When Your Parents Treat You Like a Child

May 25, 2010 |Angela Moon
When Your Parents Treat You Like a Child

When your parents treat you like a child, what should you do? Read these stories from young adults who can relate, and pick up some ideas of how to respond.  

You're majoring in chemistry, carrying an 18-hour load while maintaining an A- average. You're tutoring a few freshmen for extra cash, and you're a resident assistant, responsible for keeping track of 40-odd students on your floor. At least twice a week, fellow students drop by your dorm room for advice. This week, you dealt successfully with a dorm mate who became suicidal over plunging grades and the sudden death of a romance.

Life is grindingly hard — but you're proud of the way you're handling it. Now it's Thanksgiving vacation, and you're looking forward to spending a few days at home catching up on your sleep, not to mention your homework. After a three-hour drive, you hoist your bags out of the car and throw open the front door of your parents' home.

"Wipe your feet!" your mother hollers from the kitchen. "Shut the door!" your father adds. "Do you think we want to heat the whole outdoors?"

Suddenly, you're 10 years old again.

* * *

It happens to nearly all of us. We grow up and assume adult responsibilities, we're accepted as adults by our peers. But every time we go home — for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for summer vacation — our parents treat us like the children we no longer are.

"When I came home last Christmas, my parents and I went to visit some friends," says 20-year-old Lawrence. "I was really enjoying talking to this couple — but then my dad kicked me out of the living room and told me to go visit with their kids. They were 8 and 13 years old!"

And then there's Lindsey, a college sophomore who moved back in with her parents to save money. She takes half a load of classes and works part time, but still hasn't figured out how to load the dishwasher — at least, according to her mom. "Every time she asks me to clean the kitchen, she tells me to take the clean dishes out and put the dirty ones in," Lindsey complains. "I've only been doing this since I was 8 years old, but she still explains it to me every time."

Then there are parents who can't seem to accept that there are some things their college-age kids know more about than they do. Kelley, a 21-year-old computer science major, says he's been "reading computer manuals since I was 6 years old. Computers are both my vocation and my hobby." But whenever the family needs to buy new computer equipment "my dad totally disregards my expertise. He can't give up control to me," Kelley sighs. "At work, the most qualified person does the job. I don't see why filial relations should be any different, but my dad always has to be right."

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it doesn't get any better when you graduate.

"My parents continue to treat me like I'm 12 years old," says a New Yorker called Ian. "A year ago, I went home to visit them. My father had to cut something with a chainsaw, and he would not let me touch it. I was 35 years old! I'm thinking, When am I going to be old enough to use the chainsaw? It gets to the point of total absurdity. It's humiliating."

So is being told to hush up when you're in your 40s. "When George W's people need advice, they contact people like me," confides a friend who works at a Washington, D.C. think tank. "But when I go home, my dad still shushes me, which is really irritating. Important people think what I say is worth hearing, but to my dad, I'm still a 15 year old with bad skin."

I know just how he feels. Last summer I went home to Boston to visit my own parents for a couple of weeks — and once again, the Boeing 727 I was traveling on somehow turned into a time machine that sent me back to 1967 — the year I turned 10. One day my mother and I boarded a ferry, intent on shopping and sightseeing. As we prepared to disembark, in the midst of a large crowd of people, my mother suddenly turned to me and loudly asked, "Do you have to go to the bathroom?"

It's a question appropriate for a little girl — not a woman in her 40s. Did I gently point out that I was old enough to figure out when I needed to answer nature's call? No. Instead, I grit my teeth, shook my head and spent the next 15 minutes feeling irritated.

It gets worse when you have kids. I married young, and by the time I reached my late-20s, my parents were treating us, if not as full-fledged adults, then at least with a certain respect. But then we had a baby — and our collective I.Q. dropped by about 75 points. At least, it did in my parents' eyes. My parents intruded into every childcare decision — from whether we should nurse or bottle feed, to whether we should use a microwave to heat formula, to whether we should change pediatricians. It was the cause of tremendous friction.

Even Dr. James Dobson had trouble getting his parents to treat him like a grown-up. In his book Parenting Isn't For Cowards, Dobson describes coming home from college for Christmas vacation — only to have his mother "asking me what time I would be coming in at night, and urging me to drive the car safely, and watching what I ate." "My mother," Dobson recalls, "had ... failed to notice that I had changed and she needed to get with the new program." Matters came to a head one evening when, Dobson says, after "a brief flurry of words between us" he left the house in a huff.

