By now you know your parents aren’t normal. And you accept that. What you aren’t sure is normal is your relationship with those who brought you into the world—especially when you compare your situation to your friends’ dynamics with their ‘rents.
It’s a common concern, explains family therapist Judye Hess, Ph.D. The transition to adulthood reconfigures what it means to be attached to the people who raised you—especially when you’re no longer living under their roof. The evolving shift in how dependent you are on mom and dad, how much you’d like them involved in your adult life, and how great of a burden their needs become as they age can pave the way for unanticipated tensions, Hess says. And because so many of us are reluctant to voice our unease—either talking directly to our parents or venting to our friends—we end up feeling far more alone than we actually are.
The irony is, there are plenty of others out there who feel the same way you do about your family. Check out five common sources of conflict between adult kids and their parents, plus expert guidance for how to deal with all those tricky situations so you no longer have to feel like a freak (or put up with nagging).
1. I'm ThisClose With Them
Your dad’s number appears on your “recently called” list more than your BBF’s does, you see your parents multiples times a month, and you find yourself spilling your guts to your mom about private issues in love, dating, work, and health.
If you can relate, know that when a parent is too up in your business, you may not adjust well to the real world, be less than great with following through on goals, and encounter trouble making friends. (Hence why people tend to freak about the so-called helicopter mom or pop.)
When a parent’s support becomes unwanted or over-the-top, communicate your needs for automony, Hess says. Simply saying, “Mom, I love you. But when you keep asking me whether I can afford my rent, it makes me feel incompetent, not empowered,” or “Thanks so much for your interest in advising me on my career, dad, but now that I’ve got a decent job, I would appreciate if you could let me handle this particular situation with my boss” can do the trick. Or if you feel the need, enlist a family therapist to help ensure your message gets across.
Leaning on a parent well into your 20s may not be such a bad thing.
But just because you have an über close relationship with a parent doesn’t mean you’re fated to be incapable your whole life. Psychologist Karen L. Fingerman, Ph.D., has found that millennials who rely on their moms or dads for emotional support, advice, or as their fallback dinner dates up to several times per week tend to be better off than those who don’t do it as much. Other research has also found that connecting with our parents through not one but multiple mediums (think: text, email, Skype) makes us more satisfied about our relationship with them.
Fingerman believes the changing nature of adulthood in the 21st century explains why leaning on a parent well into your 20s may not be such a bad thing after all. We’re waiting longer than our parents did to get married, we’re more apt than they were to pursue higher education, and we’re up against some changing and challenging economic times.
“Parents have 25 or more years of experience to bring to bear on these problems,” Fingerman says. “Young adults are wise to turn to them for advice and emotional support.” (Mom and dad can also offer material assistance—say, a car or some cash—to help us weather crises and give us a leg up as we start our post-college lives.)
Bottom line: As long as you feel OK with how things are, don’t worry about being close and sharing what you wish to share with your folks.
2. They're Like Strangers to Me
Maybe you’re the complete oppose: You come from a distant family and can’t relate to the closeness you see or hear about between some parents and their adult kids. Heck, you’re lucky to talk to your mom or dad once a month, tops, and when you do, the conversations are more of the “strictly business” type, with few details.
The primary thing that binds today’s adult children to their parents is whether the child wants the relationship.
Megan Gilligan, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, assures that being estranged from your parents is more common than you may think. About one in 10 moms have a kid they don’t keep in regular contact with, according to her studies.
Psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., believes a vast shift in parenting practices and a divorce boom since the 1960s has set the stage for this type of relationship. Because we don’t have as many institutional and communal forces tethering families together in our modern era, “the primary thing that binds today’s adult children to their parents is whether the child wants the relationship,” he says. And in a culture where kids are more apt to judge parents in ways that may strike parents who truly are trying their best as unfair, estrangement may be more likely to occur, he adds.
If you’re really unhappy about the distance between you and a parent, there are measures you can take to reconnect. Much of it boils down to being clear about what you’d like your relationship with them to entail (i.e., less criticism, fewer guilt trips, or a greater recognition on their part for how their behavior is or was hurtful), and attempting to find empathy for whatever their situation might be that’s caused them to pull away (divorce, a mental or physical health issue, a geographic relocation, etc). “Most parents haven’t had as much therapy as their adult children and aren’t as good as communicating their feelings,” Coleman says, pressing us to cut our ‘rents a bit of slack. “In most cases it can be difficult to realize that, realistically, they’ve always been doing the best they can.”
