Over the last month or so, a number of my clients have discussed with me the challenges of navigating a relationship with their parents. I suspect that the recent holiday season and current political climate have a little something to do with the surfacing of these relational struggles. I thought it would be helpful to write about developing relationships with our parents as adults and how to cope with the emotional obstacles along the way.
Unfortunately, given the limits of language and semantics, we don’t have a way to communicate that this is now a different kind of relationship. We are no longer children but will always be referred to as our parents’ child, daughter, or son, all of which invoke an image of a little kid sitting next to mommy or daddy. During his lecture on coming to terms with parents, Raymond DiGiuseppe, a psychologist at the Albert Ellis Institute, jokes about this and says anything short of the word offspring will have this age-specific connotation.
When learning how to navigate this new relationship with your parents, there may be a number of emotional responses that make this process difficult. For example, you might experience anger towards your parents because you believe that your parents’ behavior around you as a child have caused some level of your current emotional reactions. Imagine a woman who constantly suspects her partner is cheating and attributes this anxiety to the way her parents treated her - perhaps her parents were extremely critical of her. She might think If I had received the love and approval of my parents as a child, I probably wouldn’t believe that I am inadequate. If you agree with this belief or something similar to it, there is actually a more empowering, rational, and adaptive view you can take of this.
In REBT, you’ll learn that people develop beliefs at an early age that might be true as child but clearly aren’t true when they grow up. As a child, you probably will believe that you need your parent’s love and approval. This is a belief that makes sense for a child to hold since a child depends on parents for food, shelter, clothing, and other basic survival needs, and without their parents love and approval, the child would likely perish. Additionally, as a child, you may develop the belief that if you don’t get the love and approval you believe you need, you are somehow bad, unworthy, or inadequate. These beliefs tend to be carried into adulthood where you don’t rely as heavily on your parents anymore and therefore need their love and approval less than you did as a child. Yet, here you are as an adult rehearsing the same beliefs you developed as a child and blaming your parents for your current distress. It is easy to blame parents for you being the way you are because it removes the responsibility from you.
Anger is a major emotion that comes up around the topic of our relationship with our parents. Typically, people become angry because they believe that their parents should’ve treated them better and they didn’t. It may be true, perhaps they should’ve treated you better. It is crucial to remember that, ultimately, they did what they did and they can’t undo it. What does that anger do but have you continue to carry your past into your present and hinder you from achieving your goals? Many people think it’s important to let out the anger once you’ve become aware of it in order to feel better. This often doesn’t work because the more time and energy spent getting in touch with the anger and expressing it, the more it is rehearsed. Thus you aren’t letting it out, you are practicing being angry and become angrier.
When I discuss these difficulties with my clients, many of them are turned off by the notion of acceptance. This usually happens because the word acceptance has an almost forgiving or condoning connotation. Instead, I suggest that they acknowledge what their parents did to them as children and that neither their parents nor they can undo the past. This also means to stop viewing their parents as bad people because of the way they treated them. This is an incredibly difficult hurdle to overcome and some people never get there. However, it might be beneficial for you to accept that your parents were neither spectacular nor absolutely horrendous people, they’re just people. REBT really emphasizes that people are not rateable because we are too complex to ever be labeled as good or bad based on a single attribute (e.g parenting). Your parents may not have been very good at parenting but they may have been good at other things and therefore are not all bad or all good. They just are fallible human beings like the rest of us.
If you’ve taken the time to read this blog, it’s probably because you want to learn how to develop a relationship with your parent as an adult. How is holding onto your anger going to help you achieve that? Perhaps your parents are better parents to adults and you can develop a decent relationship with them, perhaps not, but how will you know if you are robbing yourself of that opportunity to find out by being angry about the past?
Recognize that your parent will always view you as their child even though you view yourself as an adult. If you have younger siblings, this might be easy to understand. As the older sibling, you’ll probably always see your younger siblings as children you need to advise. Parents do the same thing because people tend to stay in their roles! It’d be much better for you to expect this behavior from your parent than to fight against it and be angry each time it happens. Of course, they’ll tell you what to do because they are parents. It certainly doesn’t mean that you, an adult, need to heed their advice. Fighting back and trying to show your parents that you are, in fact, a capable individual is important when you are an adolescent but why is it as important now? You know that you’re an adult, why bother trying to convince them? That’s not to say that their behavior is right or pleasant but you’re only making the situation more difficult for yourself by demanding they be different than they are. Once you are able to expect certain, maybe unpleasant, behavior from your parents, you are in a better position to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with them.