When your folks treat you like a kid

By Lindsay de Freitas
14 April 2017

Learning to relate to our parents as adults is a transition we all have to make – here’s how to navigate what can be a tricky process.

Every time Claire* visits her mother she braces herself.

Even before she crosses the threshold of her childhood home she wonders what her mom’s criticism will be this time. That she lets her kids watch too much TV, how much she spent on her new handbag, the fact that she’s going away for the Christmas holidays –there’s always something her mom disapproves of.

It’s not that she doesn’t love her mother. But if her mom stopped treating her like a child it would make spending time with her a whole lot easier.

Learning how to relate to our parents as adults, is something many of us struggle with. It usually starts in the teenage years when friction is the norm.

As we become independent the dynamics of our relationship with our parents has to change. But this doesn’t always happen. “It can be a difficult thing – for parents especially,” Johannesburg psychologist Nishara Govinder says. “The child is now an adult but they remain a child in the eyes of the parent, and this leads to conflict.”

Read more: ‘My granddaughter is a spoilt brat’: a frustrated grandma’s week-long nightmare

Of course, some parents meddle more than others in their children’s lives, so the conflict varies. It can be minor and therefore just mildly annoying, as in Claire’s case, or it can be so problematic it makes your relationship with your parent tense and difficult.

Whatever the case, how you handle the meddling is important. We asked experts for tips on how to deal with two common areas of conflict between parents and their adult children.

WHEN THEY’RE CONSTANTLY CRITICAL

Samantha* (32) is a self-employed caterer who’s engaged to be married. Despite her successful career, she struggles with feelings of inadequacy. When she was in her twenties she realised this stemmed from her complicated relationship with her mother.

No matter what she did, her mom would find a way to diminish her accomplishments. When she told her mom her business was doing well, her mom would say she should go out and find a steady job.

Even though she’s in her thirties now, dealing with her mother’s constant criticism isn’t any easier. We grow up wanting our parents’ approval, so it’s natural that it has a huge influence on our self-esteem. But the transition into adulthood involves re-configuring our attachment to the people who raised us.

Cape Town psychologist Celeste Luck Erasmus says this means realising that your once all-powerful mom and dad can sometimes be wrong.

"Eventually we all realise our parents have flaws or are lacking in certain parenting skills."

Apart from recognising your parents aren’t always right, it’s important to think about how you’re going to handle it.

“Sometimes as adult children, we need to let go and move past things so we can foster healthier relationships with our parents in their golden years,” she says.

Read more: A furious mom’s open letter to all mothers-in-law

Those struggling to meet the expectations of a critical parent often don’t know how to deal with the unpleasant emotions involved, says Johannesburg clinical psychologist Olga Molebatsi.

Rather than allowing your frustration to fester, address the situation head-on, she says. “Samantha needs to find the courage to express the pain and anger she feels towards her mother,” Molebatsi says, adding that it’s important she chooses her words carefully.

“Instead of saying, ‘Mom, you’ve hurt me a lot by always making me feel I’m not good enough’, Samantha should say, ‘I feel hurt by some of the things you say to me. I feel as if nothing I do is ever good enough for you and I don’t want that to be the basis of our relationship anymore’.”

Although communicating your feelings is important, Molebatsi warns it won’t necessarily fix the situation as the parent could become either remorseful or defensive.

“Things could get better or worse – that’s why your approach is important, as it will have a bearing on this.” Whatever the outcome, the important thing is for Samantha to learn to distance herself from her mother’s criticism.

“She needs to start separating her mother’s voice from her own voice,”Molebatsi advises. If this proves too difficult for her to do on her own, it could help to go for counselling.

WHEN THEY MEDDLE IN THE WAY YOU RAISE YOUR KIDS

Thandi* is a working single mom with two school going children. As she works full time she relies on her parents to ferry her kids around and look after them when she’s at work.

Lately she’s started feeling that her mom and dad interfere too much in the way she parents her children. There have been times when she’s reprimanding her daughter for something and her mom has said, “Don’t talk to my grandchild like that.”

She’s even commented that Thandi doesn’t know what she’s doing. But because Thandi relies on their help she’s reluctant to tell her parents to back off. It’s a tricky situation as these are the people who raised you and they have years of experience and hindsight they’re often more than willing to share. But it’s important that you aren’t undermined in front of your kids.

The only way to deal with this is to talk it out, Erasmus says.

“Thandi should be clear, honest and respectful and simply speak from the heart. She should say that as the parent she should be the one to discipline the children. But she needs to be mindful of her tone – often how we say things can offend more than what we say.”

Thandi needs to stress her appreciation for the love, support and help her parents give with the children, and should also make it clear to her kids that their grandparents are to be respected. If it happens again that her mom or dad butt in while Thandi is reprimanding one of her children, she should slowly count to 10 to help to ensure she reacts calmly.

“Never react – rather respond in a clear, calm manner. Just say, ‘Mom, I’m dealing with this.’ The boundaries need to be made clear and, if necessary, constantly reinforced.”

IT’S ALL ABOUT BOUNDARIES

Of course our parents will always be our parents, but as we grow up our relationship with them has to evolve from the dependent bond between parent and child to one between adults.

This isn’t always an easy transition to make. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your parents depends on boundaries, Johannesburg psychologist Zamo Mbele says.

At some point, parents need to step back and see their children’s lives as separate from their own. Having boundaries simply means treating each other with mutual respect. This means your parents need to accept and respect the decisions you make about your life.

Mbele acknowledges this can be tricky in traditional, family-focused cultures but it’s possible. Communication is key, he says. “Having a conversation about this issue will be difficult at first, but doing so is the only way to clarify what the problems are and prevent tensions in the relationship.”

Here are some ways to improve your relationship with your parents while maintaining those boundaries:

Be honest about what bothers you. Don’t seethe in silence and let resentment eat away at your relationship. If they drive you crazy with constant unsolicited advice, say so.

Appreciate what they’ve done for you. Try to remember that whatever their faults, they’re motivated by love and want the best for you.

Accept them for who they are – just as you want them to accept you for who you are. It goes both ways. This can be a challenge when you have different personalities that don’t gel easily and can also be complicated by emotional baggage. But try to let go and accept without judgment.

It’s what you want from them, after all.

* Not their real names.

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