The problem appears to be universal. A few years ago Focus on the Family conducted a poll asking listeners what their biggest problem was when it came to dealing with their parents. The number one answer: The refusal of parents to accept their children as adults — to let go and let them lead their own lives. Listeners in their 30s, 40s, and 50s wrote in to say that their parents still regularly criticized and corrected them, attempting to impose their will on offspring who had left the nest decades before.

Why do parents do this? How does it escape their notice that their babies have grown up and no longer need, or want, to be treated like children?

Part of the answer is probably that in 1990s America, adolescence has been artificially extended. A generation or two ago, many Americans finished school, started work and got married — all while still in their teens. But today, a high percentage of young people go to college. Many of you go on to graduate school — which means you're often financially dependent on your parents well into your 20s. And the unfortunate reality is that when your parents are still supporting you, they're inclined to think of you as a child and want to tell you how to live your life. (My own parents paid my expenses through my third year of college, and whenever I came home, my father expected me to come in by a certain time in the evening, get up at a certain time each morning, and expected final say on whether my clothing and makeup were appropriate.)

There's another reason why parents have trouble letting go, according to Dobson. American parents are, he says, "among the best in the world. We care passionately about our kids and would do anything to meet their needs." But that very characteristic makes it extremely difficult to let go, he adds. "The same commitment that leads us to do so well when the children are small ... also causes us to hold on too tightly when they are growing up." Some parents — even Christian parents — manipulate their kids to keep control through guilt, bribery, threats, intimidation, fear and anger, Dobson says.

Even when parents don't engage in these tactics — even when they merely mean well — they have to learn to let go. Dobson recommends that you get together with your parents, perhaps over dinner, identify the specific problem area, and tell them lovingly, but firmly, that you are an adult now and expect to be treated as one.

Easy enough to say. Harder to put into practice. It's especially difficult when you see your parents only for short periods, separated by months or even years. You tend to think, "I'm only here for a few days. Why rock the boat?" That's been my own strategy for dealing with conflict — and here I am, 20 years later, still getting frustrated every time I go home. Our visits don't go well, and my parents aren't sure why.

Why don't I tell them? My mother doesn't react well to criticism. My father? Well, he tends to make a joke out of anything I say. Although I have a husband, two children and a responsible job, he still treats me like a little girl.

One friend who's been more successful than I in her dealings with her parents says it didn't take a gentle confrontation — it took lots of gentle confrontations.

"My parents live near me, so we had to resolve these things," Jennifer told me. "My mom used to call me and say, 'I don't mean to criticize, but that dress you wore last night looked terrible on you.' Finally, whenever she started a conversation with the words 'I don't mean to criticize' I'd say, 'then don't!'" After a while, she got the message."

"For a time," Jennifer adds, "I had to constantly reinforce the way I wanted to be dealt with. Our relationship is now much more positive and constructive. We're much more like friends than parent and child."

Dr. Dobson, too, was able to convince his parents that, as an adult, he wanted friendship with his parents, not "a line of authority from them." Of course, that's what we all want — especially when we are successfully navigating through adulthood. But most of us have to respectfully ask for it.

And if we still don't get respect? We need to remember that Scripture teaches that children are to show respect to their parents, even when their parents drive them crazy.

I have a friend named Bob who's made an art of this. A spiritually mature man, Bob knew he had a deeply stubborn streak. Early in adulthood, he made a decision: That he would show his overbearing father respect — even if it killed him.

And he did, too. When his parents moved overseas to serve as missionaries, Bob and his wife took over the family farm. For seven years, they labored there. Then Bob's parents returned — and the first thing his father did was tell Bob he was operating the tractor improperly. Bob, who had spent the past seven years working with that very tractor, listened respectfully — and did things his dad's way.

Yes, the ideal is to turn the parent-child relationship into a friendship, and we should certainly work toward that. But if all else fails — if our parents won't change — we must try to manage respect.

Me? I'm going to try to take Dr. Dobson's advice. I'm going to bite the bullet and gently but firmly tell my parents that I want to be treated like an adult.

I'll do it the very next time I go home. Really.

Copyright © 1999 Angela Moon. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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