Therapeutic Letter to Your Parents: Why and How

A therapeutic letter is something I’ve not only suggested to adult clients many times but have also used personally. In fact, I wrote one for the very same reason many others have—coming out to Mom. Jane Lynch, for example, wrote about this type of letter in her 2011 memoir Happy Accidents. (My own experience was fictionalized in my novel Minding Therapy.)

In Lynch’s case, her therapist suggested writing her parents the fairly standard write-it/don’t-necessarily-send-it/maybe-you-should-show-it-to-me-first kind of letter. Why not send it? There can be some satisfaction just from the process of venting thoughts and feelings and/or preparing what you might actually say in person instead. Why show your therapeutic letter to a trusted someone? In case you get carried away, a more objective eye helps ensure that the prospective target won’t be so turned off they’ll decide not to read your missive.

Coming out, of course, isn’t the only reason you might write a therapeutic letter. Maybe you’ve experienced childhood wounds you’d like to address. Or maybe the problems are more present-centered.

But, Isn’t letter writing a copout? some will ask. Not at all. Letter-writing affords the sender a chance to say what she needs to say without being sidetracked by heated dialogue, and it affords the receiver a chance to think things through before responding. And thus, both parties can work together more effectively on their relationship.

When John F. Evans, EdD, Psychology Today, addressed “transactional writing” he considered all kinds of reasons someone might try to reach another via writing. His five types of letters can all apply to reasons you may be considering writing a letter to your parents.

  1. The compassionate letter–in which you reach out to try to help someone in pain
  2. The empathetic letter–an effort to understand another’s actions or intent
  3. The gratitude letter
  4. Granting forgiveness letter
  5. Asking forgiveness letter

More specifically, Matt Smith at Modern Era Counseling suggests a process for dealing with toxic parents through writing a series, step by step, of three different therapy letters.

  1. The never-to-be-mailed letter to your toxic parent–to help the writer express things without self-censorship
  2. The realistic response letter from your toxic parent–what you might expect in return
  3. Desired response letter from your toxic parent–“the response you’ve always hoped for from your parent but never truly received”

The ultimate effect of the above process is to allow oneself to feel the type of validation never before received—and possibly not ever achievable in actual interactions.

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