Our emotional ties with our parents are stronger and often more complex than with anyone else. We have already discussed how vital love and care are to our physical and psychological well being; we are totally dependent for a few years. According to Cindy Hazan of Cornell University, by age 5, we have started to prefer to play with friends rather than with Mom and Dad, but we want to be with our parents when we are upset, and Mom and Dad are counted on for security. Between 11 and 16, we prefer to be with friends and we seek support from peers when we are upset, but parents are still providing us with basic security. By age 17, most of us are enjoying friends more and seeking support when feeling down more from friends than from parents; moreover, over 50% feel friends (more than parents) will be there when we need help. In the 1980's, more and more college students have expected their parents to pay for their college education, at least to the BA level. In hard economic times, many college graduates return to live with their parents until they get a job. So, becoming independent of our parents is a 18 to 25 year process. Even after becoming independent, powerful emotional ties remain forever.
For most of us, loving a child is one of life's most beautiful experiences; giving someone life and helping them mature give profound meaning to our life. Letting go of the loved child or parent can be very hard. As Evelyn Bassoff writes, "A mother's tasks are to create a unity with her child and then, piece by piece, dissolve it." But all the ties can't be dissolved. Mom and Dad are embedded inside us forever; they have enormous power over us. But we have some ability to choose which ties to keep and which to drop.
The process of leaving home is, for some, easy, smooth, and exciting; both parents and children are ready for the child to mature and become independent. Obviously, if the relationship has been enjoyable, both children and parents will miss the closeness and good times but realize "we can't go back." For others, leaving home is a trauma or "just too hard," either for the child or the parent, so the young person stays in or near "home." For others, they have to get away; leaving home is an emotional necessity for the child, the parent, or both. In short, there are a variety of problems when leaving home and during the years thereafter. See chapter 9 for a general discussion of family relations and for generally useful references.
In recent years, there has been an avalanche of books about abuse within the home and how to deal with the after effects (see chapter 7). But there also has been some attention paid to the other end of the spectrum, namely, being too loving, too protective, too indulging, too smothering. These are parents who simply want their children to become happy, well adjusted adults but they want it too much or give too much in the process. Some parents worry constantly about their child; they will do anything for their child (forgetting themselves, their spouse, their own career, friends, other needy people); they become frantic when the child has a problem; they are crushed if the child rejects them or their values. In their desperation, such parents may become demanding dictators, demeaning critics, indulging protectors, smothering best friends, needy don't-abandon-me parents, and so on. All designed to bind the child to them tightly. There are books for over-involved parents and their children (Ashner & Meyerson, 1990; Becnel, 1990), for mother-daughter relationships (Bassoff, 1989; Caplan, 1989), for mothers when their children become troubled (Brans, 1987), and for young adults who are emotionally tied to a parent (Engel, 1991) in what is called "emotional incest" (Love, 1992).
In chapter 7, there is a description of how anger can make it easier for dependent 18-year-olds to leave home when the parent-child bonds have been too tight, too confining, too uncomfortable. For the one third of us who leave home under a cloud of stress and conflict, the strained relationship with Mom and Dad often continues to be a problem. Howard Halpern (1976) and Harold Bloomfield (1983) have discussed ways to cut loose from and make peace with our parents, not as angry teenagers (as discussed in chapter 7) but when we are adults. What an important thing to do! Here are some of suggestions, mostly from Halpern.
Many people in their 20's and 30's still get sucked into emotional traps and/or need their parents' approval, so much so that they can't be themselves. How does this happen? Inside us all, no matter our age, is an inner child, a left-over from childhood. The inner child contains many needs and wants--many of them primitive, self-serving, and even self-destructive. Parents still have an inner child too. While parents want their children to be capable and happy, there is another part of them that continues to see their children (even when they are 20 or 30) as weak, naive, and needing guidance. The inner child inside mom or dad may be saying "don't grow up, don't leave me." Some of these parents may resent a strong, independent child who is successful or chooses a different life-style or religion or politics or spouse than they would have preferred. To keep such parents from being upset, hurt, or angry, the little child within us may keep secrets from them or respond with "I need you too" or be overly nice and accommodating to them while harboring resentment. The best way to respond to such parents is to bypass their child and address their adult part which wants you to be mature and independent: "It's time for me to live alone" or "Instead of coming home, I've decided to do something else for Christmas this year." Make the interaction adult to adult by giving your reasons in a straight forward manner. Part of your parents may be very pleased you have "grown up" (in spite of their inner child's needs). They may object; consider their reasoning and make your decision.
