Upgrading Your Relationship with Your Parents
You're not a kid anymore, but your parents don't realize it. Time to upgrade?
Posted Feb 26, 2020
Anna is angry at her parents. She specifically asked that they rein in the number of birthday presents for her son, but once again they've gone overboard.
Sam will admit he had a "difficult" childhood — lots of yelling, spankings, little praise. Now he is reflecting back on those times and feels both so angry and sad that he sent them an angry, ranting email and asked them to never contact him again.
Childhood wounds: We all walk out with something. We all walk out with different memories. Ask your parents about theirs and they'll talk about that trip to Disney World when you were eight. Ask you about that trip and what you remember how they scolded you for tantrumming while waiting in line or not letting you stay up and see Cinderella riding in the parade. Your parents have about two dozen memories of your child; so do you, but they are totally different.
As we grow up and move through our adult lives, our needs and memories for and about our parents change. It's not uncommon for folks in their 30's, like Sam, to reflect on their childhoods and realize what they have been emotionally and mentally sweeping under the rug for so many years, to more realize how they were treated, how their old reality no longer fits their current one. And so, they get angry and often do a cutoff.
Or they are more like Anna, running her adult life where she rightfully expects others in her life to listen and honor her requests. But her parents of all people don't; she feels angry and frustrated; all those presents feel like a slap in the face. Her parents are saying, what's the big deal, she feels like she is being treated like a teenager where her parents are in charge and doing what they do because they want to do it.
The core problem is likely that the parents, with their own different views of the past, are going on autopilot and doing what they do as parents. What triggers Sam and Anna are that the parents haven't caught up; they feel they are not understanding their reality of the past and present.
The relationship needs an upgrade.
How to do it
If you are feeling that there is a mismatch about your needs now and what you're getting, about their view of reality and yours, if you are angry about your past, here are some suggestions for how to set things right:
Realize where your parents are coming from. Assume they have a different view of your childhood because it is. Realize that they are in fact going on autopilot, doing what they do because it's what they do, still thinking of you as younger than you are. This is not an excuse, but a simple reality that people don't change much particularly as they age; that they have not a reason to change unless there is enough reason to do so. A one-sentence request to slow down on the birthday presents may not be enough.
Let them understand how you feel. It can be tempting and cathartic to do the rant, ala Sam, to let your parents know how you realize how you feel and how you see your past. A certain amount of this is helpful; it helps them understand how different your catalogs of memories are so different; it helps put your angry feelings in context. But ranting to rant, spelling out all their injustices will probably leave them feeling emotionally flooded, confused and dismissive of what you saying: Sam must he having a hard time (or was drunk or high) and miss the real message.
Instead, try a more measured message. Sam talks calmly with no threats about his wounds and hurts and asks that they just listen. Anna explains why limiting the present is important to her, not because she is controlling but because her son, getting so many, doesn't appreciate them and gets overwhelmed. Be assertive and clear, but as unemotional and clear-headed as possible.
Let them know what you need now. You want to clarify the past, but don't need to battle over it. Instead, it's more about helping to change the present. Sam figures out the moral of the story of his childhood and lets his parents know what he needs from them in the future. Anna lets her parents know that by overriding her requests, she feels dismissed, and this is not okay. Both are clear and firm but again non-emotional as possible.
Give them a new role. Telling anyone to just stop what they are doing, even if you do it in a good way, leaves the other persons feeling simply cut-off and uncertain what to do next. The real upgrade is defining for them as a new job. What does Sam need in concrete ways now from his parents — the ability to complain about his job or emotional support as he moves through new relationships, or simply spending new quality experiences with them.
For Anna, it may be giving her parents clear ideas about how to step up as grandparents. Not spending money on presents, but coming on a weekend and taking her son to the zoo or museum, or talking to him once a week on the phone to see how he is doing. Give them a new job to replace the old one.
And if you get stuck doing any of this, consider plugging into a one or two session family therapy session, in person or by video. The therapist can help you both be clear and move towards a solution that works for both of you.
You don't need to keep getting what you get, and you may not have to do a cutoff. This is about evolution, upgrading a relationship to create one that fits you most.