“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them;
sometimes, they forgive them” – Oscar Wilde
The notion that adults, and in particular, parents and caregivers, are to be unequivocally trusted is something that most young children naively believe, unless or until that trust is broken. Typically, this involves some form of neglect or act of abuse, be it verbal, emotional, or physical or a combination of all three. Examples of such abuse may include humiliating a child in public, repeatedly ridiculing them or calling them cruel names, withholding love and affection from them, violent unprovoked outbursts, slapping, punching, etc. When a child is deliberately hurt by a parent, whether it’s ongoing abuse or an isolated traumatic incident, it can be especially difficult to overcome for the child, even years after the abuse is over. How can one determine if they have truly moved on from their traumatic past? Is “forgiving” your parents enough?
The Cycle of Abuse
Most people hold true that the purest form of love is between a parent and child and that somehow by simply becoming a parent one learns to love “unconditionally.” So naturally we expect that parents instinctively should love their children and treat them accordingly. The unfortunate truth is that many parents are not only abusive but are very capable of doing great harm to their children. In fact, a simple survey of the headline news on any given day will yield countless examples of seemingly “normal” parents who hurt, abandon, and in the most tragic cases even murder their own children.
More than 8 out of 10 abused children are abused by their own parents.
Every 6 hours in America a child dies in the US due to abuse or neglect.
In 2005, more than 3.5 million children were reported as victims of child abuse or neglect.
So while a person may know and understand on a rational level that their parents are human and flawed and capable of making mistakes, it can still be very difficult to disconnect from the negative memories and move past the feelings of betrayal. Such a person may grapple regularly with anger, resentment, passive-aggressiveness, hostility, apathy, or even hatred towards their abusive parent(s).
At any given point, one can feel the full spectrum of these emotions or they may have learned to suppress their emotions and feel nothing at all. This is partly because of the destructive effect the abuse has on a child’s emotional development and self-esteem, which can carry well into adulthood if unresolved:
“Children of abuse do not develop healthy self-esteem. They often blame themselves for the arguments and the violence. They may also believe that it is their own failing that they receive little love. Violence also creates low self-worth: For example, if a parent does not realize what happens to the child who witnesses or receives the abuse, the child may believe that, “My feeling (of fear or pain) are ignored, and my needs (for peace and comforting) are not being met…I must not be important. Fighting parents cannot attend to the child’s emotional needs. Often, the ups and downs of abusive homes are ignored: the child feels anxiety and agitation as the tension builds up; the child feels fear and helplessness during the battering; and then the child feels guilt and shame afterward. Without intervention, these feelings are never resolved.” – “Understanding Domestic Violence,” by Barbara Correy, M.A
Some people carry on for years not realizing that they are still plagued with feelings of inadequacy, self-blame, and low self-esteem because of the abuse they experienced as a child. These feelings may manifest themselves in different ways, for example, how you perform in school or at work, how you allow your partners to speak to you or treat you, or how you feel about your own abilities and accomplishments.
So even if you never confronted your parents or sought some type of treatment, you may falsely think you are “past” the abuse because of how long ago it occurred or because you deliberately suppress your memories, but the residual effects of it are actually with you every day.
If one or more of your parents abused you as a child and you are now an adult, consider the following to know if you are truly over the abuse:
1) Do you feel any anxiety talking/interacting with your abusive parent(s)?
2) Do you try hard to impress them by sharing your accomplishments and goals?
3) Do you take their criticisms to heart more than you do other people in your life?
4) Do you constantly feel like nothing you ever do is good enough for them?
5) Do you feel a greater sense of value when they show you affection or approval?
Forgiving & Moving Forward
In Islam, we are constantly reminded throughout the Qur’an and in the hadith literature, that it is better to forgive those who wrong you than to have rancor towards them or cut them off. This is even more the case for parents, where children are told to be humble towards them and never even utter a single word of frustration to them:
“Pardon them and overlook – Allah loves those who do good.” (Qur’an 5:13)
“Those who control their anger and are forgiving towards people; Allah loves the good.” (Qur’an, 3: 134)
“Your Lord hath decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour. And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.” (Qur’an 17:23)
To “forgive” one’s parents is therefore something anyone can do if they feel compelled enough to try; it can be as simple as telling them you forgive them or supplicating to God and asking for their pardon. The more difficult process is learning how to move forward from the abuse and become whole again. This isn’t as much about your relationship with your parents as it is about you. It’s about learning how to break away from the effects that the abuse had on your own self-image. This requires a deep level of introspection and a certain degree of faith and spiritual practice.
And it’s important to note, that depending on your past experience with abuse, simply praying and offering forgiveness may not be sufficient. Yes, it’s important to put our faith in God and supplicate for relief from our tribulations, but we must also remember that He’s given us tools, such as science and medicine to learn and benefit from as well. Additionally, every person copes with trauma differently, so there isn’t a single approach to the healing process. Victims who’ve suffered through severe violence or sexual abuse, for example, typically need to do much more longterm work with the help of a mental health professional to overcome their trauma. Even so they may or may not ever reach the point of forgiving their parents; that decision is solely theirs.
