Dealing with Difficult Parents
Lots of unwanted eating comes from the stress of dealing with parents who don’t respect our boundaries and who are more focused on their needs than ours. As we mature, the idea is to “separate” from them emotionally, that is, to know that you exist for you and not for them. No matter what your adult age, when parents try to control you, it’s not surprising that you turn to food for comfort. Here is some excellent advice on the subject, not from me, but from a therapist whose blog I was fortunate to read. His wisdom is so right on, I thought I’d give you his words rather than mine.
Richard Wade, retired Marriage and Family Therapist, blogs and writes an advice column. With his permission, here is his (edited by me for brevity) response to a young woman whose parents vehemently disagreed with her choice of boyfriend because he was a different faith than she and they were:
“Your parents are acting like little children. When grownups act like children, others can easily slip into acting like parents in response. It is important for you to respond to them as an adult but not as a parent. That would be stepping into a trap. All these histrionics and other manipulations by your parents fall under the category of emotional blackmail …The basic idea is to try to get you to take responsibility for their hurt feelings and upset, then use your guilt to make you comply with their wishes. In a twisted way, that ends up putting you in the role of the dedicated parent and them in the role of your vulnerable children.
Sometimes this kind of manipulation can be stopped by confronting perpetrators directly and overtly with the childish and selfish nature of their behavior. Another way to deal with emotional blackmail is to ignore it. This is not about becoming cold and uncaring. It’s about staying inside your head and taking care of your feelings. You can care about someone else’s feelings, but you cannot take care of their feelings. That’s their job. When your parents try to provoke you or guilt trip you, maintain your equanimity. Show no frustration or upset. Respond as if they just said something that has nothing to do with you, and is of no interest to you, such as, ‘Uh huh. Okay I’m going out now and I’ll be back in the afternoon. I Love you, Mom and Dad. Bye.’ Have no hint of disdain or contempt in your voice. You must sound emotionally neutral, as if you were discussing what to pick up at the market. This is what I mean by playing the role of the adult instead of the parent or child. Always include the “I love you, Mom and Dad,” because that is still an important part of the truth you’re saying. You’re just also showing that you’re not going to play their game.
Completely disregard their invitations to argue with them. You’ve already tried your best rational arguments, and they didn’t work. If they say something that is none of their business, act as if they didn’t say it at all. Ignore anything childish or parental or antagonistic that they say. Only respond to respectful adult speech from them, and always speak to them as a respectful adult. Free yourself of the fear of “losing them.” That vague, scary idea could run you around like a frantic slave. Whatever “losing” actually means in real terms is probably not that likely when you really look at it. Keep in mind that underneath their obsession with controlling you, they probably have an awful fear of losing you.
When things are less emotionally charged, you might be able to reassure them, in adult-to-adult terms, that you aren’t rejecting them, you’re asserting yourself. If there is to be real peace in your family, it will be because they accept you as an independent adult. Be patient. That may take some time, and it is usually gradual. The last growing up that parents do is to relate to their children as adults. Even if they never do, you must relate as an adult to them. You want your freedom to follow your own path. That is for adults, so play the part.”