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Why We View Parents Differently Than Other People


I had an interesting discussion with my client Alexandria about how she often allows her mother to mistreat her. She’s been changing her thinking about their relationship lately, though, because she’s finally decided that she doesn’t want to be intentionally hurt repeatedly by anyone. Then again, if we felt the same way toward parents as we do toward others, there’d be no need to discuss the issue in therapy or elsewhere.

A shift in thinking is natural as we grow older. Remember that our brains only fully form in our late twenties, so our emotional response to parents is based on a brain lacking adequate executive functioning: we don’t understand ourselves, others, or the world because we don’t have the cognitive ability to do so. 

By the time we’re teens and making friends, we have a stronger (yet still incomplete) capacity to assess how we’re treated and decide if it’s acceptable. Before that, due to dependence on parents, we more or less simply have to grin and bear it. And that’s the perception we often retain about them throughout life—until we realize we have choices.

Here’s an example from my work with Alexandria who recently came out to her family as bi-sexual because she was comfortable with her sexuality and tired of hiding it. Whereas other relatives were mostly supportive, her highly religious, narcissistic mother flipped out and has all but stopped talking to her. 

I asked Alexandria how she’d feel about telling a friend about her bi-sexuality if they judged and distanced themselves from her. She said she wouldn’t put up with it. And then we talked about how we too often put up with disrespect (and worse) from our parents just because they’re, well, our parents.

Why do we let them treat us poorly? Why do we often cut them more slack than we do friends, lovers or colleagues? Where does this get us?

The problem is that we don’t choose our parents but do have a choice with friends or lovers (at least I hope we feel that way!). We’re more or less stuck with relatives for life— siblings, grandparents, cousins and especially parents. Because of this bond, we tend to want to try to smooth things out so our relationships with them will be easier. 

But at what cost? When parents are intentionally unkind or disrespectful to us repeatedly, they learn that we’ll stick around no matter how they disrespect us. But, what if you didn’t allow them to say what they say and do what they do to hurt you? That’s the only way to grow up and it’s your best chance of getting them to grow up too.