How To Be A Grown-up Even Around Your Own Parents

How To Be A Grown-up Even Around Your Own Parents

by Frank Pittman
People don't become grown-ups until they realize that their parents, however wonderful, were badly misinformed and sometimes stark, raving mad.
Filed Under: Relationships


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"You know what my scenario was for this whole thing? I was gonna move away. I was gonna get rich and move into a luxurious mansion. My parents were gonna come visit me—once—and say 'Oh, what a nice mansion. We love you, Dave.' And I was gonna say 'I love you too, Mom and Dad.' And then they were gonna go away and die. Does this make me an asshole?"
— Tom Hanks in Nothing In Common (1986)

"Hello, Arthur. This is your mother. Do you remember me?... Someday Arthur, you'll get married and you'll have children of your own and honey, when you do, I only pray that they'll make you suffer the way you're making me. That's a Mother's Prayer."
Mother and Son, Mike Nichols and Elaine May

The Terrifying Power of Parents

We never really are the adults we pretend to be. We wear the mask and perhaps the clothes and posture of grown-ups, but inside our skin we are never as wise or as sure or as strong as we want to convince ourselves and others we are. We may fool all the rest of the people all of the time, but we never fool our parents.

They can see behind the mask of adulthood. To our parents, we seem always to be "works in progress." A parent's work is never done—we are never finished and ready to face life on our own. I remember going to see our oldest daughter off on the train to college. As the train pulled out of the station, one of the other mothers took off running behind it, trying to catch the train and stop it. She had suddenly remembered a piece of advice she hadn't given her daughter. A mother's failure to understand the new world in which her child lives does not reduce one iota her responsibility to give advice about how to deal with it.

People don't become grown-ups until they realize that their parents, however wonderful, were badly misinformed and sometimes stark, raving mad.
People don't become grown-ups until they realize that their parents, however wonderful, were badly misinformed and sometimes stark, raving mad. Each generation's job is to question the things the parents accept on faith, to explore the possibilities, and adapt the last generation's system of values for a new age.

The world is changing more rapidly each generation; the enormousness of the change is painful for those on either side of the generational divide. Fathers who won World War II single-handedly and have strutted around as Head of the Household ever since may never understand sons who want to be househusbands. Mothers who have sucked it in and pretended to be mentally deficient and emotionally unstable in order not to threaten their patriarchal husbands may have enormous resentment of their daughters who get to be full-scale human beings.

Parents may feel betrayed when their children adopt different styles and habits, and matters of style may turn into matters of morality, health or safety. To the parents, various things the children do may mean the death of the longed-for and as-yet-unborn grandchildren, while to the child, homosexuality may be a lifestyle choice, suicide may be a political statement, and joining the foreign legion may be an interesting career move. The child who makes such choices may not understand why the parents keep mourning the grandchildren that will not be instead of being as thrilled as the children are over the homosexual partner, the political placard or the artistic pictures of sand dunes they are getting instead.

Techniques for Regressing Grown Children into Blathering Childishness

Parents who would like to strip away their child's mask of adulthood and expose him or her as a still imperfect child, still in need of parents in attendance, have a variety of time-honored techniques at their disposal, all of which are simply subtle ways of doing their jobs as not-quite-ex-parents, by doing the job in a way that keeps both generations firmly in place. Parents can simply remind you that you are not quite who you pretend to be. They can bring up stories from your childhood at the most amazingly deflating moments, like telling stories about your toilet training at your wedding reception or telling your new boss how your kindergarten teacher never thought you had enough sense to get out of junior high. My father insists the most awful moment of his life came when he was making his first high school touchdown and heard the voice of his mother above the roar of the crowd calling "My Sonny Boy," a name he never lived down.

Parents can offer a sanctuary, not just as a pit stop along the road of life, but a permanent alternative to adulthood. They can give you or offer to leave you more money than you can make, so you never have to plan an adult life, and cannot truly respect the adult life you have been able to achieve. They can devote their lives to making it possible for you to never grow up. Your parents can provide you with a lifetime occupation, perhaps taking care of them—like the seeing-eye children of central Africa who spend their lives from the age of two or three running interference for their sightless parents—or try to protect you from the imperfection of grown-up relationships.

A young woman in my practice caught her husband in a brief affair, saw a couples therapist, fought it out with the contrite young husband, and reconciled. She then told her parents what had happened, whereupon her three-times-divorced father gave her the money for the best divorce attorneys and the two-times-divorced mother offered the other half of her fancy duplex. They insisted that she needed more time with her parents before she chose her next husband. They hinted that taking her in and raising her and her brood of children might bring them back together again.

