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How to Listen to My Adult Child Talk about Childhood Pain without Freaking Out

  • Cindi McMenamin Author
How to Listen to My Adult Child Talk about Childhood Pain without Freaking Out

As parents, none of us want to hear that our grown children have suffered pain—especially if we were the cause of that pain, or were around when it happened and could have prevented it.

It’s much easier to just believe we did the best we could, the past is in the past, and our children turned out fine. But as much as we’d like to believe that an accusation from our children is simply a matter of their misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or exaggeration, it’s important that we hear them out without becoming defensive, getting angry, or freaking out.

Whether their hurt was inflicted by you or someone else, chances are it could be an emotionally-charged conversation or even a shocking revelation if you’re not prepared. Based on more than 20 years of ministering to moms, here are 10 ways to respond when your adult child tells you about his or her childhood pain.

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1. Abstain from reacting emotionally.

1. Abstain from reacting emotionally.

Upon hearing of your child’s hurts, your first impulse might be to react emotionally by interrupting, questioning, attempting to clarify, or denying the incident altogether. If your child saw things differently than you did, you will have a strong urge to explain, clarify, or clear up his or her misunderstanding. Resist that urge at all costs. Your explanations could be interpreted as “discounting” their pain, denying responsibility, or defending yourself.

Proverbs 13:3 assures us, “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives [and their relationships], but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.” When our children open up and talk about their pain, they need to be heard. It’s possible they were hurt by something you don’t remember or didn’t realize was hurtful to them, but it’s important they get the chance to talk about it without the interruption or distraction of your emotional reaction.

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2. Avoid a counterattack.

2. Avoid a counterattack.

Your child’s hurt may bring up hurts of your own. This isn’t the time to counter-attack with the things they have done to wound you or to have caused your hurtful remark or behavior in the first place. Rise above the opportunity to “get even” in terms of accusation and humbly realize this is your child’s time to be honest about how he or she is feeling.

If reconciliation and healing is your goal for your child, focus on listening and not formulating what you are going to say next. Let your child know you care about his or her pain, not your defense or reputation. James 1:19 tells us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Brokenness on your part can touch your child’s heart. But a “you hurt me, too” response will only add salt to their wound. As they are talking, if you feel your heart rate—or your need to defend yourself—rising, start praying silently that God will help you listen lovingly. 

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3. Acknowledge their pain.

3. Acknowledge their pain.

Even if you disagree about how something played out or what happened from your perspective, your child was still hurt through the situation. Acknowledge their hurt by telling them “I’m so sorry this hurt you. I can’t imagine how you are feeling right now, but I’m glad you’re telling me.”

Resist the urge to downplay or minimize the event. It’s true, some situations that we thought very little about ended up hurting our kids. But it’s important to them that we acknowledge their pain, rather than deny it by telling them “that’s not what happened” or “you’re being too sensitive” or worse, “You misunderstood me” or “That’s nothing. I was hurt far more by my parents when I was young.” Try to remember it’s their pain and their attempt to sort it through, so avoid making it about how you feel. 

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4. Affirm them for their honesty and desire to talk.

4. Affirm them for their honesty and desire to talk.

 If your child comes to you maturely to talk about an issue, it will be easier for you to respond in the same mature manner. It’s more challenging, however, when you are blindsided by an angry accusation or hit head-on from your child who has “had it” and needs to vent. No matter how your child brings the matter to you, respond by taking a deep breath and thanking them for bringing it up and caring enough about the relationship to want to talk about it. Secrets and resentments help no relationship. Appreciate their desire to talk and clear the air.

You might start by saying “Thank you for talking with me about this. I imagine it was difficult for you to bring it up. But I’m so glad you were honest with me and told me how you felt.” That will ease some tension and their fears that you might overreact or react defensively.

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5. Ask if you can respond.

5. Ask if you can respond.

Upon hearing about your child’s pain, you may be loaded with questions, defenses, explanations, or expletives! But let them have the floor as they’re talking. And then, when it looks like they’ve stated their case, ask if you can respond. You might try wording it like this: “Would you mind if I shared with you my recollection so we can work through this, if possible?”

