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Lessons for Life

Accepting a mother or father who can't love

Expert tips on how to cope with unloving parents

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

October 1, 2013

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Were you raised by a mother who can't love? Still hoping for a miracle that she might change? Unloving parents leave emotional scars that make adulthood, and especially parenthood, challenging. And according to author and therapist Susan Forward, even the most damaging parent/child dynamic can be healed.

"I'm living proof that you can be a good mother even if you didn't have one," said Forward, author of "Mothers Who Can't Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters." (Forward stressed that the gender doesn't matter — her advice applies to mothers and fathers.)

"We need to let go of the idea that our parents are supposed to love us unconditionally," she said. "Not every parent has the ability to do this. One person is being mistreated by another, so it's about finding ways to empower yourself in spite of it."

A "good" parent, Forward said, builds confidence, self-respect, and a sense of worth in their child through love and communication. And although everyone makes mistakes, the most successful parents will apologize when they have fallen short.

"You want to communicate to your child — 'My life is better because you are in it. I love you. I value you. I'm so glad you're my kid,' and that foundation will allow that parent to make mistakes and the child will still be OK," she said. "The problems come when the parent blames the child for their shortcomings or verbally abuses the child when they fail."

Forward said in order to break "the mother myth," it's important to accept the fact that some parents are simply incapable of loving their children.

"These children will blame themselves and turn to denial or rationalizations to cope," she said. "They might say, 'It wasn't so bad. She did the best she could. She had a terrible day. She had a terrible life,' But what we forget is it's up (to the parent) to take care of themselves. We have so many more resources now to get help and you have the responsibility to fix it. If you don't you will pass it on to your own kids."

And trying to change your parent is a waste of time and energy, Forward said.

"When you were a kid you couldn't do anything about it, but as an adult you have this fantasy 'I can fix it now,'" she said. "It's OK to be angry and it's OK to be angry with your mother. She wasn't capable of loving. That is so important for people to understand because they are going against society, family, sometimes religion. But you need to stand your ground and speak your emotional truth."

Forward incorporates cognitive exercises into her therapy sessions, which she thinks is more effective than just talking to her patients. Here is a cognitive exercise Forward recommends for healing the pain of being raised by a parent who can't love:

The "truth and lies" exercise.

"Get a piece of paper and draw a line down the center of the page," she said. "On the left put a header that says 'Lies' and on the right put one that says 'Truth.' So if your mother said 'You are ugly' write that down on the left and on the right, put 'I am attractive and very pleased with the way I look.' You don't have to feel it but put it down on the paper as the ideal you are heading toward. Write about 10 to 15 on the paper.

"Then tear the paper in half and burn the lies. I don't suggest putting them in your garbage or anywhere in your living space because they are full of negative energy, so find a dumpster or something outside of where you live and get rid of them. I had one guy who took his lies to his father's grave and put them there.

"Then you go to a store and buy a helium balloon. This may sound silly, but this exercise is very powerful. Take your 'truths' and attach them to the end of the balloon. Take the balloon to a place that you like — a park, a lake, whatever makes you feel a sense of peace — and watch that balloon ascend. As it ascends, you lift along with it — you lift your pain and all the stuff that's been in your way. There's something very symbolic about something rising. All the lies you heard that have poisoned you and in a sense defined you. By doing this, you are no longer accepting their definition of you and you are defining yourself in a new way. The release and relief and clarity after doing this is so abundant — I see it over and over with my patients — both men and women."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel