To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man’s lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?–Cicero
The key to handling your parents is understanding them. Sometimes, especially when they are annoying you, the very idea of that is repellent. You don’t want to understand their motives; you want to grumble about them, shrug your shoulders helplessly about how impossible they are, assure yourself that they’re crazy.
That’s a completely natural reaction, but it’s not useful. The only way for you to improve your chemistry with them is to know what forces shaped them. Just as you are shaped by your past (the humiliation of having your heart broken by that achingly beautiful girl in junior high school, the jubilance of overcoming a learning disability, the pain of your parents’ divorce), so too are they people with a past every bit as poignant, surprising, and important as yours. You need to know that history in order to:
understand that when they try to manipulate, control, or demean you, they are often acting out dramas from their past that have little to do with you; formulate an effective way to deal with them based on their vulnerabilities, sore spots, and “points of entry”; develop empathy for them so you no longer feel threatened by them and can relate to them as an adult; find common ground that will make it easier for you to create a more meaningful relationship, a relationship of equals.
How to Dig Up the Dirt
It Can’t Hurt to Ask
As you read this, you may be thinking, I couldn’t possibly just come out and ask my mother about her childhood. That would be too embarrassing for her . . . and for me. But you may be dead wrong. Your parents may be much more open to direct questions than you think. Many of my clients judge their parents’ approachability by their own childhood standards of privacy, fear, and taboo. Because their childhood was scary and full of family secrets, they assume that their parents will be shocked if asked about their childhood.
But these two things are not necessarily related, especially not in your parents’ minds. Many parents enjoy answering questions about their childhood. To begin with, they’re getting older, and as the human brain ages, it tends to favor long-term memory. That means your parents may now remember, perhaps fondly, details of their childhood that they thought they had forgotten. Also, if your parents are the types who demand a lot of attention, asking them these questions will help satisfy that need. They probably enjoy talking about themselves (Who doesn’t?) and will be flattered by your interest. You may be surprised at how quickly and fully they open up — provided that you deal with them skillfully.
Choose a comfortable setting for this discussion, a place where they will not feel defensive.
Think about what kind of interaction they handle best — are they better talking “off the cuff,” or do they need time to organize their thoughts and words?
If it will help draw them out, be willing to share some of yourself. Major caveat: be sure you don’t one-up them, bring up uncomfortable things from your childhood that involve them too directly, or monopolize the conversation. Remember, this is about them, not you.
Ask follow-up questions. Don’t let them drop an intriguing detail and then move on. If your mother says, “It was really hard for us because my parents were so poor and there were six kids,” you reply, “That must have been tough. What was the hardest thing you remember about being poor?”
Gently dig for stories, not just impressions. Specific anecdotes tell the important truths. Your father may say his own father was a disciplinarian, but what did that mean? Try to elicit a story that demonstrates how strict your grandfather was with your father. Remember, the story he chooses to tell is the one that is the “money,” the one that will tell you a lot about what discipline — or lack of it — means to your dad.
Probe for the opposites. If your dad just talks about negatives (“My mother was very cold; she never said she loved me”), ask if there were positives too (“Did you have any surrogate-parent types in your life? Did you get love elsewhere?”). If your mother only speaks in glowing terms (“I was a superstar in high school”), gently ask if there was any downside (“Did you feel a lot pressure to perform?”).
How to Get the Ball Rolling
Always begin with a neutral, non-threatening observation or question. Then steer the conversation toward the topic you’re interested in.
Here are a few opening gambits you might adapt to your situation.
“Dad, I’ve always been jealous of how well you X (shave, cook, organize the bills . . . ). Did your father teach you that?”
“Mom, I was looking through some old photos of you and Aunt Jean, and you guys looked so cute and happy in your poodle skirts. And Grandma looked so young and proud. Were things as happy for you back then as they look?”
“You know so much about the Civil War, Dad. Were you interested in it when you were a little kid. No? Then what were you interested in back then? What were you like back then? It’s hard for me to imagine. I’d love to have met you then. What were you like as a kid?”
You may find many keys in their childhood. Perhaps you don’t have the expertise to analyze all their answers like a trained therapist (Her mother yelled at her a lot, so that’s why she sometimes pulls that martyr crap with me), but you can reflect on their answers, and that may give you innovative ideas on how to deal with them. Many clients who delve in earnest into their parents’ pasts find a cache of unrealized dreams and aspirations: a father who dreamed of being a professional athlete until a knee injury sidelined him forever; a mother who wanted to go to college but wound up pregnant at seventeen. You may think that you’re the only one who had your dreams thwarted, but maybe that’s not true. Be careful — you may discover that your parents are much more like you than you think.
Here’s a good example from my life. My father was a navy pilot during World War II, stationed in the Pacific. After the war, he and two friends wanted to stay in Hawaii and start a small cargo-shipping company, but my mom, who’d been raising my older sister at her parents’ home on the mainland, didn’t want to move that far. Dad was an easygoing guy and agreed to come back to New Jersey, but I know he always wondered what would have happened if he had stayed in Hawaii. That little company his pals started became one of the biggest in the Pacific Rim.
Disappointment colors people’s lives and can have a profound effect on their families. It can be painful to find out about such things, but it’s crucial that you do so if you ever hope to see your parents as fully realized beings.
Knowledge of their past will give you empathy for them. You may find that their childhoods were much more similar to yours than you thought, that they echo the chilliness in your youth or the overpowering expressions of concern that made you feel smothered.
Or you may be surprised to find that their impressions of their own childhood are in direct conflict with what you’ve heard from other family members or what you experienced in watching them deal with your grandparents. (I’ve had many clients whose parents describe their own childhood as idyllic, though the clients themselves remember volcanic fights between the parents and the grandparents.)
This is all grist for the mill of your empathetic imagination. Remember, just as you want to be respected for your memories of childhood, they too are heavily invested in their childhood stories, despite the fact that those memories may not be entirely accurate.
As you explore the past with them, you may even find buried clues that will help you help them get in touch with some of their more tender, vulnerable memories and experiences.
Dale Atkins is a licensed psychologist, lecturer, and media commentator who appears regularly on the Today show. The author of five books including I’m OK, You’re My Parents: How to Overcome Guilt, Let Go of Anger, and Create a Relationship That Works. She has been a frequent contributor to the Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Parents. She lives in Connecticut and has a practice in New York City.
For more information, please visit please visit Dr. Dale Atkins’ Web site or www.writtenvoices.com
Yolanda Carden [mailto:email@example.com]