Dilemmas: Should I tell my parents they ruined my childhood?

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Nicolette's counsellor has suggested that she write her parents a letter outlining how she felt they let her down in childhood. She can't bear to do it because she knows it would upset her mother and that her father would never speak to her again. But her counsellor says her own mental health is more important than any pain she might cause. An unprecedented number of readers wrote to tell her what she should do

WHAT VIRGINIA SAYS

My own late father always advised me that writing angry letters was a good thing. "Write it, sleep on it, rewrite it, wait a week, make another draft to make it even more vicious, sleep on it again, then cut it down to half, and make a fair copy," he would say. "But never, never, under any circumstances, send it."

It seems extraordinary that a counsellor is pushing Nicolette to do something that she instinctively knows is wrong. It's easy to write the letter, easy to post it, but how will she deal with the feedback? This is a letter, after all, one that can be read and reread, hurting again and again.

Far from clearing the air, it will fill it with fire and smoke and tears. It may well be that her parents will cut themselves off from her, they will feel so hurt and angry. Could Nicolette cope with that, along with all her other problems?

How are Nicolette's parents going to feel when they open up this bombshell from a daughter whom they may well have loved deeply in their own way? Does she have any ideas of the stresses and strains they were under as they brought her up? Has she any concept of the thinking about child upbringing that existed when she was young?

Perhaps she was left to scream and scream because her parents thought, according to books they read at the time, that it was the right thing to do. Perhaps they had had appalling difficulties in their own childhoods which made them unable to be the ideal parents that she fantasises about.

I know I resent my mother for always making me wear horribly fashionable clothes when I was small, which made me look ridiculous. But she did it because as a child she was always forced to wear grey school uniforms and hand-me-downs, and would have given anything to have looked pretty and up-to-date. She thought I would like it. Nearly everyone could dredge up bitter criticisms of their parents.

Obviously, if Nicolette's parents consistently abused her physically and psychologically, and she basically hates them and never wants to see them again, a letter would be fine. It would be a form of justice. But it certainly doesn't sound as though things were like that in Nicolette's home.

Now, to confront her parents face to face, in a spirit of inquiry rather than resentment, could have completely different results. "I have never really understood why you sent me to boarding school when you knew I was so unhappy there." "I often thought, when I was small, that you never talked to me or listened to me because you thought I was stupid. Was I right?" These are remarks that would imply no direct criticism, just an interest in what her parents' motives were. Her parents might be hurt, but certainly not devastated.

This could be healing, but only if Nicolette feels comfortable with it. But on the whole, counselling should involve helping a client to get in touch with her feelings of anger and resentment about her parents and to acknowledge and "own" them.

Only then can she forgive her parents - and perhaps get in touch with the kind things they did as well. And then she can get on with living her own life.

I wonder what the counsellor would suggest if Nicolette's parents were dead. Would she say that that was a pity because now she'd be stuck with her problems forever and she'd never be able to resolve them? Of course not. Nicolette would have to resolve them internally. Which is what she must do now.

WHAT READERS SAY

Seize the moment

In my case it was my father to whom I wrote as my mother was dead. It was not easy, but it was a wonderful release. It forced him to acknowledge me. It began the process of sorting out our relationship. It took ages to get him to even agree that I had a point, but in the end he did. My only regret is that he died before we could complete the journey together, but we were much closer than we would otherwise have been.

Did it upset him? Of course it did. But that was his problem. I realised that my debt to myself was more important than my concern for his feelings. That lifetime subordination of feeling was at the heart of the problem - it had suppressed and belittled me.

Once I finally rebelled against it, I began to feel better. Counselling was no longer necessary. I was free at last.

Nicolette, this is the moment. Be strong. Seize it. Make it happen. Engage. Write that first letter. You will never regret it.

PETER MORGAN

Durham

Spare yourself the guilt

Don't post that letter. I did and it caused a lot of pain on both sides. My parents were baffled by my views - they felt that they had done the best for me in difficult circumstances.

Telling your parents how you feel won't benefit your mental health, it will just make you feel guilty and possibly worse than before.

Go ahead and write down your feelings - then burn the letters.

GINA GORDON

Leeds

No one has ideal parents

My advice to Nicolette is to immediately stop seeing her counsellor. With the money she saves she could have a great night out with her best mate at her local pub, and tell her friend what rotten parents she had. I guarantee that her friend will then tell her that her own mother and father were far from ideal. The two of them could then discuss how they themselves would be perfect parents with angelic children.