If you can’t re-establish a connection with an estranged parent (due to their own unwillingness or insurmountable differences between you both), try finding what you want and feel you need from them elsewhere. Close friends, significant others, and support groups, or sometimes even your work buddies, are good places to start.
3. I'm Still Pissed at Them
Holding a grudge against your parents for something they did in your childhood is not unusual, says Fred Luskin, Ph.D., director of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health. It’s in part because we often lack the understanding that parenting is an unbelievably difficult job atop the insight that parents are bound to screw you up to a certain degree. (As Luskin says, “To be human is to be in some way messed up by your parents.” Remember to thank them for that next Mother’s or Father’s Day.)
But harboring resentment toward those who raised us only hurts ourselves most in the long run. “Part of growing up is dealing with whatever damage you got from your childhood and working through it,” Luskin says. First step in that process? Forgiveness.
No matter how bad your situation was growing up, Luskin believes that in order to lead a happy, healthy life, you need to expend less energy pointing the finger and more energy mastering coping skills for dealing with emotional triggers and relationship issues. Therapy is always a great option, but so too are strategies like yoga, meditation, and martial arts—anything that quiets and calms the mind and body, he says.
In the event you must scratch the itch to confront a parent for previous wrongs or discuss the root cause of your resentment, brace yourself for their reaction, Luskin says. Not only will they likely be hurt by your confrontation, they may not remember things like you do, and you may end up feeling invalidated by their response.
4. We Don’t See Eye to Eye
If you disagree with your mom or dad over money, lifestyle, household standards, or work habits, you’re not alone. Tension between parents and adult children are pretty standard—especially when the adult child depends on the parent a great deal for support, when a parent overdoes the unsolicited advice, and when either the parent or child feels ambivalent about being a significant part of the other’s life Tensions in the parent and adult child relationship: Links to solidarity and ambivalence. Birditt KS, Miller LM, Fingerman KL. Psychology and aging, 2009, Jul.;24(2):0882-7974.
The good news is this tension decreases with age, as we learn to pick our own battles and accept our parents for who they are. And parents and adult kids who can find the humor in their frustrations tend to have an easier time in their relations with one another, Fingerman adds. So if opportunities to laugh arise—like taking a step back to giggle at how similar you sound to your mother when you’re griping or how absurd your embarrassment about dad’s wardrobe is—seize them.
5. I Worry About Them—a Lot
Many of us may see worries as negative emotions, but worrying about someone may make them feel more loved, according to another study by Fingerman The worries adult children and their parents experience for one another. Hay EL, Fingerman KL, Lefkowitz ES. International journal of aging & human development, 2010, Feb.;67(2):0091-4150.
. So long as it doesn’t become invasive, that is. Think: Nagging a parent about their diet or exercise habits or buckling under dad’s angst over your financial habits.
Fingerman’s research found that nearly all of us are at least “a little” concerned about our families. So not only is worrying about a family member common, a moderate amount of it may be a psychological method of regulating one’s own anxiety. By verbalizing or mulling over concerns about another person’s well-being or an upcoming event, worriers feel slightly more empowered to anticipate and prepare for potentially negative outcomes Worry as an adaptive avoidance strategy in healthy controls but not in pathological worriers. Ottaviani C, Borlimi R, Brighetti G. International journal of psychophysiology : official journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 2014, May.;93(3):1872-7697.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by how much you’re freaking out about a parent—or how much they’re losing their cool about you—it may be good to reach out to a professional for help managing stress or to communicate to your parent when enough is enough. If you’re up to it, try something like: “Mom, dad, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by your concerns about me. Do you think you could let me come to you when I need some support? That would really help me do better and be less reactive toward you.”
Like every individual, each family has its own idiosyncrasies. Those of us who fret that our own isn’t normal are typically unaware that most people struggle with the same issues. So long as inevitable woes aren’t getting in the way of focusing on your own needs and goals, you’re probably in the clear. In the event you find yourself held back by your relationship with your parents, don’t be shy about asking a family therapist to help you figure things out.