It is not unusual for adult children—be they 25, 35, 55, or older—to suddenly act like their 10-year-old selves with their parents. I’ve even seen adults in their 70s revert to this dynamic with their 90-something parents! Wanting to please parents is a natural instinct. As grown ups, parents’ advice may be annoying, their wishes contrary to what we want. But, more often than not, we yield. After all, we spent most of our growing-up years seeking their approval.
Obeying their requests or welcoming their opinions remains an almost automatic reflex for many adult children. Let’s say that you visit your parents. You might find them asking you to assume chores you loathed growing up. Your parents might be displeased at your deciding to eat out with friends rather than dine with them. Or, you bring home your longtime boyfriend or girlfriend but “aren’t allowed” to sleep in the same bedroom. Or, a parent insists you devour a piece of lemon cake you loved as a child. It doesn’t seem to matter to your mother or father that, as a grown-up, you dislike lemon anything, or that you recently struggled to lose 15 pounds. Instead, you’re reminded that they baked it just for you. Oh, the guilt!
You do have choices, but it can feel as if you have no control over the situation. Your parents have had the same rituals or been in the habit of giving orders for as long as you can remember—and some delight you, making you happy to comply. Others drain you, even make you angry because they don’t seem to recognize that you are an adult who might wish to do things differently. Unless you are the one to break specific patterns, you will continually slip back into the same old parent-child dynamic.
At what point does an adult child get to be the grown-up?
Many parents are understandably reluctant to change the way they have always “done” things. You don’t want to disappoint them, but oftentimes their desires make your life more difficult. Expect pushback but stand firm; little is set in stone.
Here are eight suggestions to make changes or express your wishes. Refer to them so you can thoroughly enjoy being together under most circumstances: a short or extended visit, whether you live with them again, routinely spend time with them, or regularly communicate by phone or digitally:
- Many parents and other family members may not realize how inconvenient or upsetting a particular plan is. No one is a mind reader, making it imperative to state your “case” and stop being the obedient child.
- Soften the blow of changes to certain rituals by acknowledging parents’ disappointment. Recognize their wishes to see or talk to you. Reassure them that you love them and want to be with them, but that some things are not possible. You simply can’t call every Sunday morning at 10:00. State days and times that do not interfere with your schedule.
- If you face an inconvenient holiday tradition, suggest getting together the weekend (or week) before or after the holiday to celebrate. Couching your “no” with alternatives often makes the idea of change more acceptable.
- Change the venue: Invite your parents to your home, for example. If it’s a tradition to celebrate birthdays or the Fourth of July at your parents’ home, suggest a park or your own backyard, especially if it would be more convenient for your or your children’s schedules.
- Be clear that you love the traditions and celebrations you grew up with, but that you want to start some of your own.
- Think ahead to sensitive areas a parent might probe or topics that you always find distressing to discuss with your parents. Make a topic off limits by saying, “I’m not discussing my dating life (or fertility or hairstyle or weight) today.”
- Call up your sense of humor. Laugh at the silliness of a situation or a parent’s comments that irk you.
- Think through possible consequences of your “no” or plan changes. The fallout is rarely as terrible as you think it will be. Parents will come to respect and view you as the adult you are now.
Above all, keep reminding yourself that you are a grown-up and entitled to make choices that may ruffle some feathers, but allow you to feel more joy and like the grown up in the room. Just because you are your parents’ child doesn’t mean you have to continue to be one.