How to maintain a relationship with your parents while asserting your “adult-ness.”
There’s no roadmap for entering adulthood gracefully. During our twenties, many of us make the transition with barely a second thought, while others struggle for years to feel confident in their new adult life. The challenges that arise come in all shapes, but the heart of the issues often stem from one place: the relationship with our parents.
You know you’ve reached an emotionally healthy, adult-to-adult relationship with your parents if you no longer act out of obligation to your parents in any way. You own your life choices.
If you still make decisions out of obligation toward your parents, however, you may not have fully entered adulthood. This can happen for any number of reasons. For one, maybe you didn’t rebel in your teenage years. Young adults use their emotional anger to separate. This behavior is very normal — possibly necessary — and also a clue that you’re ready to separate. If you didn’t rebel or turn away from your parents in your teenager years, you may find yourself doing so in your twenties, and depending on your parents, they may or may not be ready. If you never went through this process, YOU may not be ready.
If you’re entering adulthood or struggling to find solid footing in your transition — if you still act out of obligation toward your parents — there are things you can do to ease the transition to adulthood while maintaining a relationship with your parents.
Here are three challenges that commonly arise during the individuation process and what you can do to overcome.
Challenge #1: Your parents treat you like a teenager well into your twenties.
If your parents are ready for you to individuate, they effectively take your cues and step back from inserting their opinions and influence on your choices. If they’re not ready or able, your pulling away may trigger their feelings of rejection or threaten their sense of self-worth as they realize you no longer need or want their help. (It’s also a transition for parents, after all, to no longer be a parent in the same way.) To protect themselves, they may start to hold on tighter or continue to assert their control over you.
Here are some of the ways this manifests:
- “You must call me when you land,” or “Your phone must be on to take my phone call.”
- “I can’t sleep unless I know you’re ok.”
- “You’re not going to spend the holidays with us?” or “Don’t you value your family anymore?”
All of this behavior can happen in healthy relationships, too. The catch is whether you accommodate your parents out of obligation, instead of making decisions or choosing behaviors because you want to do them.
Set boundaries. First, stop doing the behavior you’re obligated to do. You don’t need to explain yourself … just stop. For example, if you’re supposed to call whenever you land at your travel destination, and you don’t want to do that anymore, just stop calling or texting. It may upset them at first, but your parents want you in your life — their fear is losing you — they will adjust. Assert your “adult-ness.”
TIP FOR PARENTS: If you’re a parent who’s struggling to let go of your twenty-something child, know you’re not alone. First, give yourself time and space to grieve. This is the end of the relationship with your child as you’ve known it. That’s a hard pill to swallow, and you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel. The good news? There’s a beautiful, different type of relationship available to the both of you. Once you’ve grieved, resolve to start treating your child like they adult they are. Notice when you’re feeling anxious or worried, instead of inserting your opinions and/or requiring anything from your child, you need to learn to deal with your own internal, emotional turmoil. We are here to help if you need support through this process — contact us for a free consultation anytime.
Challenge # 2: They criticize your lifestyle choices, career, spouse, loved ones or friends.
We all WANT our parents’ approval, but as all adults know, we don’t always get what we want. You love them, respect them and want them to be proud, but their approval cannot be your sole source of confidence in adulthood. If you find yourself doing things — choosing jobs, romantic partners, friends, lifestyles — to make your parents happy or to avoid their hurt, you’re off course.
If your parents are still disapproving of, criticizing or directing your choices in your mid-twenties, it often sounds like this:
- “You need to break up with [significant other],” or “Your wife doesn’t do [fill in the blank] right.”
- “Your job doesn’t pay enough. You’re not meeting your potential.”
- “Your house/city/state is so [fill in negative comment],” or “You need to vote in favor of my preferred candidate.”
Again, you need to set boundaries. Say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and continue to do whatever you want to do. This recognizes they’re unhappy but doesn’t require you change your behavior. You can always follow up later, after you’ve done whatever it is they disapproved of, and let them know how it worked out.
Also, if you’re married, your loyalty needs to lie with your spouse. To improve the situation, you and your spouse need to have a united front in everything you do and communicate. A simple technique is using both of your names every time you explain a decision: “Lisa and I are …” taking a trip, moving, etc. Everything becomes about you and the spouse.
The big trick: don’t engage in an argument. Arguing gives the impression that you dislike the idea as opposed to being offered unsolicited advice. By disengaging as calmly and kindly as possible you are sending the message that their advice is not welcome and has nothing to do with how good or bad the idea may be. Ultimately, you need to stay in control of your choices.
Challenge #3: You have sudden and tremendous anxiety or depression about making life decisions without your parents weighing in.
In a nutshell, you do not trust yourself or feel capable of taking care of yourself. Unfortunately, the sudden onset of anxiety or depression often feeds your negative perception, making you feel even less capable of managing your adult life.
This one is less about your parents’ inability to let go, and more about you, which is great! You have a lot more control over your behavior than your parents’.
If this is your issue, it may look like this:
- You HAVE To call your parents before making any big decision. If you don’t talk to them first, you won’t be able to make a decision.
- You can’t get serious about a boyfriend or girlfriend unless your parents have met him/her and given their approval.
- The only time you feel happy, energized or safe is when you’re with your parents.
The only way to break this pattern is to start living your life as an adult. Making your own decisions without your parents weighing in builds confidence and trust in your abilities, and baby steps are fine for starters. (For example, try telling your parents that you just need vent or get something off your chest, but don’t want their input.)
Next time you have to make a decision — like buying a new car, for example — do so on your own. Do research. Read in depth on the topic. And decide what’s best for you based on the information at hand.
If you absolutely need input from another person, I suggest you find different, trustworthy adults to give their two cents. (Keep in mind: if they start offering advice without you asking them, then they are no better than your parents.) Turn to your spouse, friends, a mentor, coach or therapist. With more experience and differing input, you’ll come to realize that your parents are just people and their input is actually very limited, if not biased.
These three challenges are the most common on the road to adulthood, but any number of roadblocks can appear. If you’re experiencing these or other issues, we’re here to help. Please contact us for a free consultation.
Next week, we’ll explore red flags that you may be too dependent on your parents. Until then…
To your emotional health,