The Gift of Guilt

At any time, your parents can call in their investment in you and demand repayment for giving you life. The classic approach to this is guilt, as Erma Bombeck put it: "Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving." King Lear was our expert at this, bewailing "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." His kids fixed him.

Parents vary in their sense of what would be suitable repayment for creating, sustaining and tolerating you all those years, and what circumstances would be drastic enough for the parents to present the voucher.
Parents vary in their sense of what would be suitable repayment for creating, sustaining and tolerating you all those years, and what circumstances would be drastic enough for the parents to present the voucher. Obviously there is no repayment that would be sufficient. The guilt is there, inescapable and even irreducible, but the effort to call in the debt of life is too outrageous to be treated as anything other than a joke. My mother used to tell me, as often as needed, how she had to lay in bed flat on her back for nine months in order to give birth to me. If I displeased her, she'd remind me that all she had had to do was stand up and I would be a messy spot on the floor, so I should be eternally grateful that she didn't do that. I'd thank her, but assure her it would be okay for her to stand up now.

Children are a Family Affair

Your parents can claim your children, and tell you how to raise them. This can be useful. Every child needs more than two parents, so a full set of grandparents can come in handy. You don't have to take the advice, of course, but finding out how your parents or your partner's parents thought out the issues of child raising can give wonderful insights into both them and you, how they came to do what they did and how you came to be who you are. Of course it can rattle you. I know I'm more comfortable getting advice when I know what I'm doing than I am when I am trying to fake competence, and we are all amateurs at child raising.

Parents can deflate you just by appearing, either in person or in your mirror, as an older version of yourself, reminding you what is in store for you. They can criticize you so sensitively and astutely that they remind you that you aren't perfect yet. Even as the world applauds, your parents can take your victory away by reminding you that you might have done a better job in some way. Bring home a report card four A's and one B to hear, "That's nice, but what did you do wrong in calculus?" When I was about 30, I called my mother to tell her I had been written up in TIME magazine. She said, "Nobody in Autauga County, Alabama reads TIME any more. Why didn't you get written up in U.S. News and World Report?" That meant, "Don't get too big for your britches around me, Sonny Boy. I knew you when."

After a few minutes of sympathetic reflection, I realized that it also meant, "I'm so afraid you'll be so successful and so acclaimed by the world that you won't need us anymore, that you'll feel too good for us, that you'll be ashamed of us. Please love me, even in your moments of glory." I could have wondered why she didn't put it that way, but I'm actually just grateful that she didn't stand up all those years ago.

Parents can write the family history, putting you wherever they choose, preferring perhaps to keep you in the family mythology as a child. My mother, for example, was clearly ambivalent about my successes. quote:When I came to give a widely publicized talk to dedicate Alabama's first mental health center, I was about forty, and the picture of me she sent to the newspapers was from high school. I was a middle-aged man, but still Little Frank, my mother's boy wonder.

How Awkward Adolescence Becomes a Permanent State of Immaturity

Children give parents this deflating power to take the wind out of our sails when we are in adolescence, when we are so seriously self-conscious we become male and female impersonators, trying to convince somebody out there, mostly ourselves, that we are no longer children. We have enough trouble carrying it off when we are doing it in front of a mirror, but it becomes impossible to look like an adult when our parents are telling us what to do. Our parents know most clearly just how immature we are. One way adolescents try to pose as grown-ups is to make a show of not needing parents—at just the point of greatest confusion and disorientation of our lives, right when we need them most.

Once the older generation has raised us to about the level of adolescence, we are so full of hormones, piss and vinegar, we don't like to think we need the wisdom of the ages. It is true that the world is changing so fast that each generation's wisdom has expired by the time it can be put to use. Our parents' style and values, their ideas about how the world works, are likely to seem old-fashioned just on principle, but the real issue is that as adolescents we are too scared to tolerate doubt. Our parents might have money or things to leave us when they die, but this does not make us value them; it makes us impatient with them for continuing to live. If we can't find a use for them and they don't have anything for us, we might merely want to find an escape from them. We might even come to fear them, as if their active involvement in our life were proof of our characterological weakness—and maybe even dangerous to our mental health.

