The father in front of me was bagging groceries as fast as he could while his son sat in the grocery cart and rocked back and forth. “Dad, dad! are you strong enough to pick up this cart?” his son asked.
“Uh huh,” the dad answered, not even listening to the question as he continued to bag groceries.
“Dad, dad! Are you strong enough to pick up a car?” his son asked.
“Sure.” His dad responded as he stuffed boxes of cereal into a bag.
“WOW!” His son said while he moved around in his seat with the excitement of a teenage girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. His son had one more question, and he was going big. “Dad, dad! Could you pick up a house?” His son asked.
“Uh, huh.” His dad answered, his attention focused on making the eggs fit on top without being a fall risk.
“WOW! NO WAY!” His son said while laughing with joy because he was so amazed by his dad’s strength. In the meantime, his dad loaded up the shopping cart, completely unaware of everything that had happened around him.
For those fortunate enough to have parents in their lives that they looked up to they can relate to the feeling. The feeling of believing your parents are the best at everything they do. No one is smarter, kinder, or stronger than your parents. That is until you get older.
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I work with a lot of people who have relationships with their parents that are complicated. For some, that is putting it mildly, but for most people inside and outside my office, those complications make it hard for them to come to terms with who their parents are.
Typically around their teenage years, people begin to question their parents. They see their parent’s mistakes, and the contrast from how they used to view their parents makes their parents seem like hypocrites. The person who could do everything and do no wrong now has flaws. Judgments of teenagers towards their parents are rarely fair, but they are also not unfounded.
As adults, they want to hold on to who they wish their parents were and how they saw them as a child, which can cause them to maintain an unhealthy relationship with the hope that their parents will change. That one day, their parents will be more understanding and supportive, or less intrusive or manipulative. That a light bulb will go off and they will finally admit when they are wrong or maybe for the first time apologize.
Seeing your parents for who they are won’t change how much you love them, or how much they love you. It allows you to accept them for who they are, move past resentment, and set healthy boundaries going forward.
I worked with one client who wanted her dad to be more emotionally available and to stop trying to solve all of her problems. When her dad didn’t respond the way she wanted him too, she would feel hurt, and resentment would build up. She tried to talk to him about it over and over again, but nothing ever changed, until she did.
“I’ve finally accepted my dad for who he is,” She said one day. It was as if a burden had been lifted off her back. She decided she would create a mental boundary of not going to him with her problems because he was not going to be that person she could count on. Accepting her dad for who he was made it easier for her to let go of resentments she was holding on to. Of course, this aspect of her dad still annoys her, but it no longer hurts her.
Sometimes seeing your parents for who they are can bring you closer together. Other times it might mean growing further apart.
People can love their parents and not like them. Some relationships are toxic, intrusive, and manipulative, and coming to terms with that can be difficult, but it is necessary for your mental well being.
What Setting Healthy Boundaries Looks Like
Setting healthy boundaries will look different from person to person, and it is essential to figure out what works best for you.
Avoid Certain Topics:
From politics to your love life depending on your parent’s response, it can be better to avoid them altogether. I have had several clients talk to their parents about how they no longer feel comfortable discussing specific topics and that for the sake of the relationship for them to respect that. If particular topics are a point of frustration, set a verbal or internal boundary not to talk about it.
Spend Less Time Around The Holidays:
If the Holidays are a time of tension, anxiety, and stress, it might mean staying at a hotel instead of their home or leaving a few hours earlier than you usually would. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t handle.
Spend Less Time Together:
Some parents can be intrusive and demanding of your time while also making you feel guilty and shame when you want time for yourself or your own family. Spending less time together might mean talking less on the phone, or limiting how often you see them during the week.
Limiting Time With Grandkids:
This might sound harsh, but for a lot of people, it is necessary. I have worked with people whose parents did not respect their rules for their children. This goes far beyond sneaking them some extra candy and extends to how they handle discipline, and how they treat their kids and act around them. Unfortunately, some people don’t feel comfortable with their kids being alone with their grandparents, and if that is the case, then it is important to set that boundary.
When you come to terms with who your parents are and what you want the relationship to look like moving forward, it can be helpful to talk to them about it. Some parents will respond supportive and understanding, they might not like it or agree with it, but they will respect it because they value you and the relationship.
Of course, that is not always the case. Some parents are not as receptive and understanding, which can make gauging how much you want to share difficult to calculate.
Years ago, a client of mine reached out to his dad to talk about past hurts he felt that were impacting the relationship. The dad’s response was closed off and dismissive. He said, “when I went to therapy, they tried to blame everything on my parents too.” The dad ignored everything his son had to say and brushed him off like he was a telemarketer calling during dinner.
Believe it or not, but this did not help mend the relationship.
Parents being dismissive is often a typical response. If that is the case, it can be better to focus on your feelings instead of their part in it. Saying, “I’m going to stay in a hotel this year for Christmas to help reduce my anxiety.” Will land better than informing them of all the things they do that give you that anxiety.
A Message To Parents
If your kids set boundaries, understand it isn’t because they don’t love you. It’s becuase they love you and want to maintain a relationship instead of growing resentment and frustration towards you.
Be receptive and not dismissive. Take your kids requests seriously. I understand it can be difficult, but the parents I have seen rebuild and grow their relationships with their kids were the parents who were able not to get defensive, actively listen, and work with their kids to improve the relationship, while respecting the boundaries that are in place.
Parents who respond defensively and dismissive bring more hurt, mistrust, and resentment. When you react like that too many times, the years will pass by, and you will find your kids visiting and talking to you less and less. They will say it is because they are too busy, but in actuality, it is because they don’t feel safe enough to tell you the truth, and you will end up like the dad I saw at the grocery store; completely unaware of what is happening around you.