If you’re considering forgiveness, ever, good for you. The fact that you would even think about showing grace, love, and kindness toward someone who’s done you wrong is a sign that you have great empathy and strength. It can be extremely difficult to forgive someone, especially if what they did to you had lasting repercussions, and that’s certainly the case when we’re abandoned by the person who’s supposed to love and support us above all else. So again, if you’re reading this because you’re wondering about forgiving a parent who left you, take a moment to be proud of yourself. Now, let’s talk about forgiveness.
How To Forgive a Parent Who Left You When You Were Young?
Yes, you’ve probably heard this saying before, but here it is again, because it’s just, quite frankly, true: Forgiveness is more for you than it is for the other person. It’s about lifting the burden of that pain from your heart so that you have the emotional time and energy for other more joyful things. It’s not about ignoring the wrong that’s been done or negating the pain you’ve felt, but it is about making room for something better in your future by tucking the past into the back of your mind where it can go dormant.
Reasons (Not Excuses) For Abandonment
The first place to start when it comes to forgiveness is empathy, and as we’ve already established, you’re connected with your empathy just by virtue of considering this act of forgiveness. And what’s empathy? It’s placing yourself in the other person’s shoes for just a moment and doing your best to understand the thoughts and feelings that led to their decisions. If you can at least try to understand where your parent was coming from when they made the decision to leave you, then you might be able to see a path to forgiveness.
So, what does go through a parent’s head when they do something as drastic as abandoning their child? If you have access to information about your birth parents, or if someone in your family might know what your absent parent went through before leaving you, do some digging. Ask questions. If your remaining parent is willing, and you trust them to be honest with you, sit down and talk through what happened. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know the answer to “Why did my parent leave? How could they do that to me?”
If you don’t have any way to find out your absent parent’s specific story, there are quite a few reasons that people have abandoned or separated from their children. While this list is not exhaustive by any means, here are a few examples for you to think through.
- Sometimes a person may view the act of stepping out of a child’s life as benevolent. This is often the case when an adoption plan is made for an infant by parents who feel too young or too impoverished to provide the child with a good life. In other cases, the state views removing a child from its birth parents to be an act of benevolence because of circumstances like addiction and abuse. In either case, the parent or state was doing what they believed best for you, the child.
- Relationship conflicts between adults can also lead to a child’s abandonment. If a mother and father, mother and grandmother, or anyone in a household don’t get along, sometimes a person’s decision to leave has far more to do with getting away from the adults in the home than it does with leaving a child. Whether the person who leaves is fleeing abuse or being kicked out by the owner of the home, the conflict between adults is usually the source of that departure, leaving children behind to survive with what’s left.
- Personal problems such as mental illness and addiction can also be a common thread in parents who abandon their children. Whether their disease makes them inconsiderate of or calloused to the needs and feelings of their kids, or whether their guilt about not being a perfect parent becomes too overwhelming, parents who suffer from conditions like alcoholism, drug addiction, BPD, and narcissistic personality disorder can end up leaving their children.
These are vague reasons, so it’ll be best if you’re able to ask about your parent’s story specifically. Every journey is different, but bottom line, abandonment is almost always rooted in deep, all-consuming fear. Whether that fear is being fed by love or selfishness, the actual abandonment isn’t really about you, the child, because they couldn’t possibly know who you would become and thus did not reject the person you are today. If you can mentally separate your experience of the abandonment from their act of abandonment, it may help you to relate to their choices enough to see your way toward forgiveness.
Ramifications of Childhood Abandonment
Even if you’ve been able to understand why your parent left, that will never undo the impact it had on your childhood. It’s important to acknowledge and review what a child goes through when a parent leaves, because ultimately, that suffering is the real source of your pain and the real burden you need to lay down in order to forgive.
- Abandonment Anxiety - Throughout childhood and adulthood, a person who’s abandoned by their parent may develop an anxious attachment style because they are afraid or convinced that any important relationship they have could end in abandonment or loss.
- Anger toward either parent or other adults. Whether you blame your mom for your dad leaving, blame your dad for leaving your mom to raise you on her own, blame your grandparents for not stepping in when they saw problems, or blame your teachers for being adults who will probably hurt you too, anger can be a big way that our brain tries to cover up pain. Dealing with a completely justified, deep-seated anger problem in a healthy way can be the work of a lifetime.
- Idealization of absent parent. Sometimes, instead of anger toward the absent parent, an abandoned child can twist reality in the opposite direction and become convinced that the absent parent is/was the best one. It can be a way of coping with the loss by fantasizing about how good things were before the parent’s departure, but it can sometimes lose any foundation in reality and become more of a fantasy.
- Low Self Esteem - Anyone who’s been rejected or abandoned on any level knows the temptation to internalize that and blame yourself. If you’re convinced that this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened if you could’ve been more or better at x, y, or z… your self-esteem is taking the brunt of your abandonment pain. Learning to believe that you are enough, that you deserve love, and that you are not to blame for the behaviors of others can be a lifelong journey.
The above struggles can lead to depression, addiction, eating disorders, and many other lasting health problems, so let’s not pretend that if we’re thinking about forgiving someone whose behavior was the source of major trauma that we can also ignore the fruits of that trauma. If you are experiencing difficulties coping with your own child abandonment pain, reach out for support. There can be no forgiveness without some healing.
Reasons to Forgive
Notice that none of the reasons above mention letting someone off the hook for something they’ve done. Consequences are real, and you have to trust that your parent has and will experience the consequences for their mistake without you monitoring to make sure they do. The reason to forgive is not to free them of their responsibilities but to free yourself from the pain of the past.
- Your freedom. Any kind of active pain can be a heavy burden to carry every day. If you’re waking up angry or heartbroken, no matter how much time has passed, you’re living the pain of your parent’s rejection and abandonment 24/7. And that’s not fair to you! You’re not free to experience the full range of mountains and valleys that the present day has to offer because you are stuck in the past. Forgiving your absent parent could be a huge step in letting go of the anger and grief that’s plaguing you.
- Potential relationship or reunification. Sometimes the absent parent comes back. This may or may not be what you want, but if you’ve reconnected with a birth parent after adoption or foster care, or if your parent returns and asks to be part of your life, it will be up to you to decide the future of that relationship. If you’re interested in or considering reuniting with this person, forgiveness will have to be the foundation of that new bond. Otherwise, the conflict will continue to arise between you until that old wound is addressed.
- God forgives. The love of Christ teaches us that it is never too late for a story to have a redemption arc, whether that’s your story or your parent’s story. The chance for grace and starting anew will be around more than one corner in both of your lifetimes, and Christ’s love is the living example that forgiveness is a foundation of that truth.
Go easy on yourself because this is not easy stuff. It’s never as simple as flipping the switch from unforgiven to forgiven in your brain or heart. Seek out support, lean on trusted friends, and confide in a professional counselor as you process these big life milestones. If you’re not sure where to begin, you can always reach out to us at TheHopeLine, where we’ll be happy to chat about how you can learn more about grace and forgiveness.
Forgiving someone who has hurt you could be the greatest challenge of your life, but also the most freeing and healing. Here are 6 steps on how to forgive.