Realize your child may say “No, I just need to be able to say this and I need you to listen.” If that’s the case, respect that. If you have interrupted, explained, defended yourself, or even denied responsibility in the past, your child may be hesitant to let you speak into the situation. And any attempt by you to deny, defend, or blame could shut your child down altogether. Ask lovingly if you can respond and then wait for the answer. If you are not allowed to speak into the situation at that moment, ask if you can talk about it in a day or two, when emotions have cooled, or take it to God, prayerfully, and ask for wisdom from the Holy Spirit to respond to them in written form. That way you have a chance to think through what you will say.

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6. Accept responsibility where it is yours.

6. Accept responsibility where it is yours.

 In every accusation, there is a seed of truth. Be open to it. Be willing to take it to God and ask Him to show you what is true and to give you the courage to own it. Yes, your child might be super-sensitive or reading into something, but after acknowledging their hurt you must also accept responsibility for what is yours. If it’s a perception difference, they were still hurt. Acknowledge that and accept responsibility for giving them the wrong perception if that was the case. Whatever you do, don’t shrug it off by saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” and thereby avoiding responsibility.

It’s humbling to accept responsibility for something we didn’t mean to do or for something we feel was misunderstood or misinterpreted, but humility goes a long way in helping another person heal from an offense. Humble yourself and say “I never meant to hurt you. And I’m so sad that I did.”  

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7. Apologize for their hurt.

7. Apologize for their hurt.

Even if it wasn’t your fault, let your child know you are sorry he or she experienced pain. Even a grown child needs to feel his or her parents’ compassion. Apologize for their hurt by saying “I’m sorry you are hurting. And I’m sorry you have kept this inside for so long.” 

If you are the one who has inflicted the pain, say “I’m so sorry for hurting you. I never wanted to do that. And if I could go back and do things differently, I would.” It’s important for your child to see a genuine repentance on your part, not an obligatory insincere “Sorry” or a guilt-inducing “I guess I can’t do anything right.”

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8. Ask for their forgiveness if the pain involved you.

8. Ask for their forgiveness if the pain involved you.

 It is humbling to admit when we are the cause of our children’s pain—especially if it’s something we did unknowingly and unintentionally. But the best way to receive grace from another person is to ask for it. Don’t simply say you’re sorry. Follow it up with “Would you please forgive me?”

If your child agrees to forgive you, ask if there is anything else you need to clear the air about. Remember, this is not your time to list your own hurts. You might try asking: “Is there anything else I’ve done that you are still hurting about? If so, I’d like to know now so I can apologize and receive your forgiveness for that, as well.”

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9. Ask if you can pray with them.

9. Ask if you can pray with them.

If your child’s hurt centered on your actions, asking if you can pray for them (and asking God to forgive you for hurting your child) may help soften their heart—and yours. It’s difficult for tension to stay in the air during sincere prayer.

If your child’s pain was caused by someone else, ask if you can pray with your child for God’s healing and restoration, as well as wisdom in how to proceed to the next step of healing (which would include forgiveness by both of you toward your child’s offender). For more clarity on this, see the article, Do We Have to Forgive Those Who Sin Against Us if They Don’t Repent? 

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10. Ask if there's anything you can do to help.

10. Ask if there's anything you can do to help.

You can’t turn back the clock and reverse something that has happened. But you can offer your love and support to your adult child from this day forward. If your child’s hurt involved someone else, resist the urge to become angry, panicked, or to threaten the other party; instead, ask if you can do something to help your child seek closure or if you can support them while they seek out counseling or whatever they need to heal and move forward.

If your child was hurt by something you are still doing today, ask how you can no longer hurt them and be open to what they have to say. Be willing to get help if they suggest it. We can help our children through the healing process when we are willing to admit we are sinners (Romans 3:23), we are broken, and we need the grace of God to be a person who helps and encourages, rather than hurts, others.

Cindi McMenamin is a pastor’s wife, mom, Bible teacher and national speaker who helps women and couples deal with the struggles of life through her books, which include,  When Women Walk Alone (more than 125,000 copies sold), When a Woman Overcomes Life’s Hurts, When a Mom Inspires Her Daughter, and When God Sees Your Tears. For more on her books, national speaking ministry, and free resources to strengthen your soul, marriage or parenting, see her website: www.StrengthForTheSoul.com.

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