Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My 32-year-old daughter has developed the idea that I am responsible for all her failures—not having the job she wanted, not being a sociable person, not being capable to love and to be loved.

She also feels that I should not have continued a relationship with her father, even after a divorce. She believes that he is the one who turned our lives into a mess and that I agreed to it—being too weak to fight this. Her father died a few years ago, but she still hates him and me for all her troubles.

I would like to know how to deal with this, and how I can help her to help herself.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

This sounds like such a painful situation, and one that calls for compassion—for your daughter, certainly—but also for yourself. In fact, the best way to help your daughter is to start with self-compassion.

For better or worse, raising a child isn’t an exact science. There are so many reasons that people’s lives don’t turn out the way they want. You can be a conscientious and caring parent and your child still might have trouble launching into adulthood. You can provide what you consider to be a loving and supportive home and your child still might develop a drug problem. You can model healthy relationships and your child still might choose an inappropriate partner. At the same time, you can make a lot of mistakes—as most parents do—and your child can turn out just fine.

That’s not to say that there’s no correlation between how we raise our kids and how they feel as adults. Generally, there is. But it’s also true that there are factors at play beyond what we do—genetics, temperament, and parent-child fit, to name a few (which is why siblings raised in the same home can be very different as adults).

I imagine that you love your daughter and had the best of intentions, and that it’s hard to understand her perspective or hear her complaints because, after all, you tried your hardest. Yes, you may think, you weren’t perfect, but who is? Being blamed for a child’s unhappiness can make a parent feel defensive and frustrated, but layered underneath that frustration might be feelings of shame or self-blame. (My grown daughter’s life is her responsibility, not mine—but what if there’s some truth in what she’s saying?) One way to rid yourself of those feelings is to dismiss her complaints entirely—which probably just makes her protest louder. Replacing self-blame with self-compassion, on the other hand, will allow you to look more closely at yourself, in a kind way, so that you can consider with an open mind why your daughter might be so angry with you even if you did your absolute best as a parent under the circumstances.

What’s beautiful about self-compassion is that the more compassion you have for yourself (knowing that despite your mistakes, you did your best), the more compassion you’ll have for your daughter (knowing that even so, it wasn’t enough for her). Compassion will help you to see that there’s often a gap between what a parent intends and what a child experiences, and that what may seem insignificant to you may have been quite painful to her. Most important, compassion will help you both to call a truce.

I say “truce” because the two of you are engaged in a battle over who’s responsible for your daughter’s current predicament. For her, the battle might look something like this: “I won’t help myself to be happier, Mom, until you acknowledge your role in my pain.” In other words: I’ll only change my ways, Mom, if you change yours. Meanwhile, from your side, the battle is: “I won’t acknowledge having any role in your pain until you grow up and get your life together.” In other words: I won’t change my ways, Daughter, until you change yours. It’s like a game of chicken—she won’t change until you give her what she wants (taking her complaints seriously), and you won’t change until she gives you what you want (her moving past her hurt). Neither of you wants to go first.

I suggest that you go first—which doesn’t mean that you’re “wrong” and she’s “right.” Going first doesn’t take away the complex calculus of why certain choices were made or why various interactions occurred. It just means that the battle is serving neither of you, and it’s time for the standoff to end.

What would going first look like? Your instinct up to this point may have been to justify your choices or defend yourself by saying something like, “Look, nobody’s perfect and I did the best I could. You should see the way I grew up! I tried to protect you from your father, and it would have been much worse if I’d made different choices.” But with some self-compassion for whatever you did or didn’t do in the past, here’s what you might say instead: “I’m sorry that what I did affected you the way it did. The last thing I wanted to do was to hurt you or leave you feeling the way you do now.” If you can hear what she has to say without defending why you did what you did (even if you disagree or remember things differently), you’ll remove yourself from the role of enemy and, at a certain point, your daughter will have to find a different target for her current problems.

Compassion is an unlimited resource—in fact, self-compassion breeds compassion not just for others, but in others. If you want your daughter to take responsibility for herself, it’s going to be important for you to take some responsibility, too (while remembering that there’s a difference between self-awareness and self-flagellation). It can be painful to hear how we’ve let down our children, but it’s even more painful for them when we deny their experience. Eventually, your daughter won’t just feel more seen by you, but she may also come to feel more compassion for you. And when she’s no longer trying to get you to see her pain, she may choose to do something about it, like going to therapy or finding other ways to make healthy changes in her life—ways of moving forward that don’t involve blaming you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.