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Surviving Father's Day When Dear Old Dad Is Not So Dear

A Personal Perspective: Overcome past hurts and start anew on Father's Day.

 Fizkes for Getty Images via Canva
When past hurts and painful memories resurface on Father's Day, you can still cope and heal.
Source: Fizkes for Getty Images via Canva

By Timothy Rice, M.D. and Kristen Beesley, Ph.D.

When you have a difficult, or worse, relationship with your dad, Father’s Day can be fraught with anxiety and pain. Unpleasant memories, tension, and varying levels of estrangement take center stage, meanwhile, your friends are celebrating their dads with heartfelt cards and gifts.

Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, is widely promoted and hard to ignore.

A TV ad asks, “Where will you celebrate Father’s Day?” It showcases a beaming adult son enjoying a meal with his cardigan-graced Dad at the best restaurant in town. People think, “great idea.” However, you instantly recall the time your father yelled at you at a restaurant when you were 12. You remember it well. Your father doesn’t.

An online ad pops up, featuring a woman your age, smiling up at her graying dad and presenting him with a gift. Meanwhile, your own father barely communicates with you and on the rare phone call, he sounds like he’s been drinking, can’t remember the name of your dog, and only talks about how much he and his third wife are enjoying their beach condo. You aren’t planning on sending him a gift because he doesn't call you on your birthday.

Father’s Day can be rife with pain, despite the media demand for unconditional celebration. But there is hope. If you would like a healthier experience this Father’s Day:

Step 1: Accept your father's negatives

If you have mixed memories of your father, you may feel pressure (both internally and externally) to brush aside the pain and focus on the positive. But you don’t need to abandon past hurts. Past hurts actually feel more “authentic” to you than those vague, “happy” memories you’re trying hard to resuscitate. Instead of hiding the pain, allow yourself some space to simply not enjoy.

Step 2: Gain perspective on your father's own experience

After validating the negatives, think about whether your father did his best with what he had available, and place the downsides into the context of his own upbringing and life. Typically, we view our fathers as authorities. Yet, every father is really just another person like the rest of us. The late psychoanalyst and social worker Selma Fraiberg promoted the concept of intergenerational transmission of trauma, in which the hurts of parents continue on into their children. While you can feel hurt for the way these ghosts can be passed down, take into context that the struggle you may have had with your father is the same struggle he may have had with his own parents.

Step 3: Acknowledge your father’s positives

While you should acknowledge and accept your father’s negatives, an important step to a healthier Father’s Day is to also find the positives, no matter how small. Did you learn an important lesson from your father? Can you recall any warm feelings you shared with your dad? Did he have a particular talent you admire? One important developmental task of adulthood is to live with appreciation and disappointment side by side; bring light to your bag of mixed emotions. Give yourself some credit and permit yourself to feel both good and bad at the same time.

Step 4: Do something, maybe even give your dad a call

Father’s Day is well set up for new beginnings. Take the opportunity to share something loving with your father, without internally feeling the need to do injustice to your own complex feelings.

If your father lives nearby, perhaps send him an email to invite him for coffee. If you’re states away, set up a time to talk with him via phone or Facetime. Or, if it feels comfortable, pick up the phone and just call on Father’s Day. If you do connect, say hello, and share whatever you are feeling.

Reflect on the negatives, recognize that you are entitled to your feelings, and allow yourself the space to feel a range of feelings. You need not experience only the positive. Allow yourself to connect, say hello, and just accept whatever you are feeling.

Your father may not respond at all. He may not return your email or answer your call. This may simply be a matter of bad timing but he may be actively stating he does not want to speak. Fathers have their own uncomfortable feelings that arise poignantly on Father’s Day.

What feels right for you

Some people choose to acknowledge their feelings with a mailed letter, a card, or an email. Some may reflect privately. While the holiday is called Father's Day, it is also a day for the child. Do what feels right for you.

When it helps, share any past hurts with your friends and family in the service of allowing yourself to be open to positivity. If you spend time with your father on this special day, you may actually enjoy it.

For adult children, this is also a time to reflect on what fathering means to us, how we hope to take in these memories, and pass down our memories with our own understanding to those we parent or mentor.

While you may not be truly “celebrating” your father, coming to terms with your relationship is an opportunity.

Timothy Rice, M.D., is an adult and child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in practice in New York City. His professional and research interests include the promotion of health and well-being in youth populations. Rice is the Chair of the American Psychoanalytic Association's Child Advocacy Committee.

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