This is meant for parents of older children than I’ve yet recommended, but the information in it is both a valuable (if potentially painful) glimpse of possible futures and helpful for looking at any damaged family relationship.
When Parents Hurt by Joshua Coleman.
This book is aimed at parents of adult and to some extent older teen children who have a painful relationship with those children. The key message in the book that is particularly relevant for all parents is this, “It is possible to be a devoted and conscientious parent and still have it go badly.” That’s a sobering message for parents in my position, still hopeful that good efforts and a therapy fund will be enough for our kids to end up OK. For parents where the relationship is already bad, that same message is, I think a little more comforting. I’m always interested in reading about the evolution of parenting advice, and Coleman talks here about how society now places a historically unprecedented degree of responsibility with parents rather than kids for how those kids turn out. It started in the 1920s with the behaviorists, who believed that with the right training, any child could be trained to have an ability or temperament. Though psychology has long since disproved that idea, its hold on popular parenting theory seems only to have increased, with the result that everyone involved seems to take it for granted that if something is wrong with the grown child, it is the fault of the parent. Coleman addresses issues like how to heal feelings of guilt, deserved or now; balancing the reality of the child’s feelings with the realities that caused your behaviors or imagined behaviors; how to try to heal relationships; and knowing how far across the gap to build the bridge yourself before giving up. He talks about the very real problems of difficult children and temperament mismatches between parents and adults; divorce wounds and parental alienation (when your ex convinces your children that you are evil.) There is specific advice on problem marriages, adult children who “fail to launch” their own lives successfully, when children cut of contact with their parents. There is more general advice on parenting teens: Teens learn about expectations and being their own person by failing to meet expectations and seeing what happens (really the same kind of boundary testing that kids from toddler up engage in, I think, but magnified.) And, though it doesn’t seem that way, they lash out with hurtful accusations because they feel powerless themselves. He has a sample behavior contract with teens, and advises parents to start thinking of themselves as consultants rather than managers. Towards the end, there’s a chapter on addressing your own past in your parenting, which I found very helpful and which would probably be even better read by newish parents than those with adult children. I found it very difficult reading the stories of parents with angry children, and the thought of my own children ever refusing to have contact with me breaks my heart. But forewarned is forearmed, and the explicit warning that parents are far from the only forces shaping our children is good to keep in mind. The advice on conflict resolution, while aimed specifically at parents, seems more generally applicable.
For family conflicts from other points of view than just the parents, books like Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, Healing from Family Rifts by Mark Sichel, or several of Deborah Tannen’s books could also be helpful.