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When 'Honoring Your Father and Mother' Is Challenging

Carola is a Christian writer and author of several books. She writes about Christian living, relationships, and other related topics.

Honor your father and mother. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” — which is the first commandment with a promise — “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Ephesians 6:1-3 (also Exodus 20: 12-13)

When my parents were alive, I dreaded getting Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day or other special cards for them. So many of the messages inside were syrupy tributes to sacrifices that parents had made and thanks for the great lessons they taught to their children. I did love my parents, and they did do some things right, but there are lots of things that hurt me such as neglect, painful “spankings,” and verbal abuse.

The command to honor my parents has caused mixed feelings in me. Like many other victims who suffered parental neglect and abuse, I have wondered if this commandment meant that the pain and violation I felt from my parents’ harm should be ignored or suppressed. My natural inclination is only to honor other people who have earned it through their actions or choices.

The Meaning of the Word 'Honor'

The word “honor” does not mean that we tolerate abuse and obey our parents like mindless robots. It does not mean we have to love parents who chose to abandon, reject, or abandon us. The original Hebrew word kābēd used for the word for honor has many meanings according to the New Interpreter’s Bible, including to "be heavy.” This definition can be interpreted as “giving weight to” or seriously considering a relationship. It does not suggest being subordinate or obedient to parents who harm us.

Jesus said that he came to set a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Anyone who loves their parents more than Him is not worthy of Him (Matthew 10:34-37). Our relationship with God is clearly more important than those with our parents.

Still, honoring our parents in some way is important. People often miss the second part of the commandment, which says that if we do honor our parents, we will do well and live a long life. So how do we do this in a healthy manner? Here are some ways I have obeyed this commandment without denying or failing to deal with the harm that they had done.

How to Honor Our Parents

Pray for them

Jesus commanded that we pray for people, even if they are our enemies. We need to lean on God for the strength to be civil to parents who may be abusive alcoholics or let us down when we needed them the most.

Face and deal with the pain they caused

My parents both had anger issues that did me a lot of harm. I was told I was stupid and could not do anything right. I was never praised or encouraged by them while I was growing up. They believed in “spankings” which sometimes left me black and blue. I was often on my own and neglected as a teen. I was full of resentment and righteous indignation over the way they treated me.

How could I honor parents who had hurt me so badly? I had to face the fact that the people who were supposed to build up my self-esteem, and love and nurture me actually harmed me. I had to acknowledge it and let go of my pain to be emotionally healthy. One way I could do that was through forgiveness.

Forgive our mothers and fathers

When I was in my twenties, I was an angry person. I could explode like an erupting volcano—sometimes hurting innocent bystanders, or my mom and dad. I traced a lot of my resentment back to the way I was treated as a child.

My healing from child maltreatment began when I decided to forgive my mother and father for what they did to me. Forgiveness is a process that I needed to revisit when triggers reminded me of past injustice and abuse. I eventually was able to have a good relationship with my parents without the shadow of bitterness or unforgiveness.

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Does forgiveness mean that parents are not accountable for the harm they caused? No. Everyone must weigh whether they feel they need to take action against their parents to hold them responsible for what they had done. Some may decide not to have contact with verbally abusive or parents with those with substance addictions. Others may choose to report mistreatment to child protective services or law enforcement.

Try to understand them and accept their flaws

When children are young, parents are almost godlike to them. As children grow into adulthood, however, they realize that parents are not perfect and make mistakes. Some parents may have been deliberately cruel and mean, so it is a mystery why they acted as they did. Others may have harmed their offspring unintentionally.

In my case, I do not think that my parents deliberately set out to hurt me. I have come to believe that my parents were angry and abusive because, in part, they had untreated post-traumatic stress disorder from their horrible experiences during World War II. I do not excuse their hurtful behavior, but having some idea where my parents were coming from helped me to extend mercy to them and forgive them.

Find things to be grateful for

For some of us, the only thing that we can be thankful for is that our parents gave us life. Other situations could be a mixed bag of good and bad. In my case, while my parents could be neglectful or abusive, they also did some things right.

I had a nice home, clothes, and my Christmas wish list was usually fulfilled. My mother could be loving at times. My father changed late in life and became more loving towards me.

Should Hurtful Parents be Confronted?

Every situation is different and should be carefully analyzed. In some cases, parents may be unaware of the harm to their children caused by hurtful behavior such as constant criticism. They may honestly think that they were helping their children to learn life lessons.

