Dear Neil: My childhood was made a misery by a violent father with a terrible temper. He never showed me any love, warmth or interest. He never spoke to me as a human being. Now that I am a grown women, I cannot relax around him or even look him in the eye, because I still fear him and feel the need to keep my defenses up.
How could I possibly tell my father about the anger, hurt and fear I feel toward him? What method can I use for understanding him and his behavior, and for self-healing?
Wellington, New Zealand
Dear Wellington: There are several things you can do in order to understand and make peace with your father—or with both your parents for that matter. Shauna Smith, in her book Making Peace With Your Adult Children, suggests several steps. In order to gain a greater understanding of your father, reflect on or write down the following questions. Better yet, ask him these questions if you can:
- What kind of home did my father grow up in?
- What did he think of himself as a person while he was growing up?
- What traumas did he experience in his childhood?
- What was the social, political and economic environment in which he lived?
- What attitudes was he exposed to about the work ethic, money, sexuality, gender roles, parenting, the reasons for living and beliefs about dying?
- What was his relationship like with his brothers and sisters?
- In his family, were children put into certain roles such as “the responsible one,” “the black sheep,” or the person who tried to make sure everyone got along?
- Was there sexual abuse, abandonment, betrayal, alcoholism or severe physical or emotional punishment in his home?
- How were differences treated in his home?
- Was he loved by his parents? How did he know?
- Why did your father marry your mother?
- How prepared was he to marry and raise a family? Had he resolved his childhood issues? Did he have good relationship skills? Did he know how to understand, or resolve value differences? Had he grown up himself?
- What about his sense of personal achievement? Did he focus mainly on survival, or did he figure out what he wanted to do and follow through with it?
- What traumas, deprivations or losses did he undergo as an adult?
- What life dreams did your father give up?
- What overwhelmed him about trying to raise a family?
- What events took place during the time you were growing up that affected him and his attitude?
- What patterns from his childhood did he repeat in parenting you?
- If he were starting over today as a father, what would he do differently?
- What have you learned about your father by doing this exercise?
These questions are designed for you to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of what influenced your father to behave as he did. These questions are not intended to condone or excuse mean, hurtful or abusive behavior.