When You Have To Be The Parent...To Your Parents

One of the most consistent stereotypes about therapists is they always want to know about your parents.

And it’s…absolutely true. It's also why we are bad at dating.

If you have read and thought about the WHY of human behaviour as much as I have, you start to see patterns. While it’s not always about the parents, more often than not, it's related somehow.

As adult children of our parents, we have that hindsight 20/20, and most likely, a LOT of material to reflect on about our upbringing.

(Raise your hand if your therapist knows more about your parents than your parents do about themselves ✋🏽✋🏽✋🏽)

What about moving forward though? How you cope with issues related to your parents today most likely looks different from 10 years ago.

And that my friends, is what this post it about. We will cover:

Why our parents can STILL get under our skin like no one else can

How to build a healthier relationship with our parents as adults

Let's jump in.

But First, An Important Note

I want to be clear: this post does not apply to parents who are abusive.

The parents I have in mind while writing this are not perfect parents, but they are certainly not dangerous.

Additionally, please prioritize your physical and emotional safety when navigating changes in any relationship- whether it is parents, friendships, romantic relationships, or professional ones.

You know your circumstances better than anyone sitting on this side of a blog does- trust yourself!

A Relationship Unlike Any Other

The relationship we have with our parents is the earliest relationship (or lack of) that we experience. The impact on the rest of our lives is profound.

Even the absence of a parent has a tangible influence on the way life unfolds. Some of us who have never met our biological parents feel drawn towards them and grapple with a need to know them- what other relationship can we say this about?

Parents and their children are forever tied through biology and history. It’s a relationship unlike any other, partly because of how it drastically evolves throughout our lives.

To young children, parents are all-knowing and all-powerful. They have the answers, and the answers are always right. It's a world of black and white, right and wrong- absolute morality.

As we get older, we learn that parents, like all humans, are flawed. Sometimes, deeply.

Do you remember the first time you saw your parent as a person- for better or for worse? As just another human trying to figure life out? For many of us, it happened as teenagers, or even as young adults in our 20’s.

Whenever this realization occurs, you can’t really go back to seeing things the way they were.

The understanding that our parents have full lives is usually the beginning of a new way of relating to them as adults.

And yet, some things don't really change.

Channeling Your Inner Child

If you feel like your parents still have a bright shiny red 'EASY' button for you, trust me, you are not alone.

The number of years gone by doesn't seem to make a difference either- parents can get under our skin in a way no one else can manage.

When we confront parents with deep-seated issues related to our upbringings, our inner child takes centre stage.

We were all children once. Your inner child is an echo of that childhood self. And children absorb everything. The memories and indicators of what is safe and what is not are stored within us, even if we can’t directly recall them.

Importantly, our fight or flight instincts developed as children.

As adults, when our parents’ behaviour touches a nerve, it’s usually related to our childhood. Those memories and fight or flight instincts get activated and we respond with an emotional reaction that doesn’t match the actual intensity of the situation.

And that doesn’t matter because the feelings being triggered are very old and very accessible. They helped us survive our childhood environment (emotionally, physically, or both), after all.

Interestingly, in that moment, we are not 27 or 34 years old. On an emotional level, we are that 8-year-old who felt overwhelmed and had complete lack of control over their circumstances.

A Few Relatable Examples

Boundaries Around Dating

Say your parents do not respect your boundaries about your dating life as an adult.

Whenever your mom pressures you to answer a question you don’t want to, you blow up and end up storming out. This happens even if you KNOW the questions are coming, even if you expect them.

It doesn’t matter because you are responding not just to the question, but to your parents' lifelong violation of your boundaries and privacy.

Taking Care Of Parents In Old Age

Importantly, we don’t actually have to be talking about the issues directly! For example, many adult children of immigrants take care of their aging parents.

When it comes to conversations around who will take their parents in, the sibling who has always sensed they had a greater responsibility in their parents’ care may feel overwhelmed and powerless, even if they genuinely want to care for their parents.

They are responding to the lifelong weight of carrying the bulk of life’s responsibilities.

Relationship Arguments

Finally, you don’t have to be interacting with your parents at all. Say you work very hard to avoid conflict in your romantic relationship and shut down when it finally occurs.

If you grew up with parents who were constantly fighting and ended up splitting, shutting down in that moment may feel like the only way to avoid that outcome. For you, arguing = danger.

