Can You Forgive A Terrible Parent?

Can you forgive a terrible parent?

By Lisa Earle McLeod

If your childhood played out like a scene from “Mommy Dearest,” you know that poor parenting often casts a pallor over your entire life. While you might not have written a tell-all book or exposed their evil antics on the silver screen, the movie called “My Awful Childhood” plays in endless reruns inside your head.

If you were one of the lucky few with perfect parents, I hope you’ve had 12 children of your own. Because you owe it to the world to pass along your family legacy of sanity, something the rest of us dysfunctionals can only dream about.

For a majority of us, our parents fell somewhere between perfect and perfectly awful. Our mothers and fathers were human beings who brought all their own anxieties and problems into their relationship with us. And while we may have come out of our childhoods “normal” enough to function, we’ve also got enough emotional neurosis’ to keep the self-help and psychiatric industries growing at a record clip.

Yet as we mature and often become parents ourselves, we usually realize that flawed though our parents may have been, they probably did the best they could with the information and resources they had at the time.

But what about truly awful parents?

Parents who were abusive, neglectful or otherwise downright horrible?

Can you ever soften your heart to someone who treated you in a way that no child deserves to be treated?

As best I can tell, there are two common responses to a miserable childhood:

The ever popular “stuff your emotions, minimize what happened, move on and control every aspect of your life” model. It’s designed to insure you’ll never feel powerless again and has been utilized by scads of overachievers around the globe. However, the outward success often masks an inner loneliness.

On the flip side, there’s the equally common, yet less socially acceptable, victim model. Someone whose childhood injustices define their entire adult life. They remain powerless, playing out the drama over and over, never able to move beyond their childhood pain. The results can be seen in broken marriages, lost jobs and sometimes even self-inflicted abuse.

But while minimizing and maximizing emotions are common coping mechanisms, as someone who employed both tactics, I can assure you, you pay just as heavy a price for ignoring the past as you do for living in it.

However, there’s a third option that allows you to feel your emotions and marshal your strength at the same time.

It’s called forgiveness, and contrary to what many may believe it doesn’t minimize the pain you suffered or excuse their awful behavior, it gives you the power to move on.

Yet forgiveness requires empathy, an emotion that can be pretty hard to well up for somebody who mistreated a child.

The challenge is to fully acknowledge your own pain while at the same time understanding that whoever did you wrong was a mixed-up, messed-up miserable person. The way they treated you was simply the ugliness they struggled with inside looking for a way out.

It’s not like anybody wakes up one day and says, “I hope one day I’ll terrorize my own children.” Most people who abuse (mentally, verbally or physically) are simply repeating what they got. We didn’t always have a Dr. Phil or Dr. Joy around to show us another way, and the conspiracy of silence around abusive parenting only ended a few years back.

Forgiving your errant parent doesn’t mean loving them or even having a relationship with them. It means recognizing that they weren’t born hoping to be a bad parent anymore than you were born hoping to have one.

Forgiveness isn’t easy, but until all parents become perfect, it’s the sanest way to becoming a grown up.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of “Forget Perfect: Finding Joy, Meaning, and Satisfaction in the Life You’ve Already Got and the YOU You Already Are.” Contact her or join her interactive blog at

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