This week we welcome my mom and dad into our home. We’re excited to see them. Not that it was always that way. In high school, they were probably ready for me to get out of the house before I was ready to leave.
Father relationships can be so complicated. What dad doesn’t love his son or daughter? But how many struggle to express all they feel about their kids? We dads want so much for our sons and daughters. We want to see them soar. But many of us are poorly equipped to help them get there.
I like what a friend wrote me about deciding to work on her relationship with her father: “With my dad, I came to the point of realizing that given his personality and history, he could not be the father I wanted. He could, however, be the father he was. I had to decide whether I wanted what was possible, or if that was too painful. For me, I decided I would rather change my expectation to reflect him, so that I had the possibility of getting to know who this man was.”
It’s likely that your dad has gone through some tough stuff that he has kept from you – in many cases his own father may have done a poor job. Granddad may have been an alcoholic. If we had just a little empathy for our dads, our own healing might come more easily.
It’s normal for fathers and their kids to miss one another like ships in the night. And when they leave home, whether to go to college or just to get away, kids often leave behind an incomplete relationship with their dad. Most of my kids have asked to have a difficult conversation with me about something I did as a father that hurt them. Most of us need this with our dads – inevitably there’s something your dad did that hurt and that needs to be addressed. Perhaps you didn’t feel his approval. He might even have been abusive; maybe you feared for your own safety.
With dad in the rear view mirror, how do you move to a place of peace and possibly even blessing? Assuming the best about your dad – that he really does want a better relationship with you and is willing to not be defensive, here are a few thoughts.
1. Recognize you’re normal. First, if you feel estranged or just awkward around your father, recognize how many other people feel that way too. Your dad may have let you down, but he’s not unlike a lot of other dads. Somehow they never acquired the people skills to express themselves. He may well be very proud of you, but lack the words to say it.
2. Decide to risk a conversation. You may actually be the mature one, the one who is better able to steer the relationship in the direction it needs to go. Why not pray into it and consider taking a risk? The goal is honesty and possibly a greater degree of freedom, where his unspoken opinion of you doesn’t hold you back. And the first step toward that is to search your own heart and choose to forgive him for whatever hurts he may have brought your way. This may be difficult for some, but it’s better than lugging around father-baggage for years to come.
3. Pick a good venue. Honest conversations flow better when you’ve been able to loosen up somehow. If you feel the freedom to do something together, you’ll find it easier to be honest. Go for a walk, go out to a restaurant, or go to a park.
4. Own your stuff. You may have to dig a little to get here. Where have you messed up? Things are rarely one-sided. If you can humble yourself and even apologize for your harsh responses, you may open the door for your father to reciprocate. What are the things about him that you appreciate? Thank him for it if you can. Being a dad is hard work and most of us wish we’d done better. If your dad feels appreciated, he may find it easier to humble himself. It can move the conversation to a place where you can explain your motive in bringing this up. You want more for the relationship. You may want to be closer and to be able to understand one another as adults.
5. Share your feelings. Has he hurt you? Has he possibly been oblivious? This is the hard part of the conversation. It may help to write down the words and rehearse them a bit so that you’re able to express yourself. Say what needs to be said and do it as graciously as possible.
6. Seek his honest response. He may or may not ask forgiveness for how he blew it. This is not up to you and it can’t be your objective. Your objective is to get to a place of honesty and freedom. But you can move him to a place of greater tenderness and possibly even ask for his blessing. He may find this a little awkward and you may have to help him. A question may help, for example, what does he hope for your relationship? If he’s a believer, ask him to pray for you. He may find it easier to express himself in prayer than in conversation. And whatever he does, thank him for it. Forgiveness is often a long, multiple-conversation process.
7. Walk it out. Your dad may have things he does or says that “hook” you. He may unwittingly revert to a parent-child way of treating you on occasion. Choose not to rise and take the bait – boundaries are important. You are an adult, no longer beholden to your parents. Pray in advance when you feel like your father may treat you as less than you deserve. And remember, you choose your own attitudes and responses. Whatever dysfunction you may have experienced, the generational bondage issues are severed – they stop with you. The patterns you set going forward will be your own.
Honoring your dad is a commandment – as an adult it may have more to do with deciding to pursue the truth honestly and with grace than it does with submission. And it will only help you as you raise your own children.
For more on the subject from a dad’s perspective, see this post.