So, next time your parents touch a nerve or get under your skin like literally no one else in the world can, ask yourself: How old am I right now, really?

  • What is your inner child trying to protect you from right now?
  • Do you have any compassion for this younger version of yourself?
  • What can you tell your inner child to soothe them?

How To Build A Healthier Relationship With Our Parents As Adults

The parent-child relationship is an emotionally intense one. This tends to continue long after children have grown into adults. One study found that parents and adult children actually expect some level of tension in the relationship!

So lets start off by accepting that it won't be perfect. If not perfect, though, we can take steps to ensure our adult relationship with our parents is better informed, intentional, and a source of value in our lives.

Here we go.

Set Boundaries With Compassion

Setting boundaries with our parents is important. It helps prevent us from becoming resentful towards them, allows us to enjoy their company more, and gives us room to build our own identity.

It doesn't have to be a harsh or dramatic process though! Working compassion into setting boundaries is key. Here are some tips on how to approach this:

Expect Some Resistance And Guilt

When we set boundaries, we assert ourselves as adults with unique thoughts, beliefs, motivations, opinions, and needs.

This can be difficult for parents to navigate. Here is where the compassion comes in: try and understand that your parents are likely struggling to let go of the role they had in your life when you were younger.

It's normal for this to make you feel guilty (we know that all parents secretly have a PhD in Guilt Tripping). However, it's important to release yourself from the guilt, if you can.

Keep the end goal in sight: boundaries might actually bring you closer. Above all, we can't remain stuck in childhood patterns forever- it's not good for either party.

Be Specific

Parents might want to honour your boundaries, but need to be specifically told how to make this easier.

This is compassionate because it helps alleviate everyone's anxiety around the situation!

Be clear, concise, and specific:

I.e. "It's difficult for me when you criticize my choices every time I see you. Moving forward, I would like you to stop, please".

It's also helpful to give them alternative ways to approach you about the topic:

"If you want to talk about it, let me know and we can set aside some time to have a conversation. I want to hear you out and also show you that I'm happy."

Show Appreciation

Demonstrate that you recognize the caring intent behind the behaviour by re-framing what your parents do as appreciation.

For example: "I appreciate that you care so much about my daughter, and I need you to understand that I have to make this decision for her myself".

This indicates to parents that you value their presence and input- you just need them to show up with it differently.

Avoid Falling Into The Same Traps

If you know certain things will not help during interactions with your parents, use this knowledge and do something different.

It seems obvious but one of the reasons turning this particular relationship around is so difficult is we tend to repeat the same behaviours, arguments, and patterns!

  • Avoid old, toxic topics that you never seem to agree on
  • Pick activities everyone can enjoy as equals
  • If issues do come up, try to not to interpret them as personal attacks- brush it off, move on, and go about the rest of your time together

Break The Cycle Of Ineffective Communication

Find out what your parents ACTUALLY want.

Are the constant phone calls an attempt to connect with you or their grandkids? Is the guilt-tripping a way for them to deal with the empty nest?

Get to the bottom of what they may not be able to express themselves and break the toxic cycle of ineffective communication. You can't help them or improve the relationship if you don't know their concerns.

Don't Try And Change Your Parents

This is perhaps the toughest one.

Our parents belong to an older generation. Their beliefs, priorities, way of life, and anxieties may always be difficult for us to accept.

We have to understand though, that these beliefs, priorities and lifestyle are very real and urgent for them. And this will likely not change. There are good reasons why they may have valued money, education, and propriety over character, warmth, and goodness.

We can learn from this and make different choices for ourselves.

Instead of changing them, think about how you can change your behaviours to improve interactions with them.

Also, one last thing: our parents will always see the child in us, even when we are grown. They were there as we crossed milestones, stumbled along, and matured in all our awkward glory.

It may be annoying, and yet, we have to accept that they have a perspective on our lives we will never have.

Before You Go...

We've all been told that we will never understand until we become parents ourselves.

I'd like to offer an alternate perspective. It's worth doing the work of understanding how our parents shaped us and parsing out the good from the bad. And it's worth doing this now.

The most unique and for some, most impactful, relationship of our lives deserves this reflection, don't you think?

I want to hear from you: What choices have you made to help maintain a healthier relationship with your parents as an adult?

That's all for me! If you have any questions about this topic, feel free to send me an email. Or book an appointment with anyone from WellNest's awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.

Until next time!

Hala Shamsi

Hala is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.

Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at the email above to let her know!