UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young
• Generally, when we talk about trouble with parents, it is in the context of a teen/parent relationship. Increasingly, I see more and more adult clients who experience ongoing stress and anxiety because of the behaviour of one or both of their parents. In my experience, it is most often women having issues with their mothers.
Most often, this is an issue of boundaries. The parent treats the adult child as though he or she were still a child. They may be critical of how their child is raising their grandchildren, how the couple spends their money or demanding of more time with their children.
Some mothers are experts at laying guilt trips. A role reversal happens when the parent expects the adult child to meet their needs. It is one thing if there has been a history of good, mutually respectful relations between the parent and child. If the relationship has been positive over the years, the child wants to be there for the parent.
As people age they can become insecure and dependent. However, in some cases, the adult child has a history of the mother being emotionally abusive, judgmental, unloving and unsupportive. When the adult child reaches her forties, she is dealing with her teen children, which can be challenging; at the same time, she is the “child” being chastised by her mother. Often, the adult child will reach a point where she has had enough. She is torn between a sense of obligation and a desire to avoid the toxicity of the parent.
Sometimes, they ask me if it is okay to reduce or cease contact with the parent. I respond by saying that having our adult children be a part of our lives needs to be earned. If the parent is someone the adult child would never associate with, if not for the biological connection, and the abuse is ongoing, it is okay to protect oneself.
Often, it is impossible for the adult child to have a healthy discussion with her mother who may still feel she is in charge and that her child should defer to her. She may take things personally, be defensive or in attack mode or focus on the fact she is hurt by what her child is saying, rather than really listening and honouring her concerns.
Part of the learning in all of this is for the adult child to begin to set her own boundaries. It is okay to tell a parent she cannot talk to you in a certain way. If she berates you in phone calls, it is fair to say you are going to hang up and, when she is ready to be respectful, she can call you back.
We can stand up for ourselves without getting into conflict or attacking the other. It is a little like dealing with a child’s bad behaviour. Attacking the child only escalates the problem. By calmly setting boundaries – telling the child if the behaviour continues there will be a time out or she will lose her technology privileges – the child can choose to moderate her behaviour.
If the parent of the adult child is told that criticism, guilt trips and expressions of anger will no longer be tolerated, she learns that if she wants to be around her adult children, she has to be respectful. If you are at her house, you can cut the visit short and tell her why you are leaving.
It can be hard to set these boundaries, but it will be healthier for all.
Gwen Randall-Young is an author and psychotherapist in private practice. For articles and information about her books, “Deep Powerful Change” hypnosis CDs and “Creating Effective Relationships” series, visit www.gwen.ca.