Being a grown-up means having an adult-to-adult relationship with your parents. And that means standing up for yourself and declaring your independence.
My dear Singularians, if there’s one question I get over and over from my dear clients and readers it’s: “My mother (father/both) are driving me insane” — and this is from highly intelligent, successful, assertive humans who are well past their 30th birthday.
The problem for singles is often greater. (Parent: “At least she/he’s got someone else. But no … ours is all alone.”)
The thing about parents is, no matter how old we get, to them we often stay a child. Sadly, for those stuck in this song and dance, our responses turn meek in their mighty presence. We find ourselves saying things that aren’t true because God forbid we should do something that would hurt mommy and daddy – especially as they’re getting older.
The thing about guilt is … when it comes to parents; it clings like cheap plastic wrap. It sounds like this:
“Dear Marnie: I hate visiting my parents. I love them but I know it’s going to be a whole night of criticism. In every other area of my life I’m a strong alpha type, but with them, I can’t speak up.”
“Dear Marnie: I’m planning to tour Europe on my own. My father went nuts, insisting that a single female alone will get hijacked, kidnapped or murdered, and ‘not to come to him’ if I’m in trouble!”
“Dear Marnie: I want to start my own online business after years of working for a large computer marketing firm. My mother is totally against it and seems to enjoy telling me how many ways it will fail.”
So today I’m spending my column on the topic of “How to Cut Loose from Your Parents when You’re an Adult.” I’m using a female client, but the parent problem is genderless. Let’s take a look.
MELINDA — BACK TO THE SANDBOX
Melinda is all grown up — most days of the year. Her child makes it to school unscathed, (most) tubs are dutifully disinfected, she can now talk to her ex without a Prozac drip. She’s has lost 35 pounds on a low-carb / high-stress diet, and she’s adored by a tag team of good pals who admire her pluck. This capable, reasonably sane, divorced working mom manages to enjoy life’s marvels while muddling through mini-crises with maturity and only a modicum of self-recrimination.
Then she visits her parents. With the precision of the philharmonic, the strains begin. Not from any concert hall, but from the mouths of her family to the driving beat of that old standard, What Do You Do with a Problem like Melinda? It goes like this:
MOM: “Look, Al. Melinda’s on time for a change!”
DAD: “You’re too thin. You’re overdoing it again.”
MOM: “She obviously isn’t busy sewing on buttons.”
Mom has already noticed her grandson’s Izod. “Come here baby,” coos gramma to Melinda’s 10-year-old son. “Gram will fix it. Get out the sewing kit, Melinda. Dinner will wait — even if the turkey’s a little dry… By the way, are you seeing anyone?”
By the fruit salad, a frozen smile replaces adult conversation as 38-year-old Melinda finds she’s slowly folding into a fetal position. By the time she carries out the five pound bag of leftovers (so her son will have a decent meal), not only were buttons sewn, but yet another stitch has been yanked from Melinda’s hard-won self-confidence as she waves bye-bye to mommy and daddy, nursing one big boo-boo.
Why should a perfectly competent adult suddenly revert to babble in the presence of her parents?
We feel like a child because we were a child — once — and we possess the necessary memory buttons just waiting for a poke from our parents. On TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, despite meddlesome mom Marie Barone’s all-purpose protest that “it comes from love” — it doesn’t. It comes from need and fear.
Getting It: Your Personal Parental Strategy:
* Ah, but the good news is, whether your parents play the martyr, the critic, the hysteric, the control freak, or any other temperamental torture type, most are at least conflicted. The mature part of them wants you to grow into independent adult. It’s the fearful, needy child within them that wants to keep you close through control. These parents send the garbled double command, “Grow up! How dare you!”
* Even when the curtain has long rung down on childhood, many, like Melinda, are still caught up in the old song and dance of yesterday. Their inner child dreads disapproval and these songs are forever replayed, at the cost of their own solo.
MOM: “How come I never hear from you?”|
YOU: “I’m sorry, Ma. I was sick last week.” (Shrug, head hangs.)
DAD: “If you’re so smart, why do you always screw things up?”
YOU: “When was the last time I screwed things up!” (Migraine starts.)
MOM: “I better pick out your wallpaper with you.”
YOU: Silence. “Alright, see you at noon.” Grimace.
* Up from the Sandbox:
While all parents and children slip into the occasional pas de deux, when protecting your parent’s feelings takes precedence over your own preferences and good sense, it’s time to stop the music. Here’s how:
First, know you’re dancing. The beat of the childhood cha-cha is guilt, fear, or shame, rather than your own beliefs, wishes, needs, or sense and sensibilities.
Know the dancers. Tell yourself it’s the frightened, possessive little child in your parent that’s dancing with the insecure, guilt-ridden little child in you.
It’s bedtime for babes. Reach out to the mature adult in each of you. Alleviate then bypass your parent’s “childish” fears by standing your ground with empathy.
“I know my decision to go it alone scares you, mom. You’re afraid for me. But in addition to you, I have a terrific and close group of friends. If I need you, I’ll let you know.
“I like my job, dad. But when you run-it-down, it makes me feel worthless. I don’t believe that’s the way you really feel about me.”
“I know that you think a ‘lady’ shouldn’t travel alone. I respect you, but I’ve formed different opinion. I’ll call you when I get back.”
While these new responses may stop the music, brace yourself for some rough riffs. Old tunes waft on. It will take time and maintaining your ground before the grown-up in your parent emerges (or gives up). Accept the fact that you can’t satisfy the child in your parent by sacrificing your adulthood.
Ah, but when old songs end, new ones begin. Liberating songs of self-discovery and growth — songs that will allow you to march forward to the beat of your own drummer.
Take the Quiz
1) Were you an “overprotected” child often faced with either giving-in or rebelling?
2) As an adult, do you still live with your parents or very close by?
3) Do you find your contact with them is excessive, beyond what you would prefer?
4) Is your involvement with your parents intense, e.g., do you frequently heed their wishes and opinions, or forever run errands for each other?
5) Do you dismiss opportunities for greater independence, such as moving out, making long-distance travel plans, or seeking jobs elsewhere because you fear either leaving them or their reaction?
6) When you disagree with your folks do you feel anxious, guilty or try to keep your opinions and choices from them?
7) Do you avoid doing what you feel is best for you because you fear their disapproval?
8) Do you live by their rules and beliefs rather than your own?
If most of your answers are YES, it’s time to declare your independence.
Copyright © Marnie Macauley / 2017 Singular Communications, LLC
Advice guru Marnie Winston-Macauley — therapist, author, speaker — has been a radio, TV, and syndicated advice columnist and counselor for over 20 years. Witty, wise and totally irreverent with a self-professed loathing for psychobabble, she’s written over 20 books and calendars, along with hundreds of relationship columns and features for prominent publications. She has her MS degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work. In media, her work has garnered her Emmy and Writer’s Guild Best Writing nominations. She is widowed and now living single. For personal advice, you can also find Marnie Macauley on Liveperson.com, on Presto Experts or Thumbtack/Las Vegas. She invites you to join her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.