Halpern helps us recognize these parent-child "song and dance" routines we utilize as long as the child within (us or the parents) is in charge rather than the inner adult. It is a safe bet that you are overly attached to a parent if after 20 you react with anger, guilt, fear of their reaction, or self-pity when you think of a parent. One of the toughest parent roles for a child to handle is the sacrificing martyr. The classic is a mother who says, "If it weren't for you children, I wouldn't have suffered so. You forget all I've done for you. And now everyone forgets their dear old mother." Often such a mother felt unloved and unlovable as a child. The mother's inner child is angry, frightened, and demanding. Now she thinks she can get love from her children only by force, primarily guilt. Her message to the son or daughter is, "If you don't do what I want, I'll feel terrible, all because you are so selfish and hurtful." To stop this "song and dance" the son or daughter has to say, "No, I won't do what you are asking, and it's your choice, mother, to suffer or be happy." You can't rescue your mother or father from her/his unhappy childhood. You can carefully explain your reasons for your actions, showing that you considered their wishes, that you love them, but you have a life of your own.
Having a weak, dominated parent may be a problem but even more serious is a dominant, aggressive, authoritarian parent, often a father. He/she feels like he/she owns the child. Often the child has been "bought off" with cars, clothes, college, vacations, a nice wedding, etc. The controlling parent's technique for keeping the child (even if 20 years old) down is to keep him/her dependent and insecure. This is often done by belittling the 20-year-old "child." "Be little" and helpless is the dominant parent's message. As a child or young adult, your inner child may fight, surrender, or join the tyrannical parent. The child who was a fighter may have had a bitter childhood and then marry someone gentle and passive only to resent the partner's lack of strength and to miss the joy of battle. The surrenderer may have been dominated and frightened as a child; they often become underachievers and generally unhappy failures crushed by the overwhelming parent. The joiners grab a little of the power by becoming aggressive like the parent or by joining the family business. They never challenge the authoritarian parent and, thus, are never free. The escape from all three of these problematic solutions is to first recognize the scared, angry, threatened little kid inside the authoritarian. How did he/she get that way? Was he/she a spoiled, pampered child? Or a child who got little attention without demanding it? Then decide what you can do: become aware that your inner child is frightened of the parent's inner child. Your reasonable adult will have to take control and end your defiant or "I'm worthless" or imitator song and dance. Be an assertive independent person and plan your own life; be the equal of the strong, critical, distrusting, controlling parent.
Another type of domination is by a saintly parent who tells you exactly what to do, feel, and think because it is "good" or "the right way" or "God's word" or "what must be done." Breaking this parent's rules causes shame, a feeling that we are bad or sinful, and arouses an appropriate concern that our parents won't like us. Eventually, you may have serious troubles: you feel imprisoned, in conflict about what is right and wrong, rejected by others for being so rigid and judgmental, or burdened with lots of psychosomatic complaints. What can you do? Start questioning some of the old rules, using your own reason and life experience. Next recognize there is a scared child inside your saintly mother or father, i.e. that super-confident voice of authority is simply a little child inside saying, "my mommy (daddy) says..." and repeating what he/she heard from his/her saint (your grandmother or grandfather who repeated her/his saint's rules, etc.). Decide your own values (see chapter 3) and just hope your saint can accept you as an independent person who carefully plans his/her own life.
Other parents, according to Halpern, are unloving and narcissistic (self-centered). Others are over-loving and seductive (Oedipus and Electra Complexes). All have their own internal needs that drive them. If you are unloved, the major task is to learn to love yourself, recognizing your parent has a defect in his/her ability to love but it is not your fault. Seductive involvement with the opposite sexed parent causes trouble: guilt, anger, and jealousy; it alienates the same sexed parent and may interfere with establishing more mature and satisfying love relationships. For every problem, Halpern's solution is to learn to recognize the dynamic interaction between your needy, insecure inner child and your parent's inner child. Then deal with your parent in an independent adult manner. Reference to Transactional Analysis in chapter 9 should be helpful in understanding these dynamics. Sometimes a therapist is needed to gain this kind of insight.
Each of us develops and/or were assigned a role within our families. Often we grow up disliking several of the roles we adopted in our family. These roles may even continue whenever we return home years later. Some of these roles are: the clown that everyone makes fun of, the cute doll, the family failure or sad sack or black sheep, the one who always has a problem, the family genius or business success, the rescuer or therapist, mother's or father's helper, etc. You may be uncomfortable with the role the family continually assigns to you. But even if you like it (e.g. the doll or the genius), often you are only encouraged to interact in the one assigned way, as though that is all you are. It may take considerable awareness of what's happening and effort to interact differently in order to break out of your assigned family role. Life is bigger than just one role or one relationship with one parent. Breaking away from parents means being free to grow and develop new roles and relationships, as well as establishing good, new, and different relationships with both parents. Perhaps Halpern's book should be called "helping parents grow up."