I failed my own children at times, but we love each other.

RUTH ANGUS

Bath

They're odd, not you

In order to move forward you have to let go of the past. By encouraging you to challenge your parents' past behaviour in the form of a letter, your counsellor is trying to help you see this. If you don't tell your parents what they have done, they will carry on behaving in the same way, and you will continue with this burden and not get on with your life. Your parents may not change but you can.

I am nearly 29 and both my parents suffer from psychiatric disorders and have done some terrible things. Thanks to a counsellor I have learned to have the courage to stand strong against them.

Go on - post the letter. Take one step at a time and you'll find the strength comes to you naturally. They are the ones who are odd - not you. When you realise this you'll wonder why you wasted so much time. I do.

JO HAMMOND

Leicester

I would be shattered

I left my sons, aged five and three, with their father when we divorced in 1965 and, although they came back to live with me as teenagers, I suffered from enormous guilt, and still do, at this desertion of them. They are now in their thirties, both very successful, and they assure me that what happened to them as children was part of life and any unhappiness they may have experienced as adults is not my fault; they are responsible for their own lives now.

If they were to write me a letter such as Nicolette's counsellor advises, I would be totally shattered - we can only do the best we can as parents, and often that best is not good enough. For Nicolette's parents to be told, out of the blue, that they handled her badly would be terribly cruel. She should tear up the letter - surely writing it has been cathartic enough!

KATHARINE ODGERS

Hove, E Sussex

I needed to shock them

Nicolette's letter reminded me of a letter I wrote to my mum in 1983: I spewed out, in graphic detail, events I had suffered in silence for the previous 21 years. I meant to shock and I meant to hurt and because no one in my family had any support to deal with what I revealed I caused a major rift between myself, my immediate family circle and the wider network of our relatives, which has remained to this day.

From the moment my letter was sent I effectively - and painfully - forced myself to move on. To my family what I had said was so unimaginable that their only option was to totally deny what I'd written and immediately close ranks.

It has taken me 12 years to reclaim the self-respect and love I knew I deserved in my life, and I can state that I now feel no guilt or shame about the effect my letter had on my family. I knew deep down that I had no alternative.

ANONYMOUS

Accusations are useless

How can the counsellor know that her parents can look after themselves - such an accusation could have a devastating effect on them.

My sister tried exactly the same solution to a problem she felt she had with our parents. Her perception of our upbringing was entirely at odds with mine, but she was convinced they had caused her untold grief. The letter had a devastating effect on our parents and they never fully recovered from the accusations levelled at them, and also, it did her no good at all.

ANONYMOUS

Ditch the counsellor

Imagine, if you will, the postman arrives tomorrow morning with a letter in your mother's hand. It's not your birthday and it's too early for Christmas. You open the envelope to find - lo and behold - a detailed, planned, precise account of every way you have let your parents down - from toddler tantrums, through adolescent sullenness and teenage arrogance, to twentysomething distance. How would you feel? After all, as you pointed out, you are 27 and, like them, can look after yourself - can't you?

Ditch the counsellor and try talking to your parents. You might actually resolve the problems your therapist has been charging you pounds 30 a week to discuss.

J WOODBRIDGE

Surbiton

Talk to your parents

Perhaps it would be more helpful to exorcise the pain by putting a chair in front of you and pretending that you are talking to your mum and your dad. You could explain how you feel without having to worry about their feelings. I, too, once wrote a letter to my parents but decided not to send it. I simply asked each one individually if they loved me. For me that was all that was needed and it enabled me to see them as they were then - young, insecure and human.

LYNDA FAULKNER

Chessington, Surrey

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Some friends and I are organising a skiing party in January. We have a mutual friend who is getting increasingly irritating. She is deeply unhappy, an unemployed single parent, who demands to be the centre of attention and has a vicious temper. She also expects everything to be done for her. We care enough about her to put up with her even when she brings her nine-year-old son along, who is a nightmare. On occasion, she is capable of extraordinary kindness. But several people have said they'd have to think twice about coming if she and her son are asked.

We can't not ask her. It would be too unkind. She considers herself to be a pivotal part of our circle. What can we do? Do we have to sacrifice the holiday? Or should we just put up with her?

Yours sincerely, Sonia

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Please send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail: dilemmas@ independent. co.uk - giving a postal address for sending the bouquet.

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