Family Discussions: Not Taking the Bait
With sensitive topics in families, avoid tug of wars by not picking up the rope.
Posted Mar 01, 2019
When adult children complain to their parents about how the parents are repetitively engaging in invalidating, hateful, critical, demanding, and/or abusive behavior towards them, the elder family members have almost always developed a number of ways to get them to shut up. Often these ways include dismissing the adult children's complaints by accusing their progeny of being:
A) Little snowflakes (to use the current trendy term) who are overly-sensitive, weak, selfish, unable to take a little good-natured teasing, or "high maintenance."
B) Stupid—reading things into what the parents are saying that are not really there.
C) Pathological—making things up that did not even happen or twisting the meaning of everything the parents say to unfairly shift the blame for the child's problem onto the poor, put-upon parents.
Unfortunately, in many of today's psychotherapy models, many therapists seem to agree with the parents that the adult child's problems are all in their heads and are not, in fact, due to their having being traumatized or understandably upset by dysfunctional or abusive family relationships.
And of course, as readers of my blogs know, if parents act as if they expect their children to act in weak, stupid, or pathological ways, in response the children often do indeed start to act out exactly what they are being accused of doing. When dysfunctional family patterns include that phenomenon in addition to the problematic parental behavior mentioned at the top of the post, the situation is a bit more complicated to talk about and will not be discussed further here.
To solve the problems, the adult children have to find a way to not shut the hell up but to constructively push the conversation forward in order to put a stop to the problematic patterns. (My current self-help book for New Harbinger discusses many different strategies for achieving this goal).
This post will discuss one countermove to use when you are being accused of A, B, and/or C above that is often successful in disarming the parents and pushing the conversation onward. Of course, no strategy works with all families or even all the time within any one family. But this one increases the odds of productive conversations when adult children bring up the complaints mentioned in the first paragraph of the post.
The strategy is based on a premise that was described beautifully and concisely by my colleague Dr. Jami Woods. She said, "You can't be pulled into a game of tug-of-war if you don't pick up the rope."
In this case, the accusations by the parents are bait. They want you to take it. You are being baited into becoming angry or defensive. Once that happens, constructive conversations immediately end in a fight, flight, or freeze responses. No problems get solved then. Do not take the bait!
So how to avoid doing so?
Let's say you tell your parents that their demands are getting on your nerves because no matter how much you do, it never seems to be enough for them, and that that they seem to ignore the fact that you have other things to do and cannot just drop everything at a moment's notice to do things for them. Say they respond by telling that you are grossly exaggerating how much they ask of you and that you ought to be happy to take the time to help them out. They add that you are being ungrateful. Just think of all the sacrifices they had to make for you when you were growing up!
How not to respond:
A) Argue with them about the frequency or reasonableness of their requests, or how much they sacrificed for you as a child.
B) Attack them and tell them they are insensitive, overly-critical clods.
C) Defend yourself by pointing out that your life is busy and of course you cannot always just drop everything to come over and do something for them.
D) Explain in detail your feelings and go on and on about how those feelings are justified.
E). Scold them or lecture them about etiquette and the proper relationship between adult children and their parents.
The basic form of the recommended response:
"Well, maybe so, Dad, but I am finding this situation to be a big problem. Do you think you could help me out by checking with me first about when it would be convenient for me to come over to help you?"
This sort of response is basically a refusal to argue about the merits of your personality characteristics, but trying instead to make a relationship better. In doing this, you are neither agreeing nor disagreeing with their characterization of you. It might be accurate, partially accurate, or complete wrong. Who's to say, really? That isn't the point. The point is how you are reacting to them when they do something, not whether your reactions are justified or not. They should want to know that so that everyone can, to quote Rodney King, just get along.
Surely they'd prefer a pleasant relationship to an unpleasant one. I know that it often looks as if this is not the case, but nonetheless, I advise that you give them the benefit of the doubt.