Other parents may unconsciously favor a sibling, causing their children to feel rejected and lowering their children’s self-esteem. In these situations, grown children may find healing by telling their parents how the parents’ words and actions impacted them. Parents may apologize when confronted and vow to change their harmful behaviors.

In many cases, however, confrontation does no good. Many parents are in denial about the harm they have done and may even try to justify their actions.

My situation falls into this category. I tested the waters with my mother, for example, by bringing up a situation that I found hurtful. She responded with denial that the event occurred. I realized that I needed to accept her state of denial and avoided talking about certain events to have a good relationship with her. I never lost hope, however, that she would change.

Sometimes, parents do come around. They apologize for the harm they had done and reassured their adult children who feel unloved that they are, in fact, loved.

Concluding Thoughts

So, did it “go well with me and do I now enjoy a long life on the earth?” Yes. I was able to have a good, loving relationship with my mother as an older adult. She came to live with me during the last few years of her life. After my father left my mother for another woman, he completely changed towards me—at that time, an 18-year-old. In his happiness, he was loving towards me and proud of me. My relationships with both my parents in adulthood enriched my life with their love and care until they passed away.

My parents never acknowledged the harm they had done to me. I never heard an apology from my parents for the hurtful things they said and did to me. Despite that, I was still able to forgive them and honor them through the steps I had taken toward healing.

Reference: The Holy Bible, New International Version

© 2016 Carola Finch


MissBlueesteyes on January 29, 2020:

I can't put into words how much it means to me that you took the time to write this article. Even though I'm about to turn 40 years old, my parents idea of me honouring them is to obey them, let them control what I wear, say, do, etc. Unfortunately, they're finding out the hard way that this is not the case & progress with this is painfully slow. I'm just recovering from a very nasty situation 6 days ago. I needed an article like this that helps me to confirm my more healthy idea of what honouring my/your parents looks like. I will be eternally grateful for the spiritual, emotional & psychological boost this article has given me. This has really helped me to put this into perspective.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Kathy Elliott on December 22, 2018:

Great article makes total sense. Sometimes the relationship between child and parent is challenging. It could be from something the parent experienced as a child. No matter what you honor your parents they gave you life , you would not be here if it wasn't for them. Also be good to everyone .

Anthony Georgio on September 05, 2018:

Also want to Echo Dora weithers comments, Especially the emphasis that parents do not intentionally go out to hurt their children, though 'some' have, they may be separate issues to deal with.

Butterflysdream on March 14, 2018:

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. It helps so much to accept my pain. I know it isn’t unintentional, but it’s hard when no one else understands the position that I’ve been put in.

No Clue Dad on January 24, 2018:

I just stumbled across this article. A great read, and inspiring for us all.

All of us will experience, in one form or another, a bumpiness in our relationships. Some bumps are, of course bigger and harder to deal with than others.

Not everyone is going to apologize. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is a fragile self esteem for some. Others do not apologize because they do not sincerely recognize how their words or actions have caused hurt to another human being. Still others do not apologize due to severe personality disorders that result in a lack of compassion and empathy for others.

In my view, apologies are a bit over rated--as far as me receiving them. Sometimes a person that has done something to me does not apologize, and yet, I can just tell by their words and deeds they are sorry. Others apologize, and yet continue on in the same words or deeds and I can just tell they really are not sorry at all. I'd rather a person "show" they are sorry, than just "say" they are sorry, but that is just my personal preference.

As for myself, I will gladly own and be accountable for anything that anyone says I did to them--child, adult child, friend, family member--whatever. I think the problem is more complicated when the complaint does not appear to be reality based.

What do we do then? I am quite willing to say "sorry", but am I sorry for something that I am certain did not happen? It gets a lot trickier to navigate one's way through a thicket of someone's version of reality that does not mirror my own.

We all experience reality through our own filtered lenses. That must account for some part of the tolerance the author of this article expresses for the fact that some folks just will not say they are sorry.

Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 28, 2016:

Thank you for your comments. This is a difficult topic for many.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 27, 2016:

Thanks for emphasizing that all parents do not intentionally hurt the children; thanks also for exemplifying the benefit of forgiveness. Really a good share!

Lori Colbo from United States on September 24, 2016:

What a beautiful article you've written and that can help so many. God bless you.

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