Violent/Sexual Abuse Cases
In the Muslim community, oftentimes because of family pressure or culture, many victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence never report the abuse or if they do share it with someone they are pressured to keep it to themselves and “get over” what happened to them. A parent, sibling, friend or even the imam at a masjid may not know how to properly console the victim and defers to telling them to “forgive and forget,” or “let it go for the sake of Allah.” In this way, the victim may experience a form of revictimization, where they are once again silenced and their trauma dismissed and forgotten. Victims of severe abuse cases such as these need to be given a voice no matter how long ago the abuse occurred; they need to feel empowered and reassured that they have nothing to be ashamed of and they are not at fault. It is best to seek the help of a mental health professional who has experience helping victims of domestic violence and abuse. Others, even if they have the best of intentions and want to help, may end up causing more harm than benefit. For more information online visit the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall…
For victims of other forms of abuse, one way to begin the healing process on your own is by evaluating the standards with which you judge yourself. Ask yourself, “Whose ideal of me am I trying to live up to?” “Who defines me?” “Who knows me better than I know myself?”
It’s also important to remember that judging yourself according to how others view you, regardless of who they are, is much like looking into different surfaces for an accurate reflection of yourself. Some surfaces, like the side view mirror of a car, will distort your image so your blemishes appear bigger than they actually are; some surfaces, like a murky puddle or pond, are layered with dirt and conceal your true beauty; and some, like the mirrors in popular department stores that use the effects of lighting, will make you appear exactly how you want to look. Similarly, some people will bring out the worst in you, others are consumed with darkness and will never show you any good, and still others will lie to you just to keep you around and benefit from you. The fact that your parents bore you into this world in and of itself has no bearing on their ability to reflect properly. They are human beings after all and capable of being biased, prejudiced, and cruel, just as anyone else.
The sooner we realize that all humans, like most reflective surfaces, are flawed, the less we will allow them to affect how we see ourselves. We need to judge ourselves according to the most perfect reflection of who we are, and that can only be through the sight of the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. When we dismiss the opinions, criticisms, judgements, approvals, etc., of other people, including our parents, and focus solely on His reflection of who we used to be, who we are, and who we can become, we liberate ourselves from the cycle of abuse and the unforgiving and often relentless scrutiny of others.
Furthermore, when you accept that your parents are flawed just as all humans are, you are not excusing their abuses towards you, but simply letting go of any expectations you had of them. You’re restoring the balance, resuming power and control of your self worth again, and finally embarking on the road to healing and recovery.
The Prophetic Example
For Muslims, there is no greater example of human excellence than the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He was a paragon of every role he played: husband, father, son, leader, etc. He embodied compassion and was merciful towards everyone who crossed his path, young and old, male and female, even those who wished him harm. He was even gentle towards animals and plants and taught us to be the same with all of God’s creation.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Once while a man was walking on his way he became extremely thirsty. He found a well and went down into it to drink water. Upon leaving it, he saw a dog that was panting out of thirst. His tongue was lolling out and he was eating moist earth from extreme thirst. The man thought to himself: `This dog is extremely thirsty as I was.’ So he descended into the well, filled up his leather sock with water, and holding it in his teeth, climbed up and quenched the thirst of the dog. God appreciated his action and forgave his sins.” The Companions asked: “Shall we be rewarded for showing kindness to the animals also?” He (peace be upon him) said, “A reward is given in connection with every living creature.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
Ibn ‘Umar said, ”The Prophet forbade beating (animals) on the face.” (Bukhari)
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was approached by one of his companions, al-N’uman bin Basheer, who said: “O Prophet of God! I have granted a servant to one of my children (asking him to testify to that gift).” He asked him: ”Did you grant the same to each and every child of yours?” When he was informed negatively about that, he said: ”Fear God, the Almighty, and be fair and just to all your children. Seek the testimony of another person, other than me. I will not testify to an act of injustice.” (Bukhari)
As children, as parents, as spouses, and siblings, we must look always to the perfect example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and know that his way is the most perfect way. He did not harm anyone ever and was always full of magnanimity and grace with every person and living thing that crossed his noble path. He had the capacity to forgive some of the most heinous and despicable acts, like the murder of his beloved uncle Hamza at the hands of Wahshi, who mutilated his body. We should reflect on such events not just as tragic moments in his life, but also as examples for us to learn from; to bear witness to his noble character and the way he responded to tribulation.
We will learn, for example, that we are encouraged to forgive others so that we may receive forgiveness from God. And by being more forgiving we are not diminishing or denying the pain others have caused or still cause us, but putting our trust in God and defaulting to the knowledge that not even a millisecond of our suffering is forgotten and that His justice is imminent inshAllah.
This may be easier said than done, especially for those who are still dealing with an abusive parent who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge his/her wrongs. Nevertheless, it may help the victims of abuse to remember that despite what their abusive parent believes or says, nowhere in Islam is abuse justified. Victims must never believe for a moment that Islam sanctions or gives parents the right to “discipline” their children by causing emotional or physical harm, as their abusers often tell them. And abusers must know that God is a witness to everything we do and that just as He admonishes those who harm animals (as mentioned in the hadiths above), surely He will call those to account who harm their own children–especially when they try to use His book and religion to justify their tyranny!
Ultimately, whether you choose to forgive your abusive parent or not, if you feel that despite your best efforts you are still unable to move past the abuse and rebuild your self-esteem, then you should really seek the help of a mental health professional. They are trained to help victims talk through their feelings and find coping strategies that work for them. To help find a mental health professional in your area, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.