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A central part of the healing of the relationship has to include the asking for forgiveness when abuse or trauma has happened to the child in the absence of the parent. The parent failed his/her natural role as a protector of the child, even when this was done unintentionally in the name of seeking a better future for the family.  The asking for forgiveness and even offer some form of symbolic restitution or seeking of justice for the perpetrator should ideally happen so that the child can begin to bond with the parent.  Family therapist Cloé Madanes has made clear the importance of this process in healing the soul of the abused child in cases of incest in general and we can look at her writings about it as one possible guide towards handling such situations, though her model is for a family that has never separated, so the situation is from the start different. Many other therapists also work extensively on including a process that will start or puts in place the seeds for the forgiveness to continue through life, in all forms of abuse and trauma, as a form of helping the healing of the victim.

At first glance, it seems very difficult for some therapists to set the stage for a parent to ask for forgiveness from a child in the Latin culture, where the concept of respect for the parents is so paramount.  However, I found a great number of parents that had done this already with no prompting from anybody because they strongly felt it was the right thing to do, to start rebuilding the relationship with the child. I also found that many parents were not aware of the traumatic or abusive experiences the child went through during their separation, but when they were made aware, they found the asking for forgiveness a clear road  For those others that struggled with it, once the parent understands the purpose and the need: accepting the fact that even unwillingly the parent had failed to protect his or her child and that they are very conscious of the pain the child had to go through because of it, then he/she is able to empathize with the child and they are prepared to do it. Of course they will also be some parents who are unable to do it and this might have connections to their own history of abuse, or perhaps sadly for the child, their very strong need to maintain their relationship to the perpetrator or other needs to deny the incident.  Asking for forgiveness is a process that requires careful preparation of both the parent and the child. As the Madanes model emphasizes, and really, the majority of psychotherapy models, the victim is not pressured to forgive. In this case, the healing starts to take place as the child can see a sincere gesture of remorse and compassion for their pain in the apology of the parent. This opens the door for the child to start to express the feelings and conflicts he has experienced towards the parent, in the past as well as in the present, in connection with the situation of abuse.  This will come about only if their relationship feels safe enough and he/she feels the parent is not so fragile that the disclosures will be too much, The disclosures will happen usually first to the therapist and then slowly and as needed to the parent, with the parent’s support.  Then the process can begin for the child to eventually be able to let go of the painful feelings and therefore its stronghold of the experience in his/her life.  Needless to say, the parents need a great amount of support all through this experience as well. (Madanes, 1990)

Even though mothers sometimes have told me that they have already asked for the forgiveness of the child, however, in further conversation, it is clear that this has not been done in a way that allows for the experience to really register in the mind of the child.   In other words, the child has not really been able to “hear” it and take it in.  Therefore, it needs to be done again, hopefully in a much more powerful way. The mothers (or fathers, as the case may be) need to speak from the heart and focus completely on their pain at the events that have happened, rather than trying to immediately justify her actions in rational ways, like “I had no choice but to leave then”. They might need to voice their wish for magically going back in time and doing things totally different, if they could, or in a perfect world, so that the child never suffered the terrible experiences they went through. “They would have never done it if they knew what was going to happen.” The parents also need to allow and give permission for the child to listen without an obligation to forgive, as forgiveness can take a longer time. Just expressing their sincere tremendous regret is what is important at this time for the relationship to start to heal. The therapy work for the child will emphasize this freedom to choose to forgive only when ready and when they have a real understanding of what this means through us as therapists educating them about this process. As Jack Kornfield, PhD., a Buddhist psychologist who has taught, written and lived forgiveness for over 40 years explains it in his presentations:  Forgiveness does not mean condoning the past, or forgetting about the past. In fact, the victim still needs to protect herself, or himself and others “While I forgive you, I will not let this harm continue.”  It is not about forgetting about what happened, so “It is not a quick papering over, or quick fix, or denial of the past. Instead it is a long process where you “start working through the grief, the outrage, the anger, the fear and the loss, and when it feels impossible at times, you hold yourself with forgiveness because it takes its own time.”  Forgiveness is not really for the other, it is the gift you give to yourself” It is a gift of freedom: to be free of the bitterness and anger that can poison your life and imprison you for years to come. (Kornfield, 2008).  The steps described here are just the beginning of a long process, but the importance of the parents asking for forgiveness honors the child’s pain and can start the process of healing.

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