When I was younger, both of my parents tried very hard to get me to practice meditation for my anxiety. It didn’t relax me, but I would practice with them because they were my parents and I wanted to make them happy. Over time, this made me start to slightly resent them (and meditation), but I avoided telling them and it felt like a part of our relationship had weakened because of it.
Now that I am in my late 20s, I realize that there are still some things that I do because I want to make my parents happy, which can lead to feeling like I’m going through the motions. For instance, my mom loves to drink tea after meals. Every time I come over for dinner, she asks if I want a cup of tea afterward. For years growing up I said yes and drank because I wanted to show her I accept her love, even though I really hate tea.
During my time in quarantine, I started to work on my anxiety. My therapist helped me realize that I could set boundaries with my parents in a way that didn’t shut down their acts of love. After all, there are ways that I can honor my own needs and desires while also respecting my parents.
Here are five things that I do to help strengthen my relationship with my parents as adults.
Set a goal for the interaction
This year, I began Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT takes a goal-based approach to modifying your thoughts and behaviors. My therapist told me that we typically enter social interactions with one of three goals:
- To get what we want
- To maintain our values
- Maintain the relationship
I found it helpful to name my goal before going to visit my parents. For example, my mom loves to send me home with extra food or items that I didn’t arrive with. This triggers my anxiety because I live in a small apartment, and too much clutter makes me feel anxious and out of control.
If I decide to visit my mom with the goal to “maintain my values,” I might be adamant about not taking anything home with me. If I go into the visit with the goal to “maintain the relationship,” I might be more willing to take the items because I know that it makes her happy to give them to me.
Deciding beforehand is key so that you are not caught off guard when a potential conflict arises.
Set clear boundaries
It can be really easy for me to revert back to old habits when I’m around my parents. Sometimes it’s easier to fall into the child/adult dynamic rather than an adult/adult dynamic. When I was a kid, my parents would organize family events and get-togethers. I would attend until they brought me home.
As an adult who is more aware of her social battery, I know that I sometimes have to leave family gatherings early. This does not mean that I love my family less, it just means that I am drawing a clear boundary to take care of myself. When I first started doing this, I was scared my parents would be offended, but it turned out that they were understanding and appreciated my communication of boundaries.
Learn your parents’ love language
Love languages, or the preferences for how we give and receive love, are something that I only recently learned about. They are applicable to romantic relationships as well as familial ones. Through my learning, I realized the way I give and receive love sometimes doesn’t match up with my family’s ways. That is okay, but it helps to be aware of the differences.
My mom shows her love through acts of service. She loves to cook and feed me, but if I am not hungry I feel bad for not being able to accept her love in that way. Still, I know I should not force myself to eat to accept love. Since I recognized her love language, it is easier to say, “I know you love me, and I love you too but here is what I need right now.”
PS: If you don’t know your love language, here is a quiz to find out!
Hang out outside the home
When I was home for the summer after my sophomore year of college, I went with my mom to a birthday dinner for her friend at a restaurant. To my surprise, we all had a wonderful time and chatted as adults in a way I had never done before with my mom. Since then, I find it easier to connect outside the house. I feel more like an adult when I’m away from my childhood home. When we spend time together outside, I can relate to my mom as another adult in the world.
One thing I’ve learned about relationships is that we cannot be dependent on one person for everything. This lesson can be hard to apply to our parental relationships because as kids, we literally relied on our parents. As an adult, I am learning to recognize that if talking about certain subjects with my parents puts stress on the relationship, perhaps those things don’t need to be talked about.
My mother and I have different approaches to dealing with mental health, and discussions about anxiety typically leave me feeling more stressed, so that is something I talk to my friends about instead. However, relationships are constantly changing, and I am open to talking about tougher subjects with her in the future.
One last thing that I like to keep in mind is that space can be just as important as quality time in any relationship. When I am feeling like my relationship with my parents is stretched, I try to take some personal time to recharge. At the end of the day, each relationship is different, but these tips help me maintain a positive and strong relationship with my parents as an adult.
Originally published September 22, 2021.