In counseling, many adult clients come in struggling to connect to their parents. They feel that their parents do not respect them, as I discuss here, and don't treat them as valuable, worthwhile people, or continually infringe upon their personal boundaries. There can be different dynamics at play here, including:
- Parents (or in-laws, in every example) who treat you like a conduit to get something they want, which can be anything ranging from money to time with the grandkids to someone to listen to their complaints or badmouthing about other people (often including the adult child's siblings or other parent); see this example
- Parents who treat you like a small child, taking over your life and doing things for you even though you ask them not to (like this example)
- Parents who undermine you in front of others, by dismissing your perspective and even laughing at or mocking you
- Parents who tell you things that you don't want to know or ask probing personal questions about your life, e.g. about sex, finances, details of their intimate relationships or yours.
- Parents who gaslight you and deny your reality. This frequently happens when an adult is struggling with the aftermath of growing up in an abusive, neglectful, alcoholic, or otherwise dysfunctional home, and parents say it never happened.
- Parents who constantly compare you unfavorably to others, like siblings, friends of the family, even your own spouse.
- Parents who passive-aggressively infringe upon their children's boundaries, by saying they "forgot" that the child prefers to be called before visits, or that they agreed not to purchase the train set for your child's birthday because that was going to be your present.
- Parents who argue with everything you say, and always have a reason that their life experience trumps your knowledge, preferences, or opinions.
These are just a handful of common dynamics, and they can occur with parents as well as step-parents or inlaws. Oftentimes, there are personality disorders at play here, including narcissism and Borderline Personality Disorder. Sadly, there is usually no way to change your parent's personality. However, there are numerous ways to reframe the situation, to process and grieve for the parent-child relationship that you don't have, and to move on in more healthy ways.
1. First, HONESTLY figure out what your goal is in the relationship.
Many people say that their goal is "just to get along" with their parent. But after reflection, they may realize that their secret, underlying goal is to get a parent to apologize for or just acknowledge their behavior, or to validate their feelings, or even for to act as the child always wished they would (e.g., more affection, more time spent together, and so forth). Other people may genuinely only want to have grandparents in their kids' lives. Other people want to remain connected because their parents are old and sick and won't be around forever. Whatever your goal is, own it.
2. Decide objectively whether your goal is attainable.
Here are some ways to figure this out:
- Ask your spouse, friend, sibling or therapist: "Do you think Mom is ever going to admit that she stood by while Dad screamed at me every night?" Or, "Do you think I can get along with Mom if I make every effort?" Their answer should provide some insight.
- Ask yourself if you've ever seen anyone else accomplish your goal with your parent. Can anyone make peace with your father-in-law? Does he seem to respect anyone's point of view? This helps depersonalize the situation and may show you that it's not just you who experiences this issue with your parent.
- You could even tell your parent your goal! Frequently, people have done this already, like "Ma, come on, it would be so important to me if you'd just admit that Dad drank too much." Or, "You always hurt my feelings when you start comparing me to my sister and I just wish you'd stop." But, if you have never expressed your desire to your parent, do so now. Their response might be shock and a true commitment to work with you to resolve this issue.
3. If your goal is not attainable, decide whether you'd like to modify it and keep the relationship, or hold on to the goal and end the relationship. Because the one thing I'm advising you not to do is keep the same unattainable goal and stay in the relationship. That is, after all, Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
If you think you want to end the relationship, this is a big step, so a pros and cons list is useful. Again, this technique helps give you some objectivity and perspective. An example could be:
Pros of staying in relationship with Mom:
Mom babysits the kids, Mom seems to love me in her way, Mom can be fun to hang out with when she gets her way.
Cons of staying in relationship with Mom:
Mom criticizes me and it makes me angry, Mom doesn't admit that she enabled Dad, Mom asks for money that we barely have.
Also, try to speak to a counselor about the decision of ending a relationship with a parent. This is a big decision, and while many people do it to protect themselves, many people want to take a different path.
4. If you want to stay in the relationship and modify your goal, figure out your new goal. Here are some good examples of healthy alternatives :
- My goal is to get through each visit without any arguing
- My goal is to have my children enjoy time with their grandparents
- My goal is to support my spouse in dealing with his parents (for the in-law situation)
- My goal is to genuinely learn to not care what my parents think about me (this is a great one, and you can't learn to do it as easily if you end contact with them).
- My goal is to stand up for myself/my spouse at least once per visit (to work on your own ability to express yourself; not with any hope of changing the parent's behavior)
Once you've reframed your goal, we can move to....
5. Set boundaries.
Boundaries can be both physical and emotional. Here are some physical ones:
- Visits will not involve anyone sleeping over.
- Phone calls will be once per week.
- Emails are fine but phone calls are too much.
- We need 24 hours notice before visits.
- We don't make our kids give hugs if they don't want to.
Here are some emotional ones:
- I will not tolerate you teasing me about my weight.
- I don't like you calling me that nickname anymore.
- Please do not compare me to my sister.
- I will not tolerate you criticizing my parenting.
- I'm not comfortable when you ask my kids for information about my co-parent and his new relationship.
These boundaries need to be asserted over and over, because, like any sort of behavioral training, they won't work unless they are consistent. And there also need to be consequences. These need to be consistent too, and you can experiment with making them overt and open or just immediate and not openly stated. For example, if your mom mentions that you're overweight on a phone call, you could say, "Mom, I will not tolerate negative comments about my weight." If this spins your mother into a defensive frenzy, you could also try just ending every phone call within 5 seconds of her mentioning your weight. Like this:
Mom: You know, I was talking to your sister and she thinks you may want to lay off some of the carbs--
You: Oh, you know, I really gotta go. I'll talk to you later. Bye!
Your mom may ring back, and then you let it go to voicemail. Next time it happens, you do the same thing.
I don't like to advocate dishonesty, but if you've ever dealt with a parent who can escalate situations rapidly, become paranoid, and get angry instantly if they perceive any slight criticism, you will know that these people often cannot handle you stating your needs outright, but they are capable of learning behaviorally from immediate consequences. If you want to remain in the relationship, you are making a concession to your parent's inability to deal with an authentic interpersonal exchange while also protecting yourself from attack and subtly conveying your boundaries.
6. Make sure your new goal informs and guides all of your interactions.
If you want to maximize the time your parent spends with your kids, do that. Don't lurk around waiting for your parent to turn to you with love and affection and feeling sad and angry when you're ignored. Instead, recognize that behavior was left over from your previous goal of getting your parent to treat you nicer, but it's not useful for your current goal. For your current goal, you could ask your spouse to hang out with your parent and the kids while you go for a walk.
7. Grieve your loss.
Whether you've ended the relationship or you've modified your goal, you're still grieving the loss of the parent-child relationship that you always wanted, and that every child deserves. A skilled therapist can work with you to accept your parents' limitations and can bear witness to the challenges of your life from childhood (or marriage, in the case of in-laws) through now. If therapy is not for you, talk with a friend, journal, create art, or focus on your own relationships, particularly with your own children, to reassure yourself that you can break the dysfunctional cycle and make your kids feel heard and known.
One book that can help you to understand and reframe your relationship with your parents is Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says Sometimes Parent-Child Relationships Are Hardest When You're No Longer a Child.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family.