in your local area. They would also be more than happy to discuss your feelings with you at greater length over the phone. You can reach them at this number.
Total Forgiveness (book)
Healing the Wounds in Your Family (broadcast)
Getting Beyond the Struggle to Forgive (broadcast)
How Your Past Impacts Your Relationships (broadcast)
What's Really True About You? (broadcast)
Learning to Forgive Others