One solution for adolescents is to hide from parents, even if we have to run away from home, in whole or in part.
It is hard to look like a grown-up, much less feel like a grown-up, when you are busy running away from home.
It is hard to look like a grown-up, much less feel like a grown-up, when you are busy running away from home. Yet we have a society in which adolescence is, for some insane reason, seen as the most desirable time in life. We have a world full of people who get into the middle of the stream of life, and paddle like hell trying to stay in the same spot as the life cycle and the world flow by, equidistant from childhood and adulthood, and terrified of both.

The Magic of Parenthood

Some people stay pampered children forever, but child raising—hands-on, fully-invested child raising—is the main event in life, the experience that takes you out of the child generation, where you are only able to take, and puts you squarely in the parent generation, where you are able to give as well, and thus become able to take deservedly and unashamedly, without the nagging guilt children of all ages feel over taking more than they are giving back.

The end product of child raising is not only the child but the parents, who get to go through each stage of human development from the other side, and get to relive the experiences that shaped them and get to rethink everything their parents taught them. They get, in effect, to re-raise themselves, and become their own person.

Sure there are ways other than child raising to become a grown-up, though none so natural and total. One way to replace the experience of parenting is by nurturing strangers, as childless Mother Teresa or George Washington did, but being Mother of the Slums or Father of His Country can be a big job. For those who can't arrange parenthood, active aunting and uncling seem the next best choices. The usual things recommended for making a man out of a boy (and perhaps for making a woman out of a girl)—war, football, fighting, and prison—just create a fiercer boy. Learning to love a child can make a real man out of any boy, a real woman out of any girl, but some people might prefer to avoid something that engulfing and find a less drastic way of managing their parents and getting treated as adults.

The Solution: Acting Like a Grown-up

If you would move into the adult position with your parents, you can do several things. Your parents can't do these things for you. They can not grant you your adulthood; you must claim it for yourself.
  1. Take responsibility for your own life, not necessarily doing it perfectly but accepting the blame for the missteps: "I did this and I did it wrong. Now I want to learn from my mistakes. What do you think I could do differently next time?"
  2. Accept well-intentioned counsel from those who know and love you, even if neither their love for you nor their understanding of you is ideal. People, especially parents, love to give advice, and they will honor your maturity in asking for it.
  3. Your parents can't fix your problems or turn you into a kid again. They know by now (I hope) that they have no magical powers, but it is up to you to make yourself aware of that. They cannot turn you into a child; that is something you are doing to yourself when you collapse, run, or hide under the spell of your childlike awe at their presumed power. You must move in close, and unmask them as Toto did the Wizard of Oz, who turned out to be a silly old man hiding behind a lot of sound and lights. As he said when told he was a bad man: "No. I am a very good man, just a very bad wizard." Parents and wizards are all faking it.
  4. Forgive your parents for all the ways in which they didn't raise you just right, whether their errors were in loving too much or too little.
    Forgive your parents for all the ways in which they didn't raise you just right, whether their errors were in loving too much or too little. All parents, as they perform their required functions as parents of adults, do the deflating things that make you feel like a child. If you have children, you'll do those things too and eventually laugh about them.
Parents sometimes do horrendous things to their children—beating them, raping them, selling them into slavery, even trying to kill them. Still more parents abandon their children, break up their children's family to run off with someone who did not have the best interests of the children at heart, and leave the children with someone they could not tolerate living with themselves. Those things must also be faced, and when they are finally understood, they must be forgiven. Otherwise the child may never feel secure with the imperfect love and imperfect investment the parents made in him or her, or with the child's own imperfect capacity for reciprocating all that love.
An angry, unforgiving child, going through life feeling like a victim of imperfect parenting, has no way of moving into the adult position in relationships.
An angry, unforgiving child, going through life feeling like a victim of imperfect parenting, has no way of moving into the adult position in relationships. Unrelenting anger at parents is a developmental dead end.

It is interesting how much more people blame parents for overdoing their jobs than for underfunctioning as parents. People seem tolerant and forgiving of fathers who love too little, while they spend a lifetime fearing mothers who love too much.

I got macroparenting, especially from Mother, which was at times oppressive and even frightening, but generally served me well. A patient of mine was microparented. Maisie's father had disappeared when she was born and had never been heard from again. Her tight-lipped mother raised her all alone. When she was 18, and had finished high school she chose not to go to college but to quietly work and make the money to go find her father. She hired a private detective, who eventually found her father working at an optical shop. She introduced herself and took him down the street for a cup of coffee. He was rather silent, but he did explain that he had feared he would not be a good enough father for her, so he ran away, and he had been ashamed of that ever since. He told her he had little he could offer her, but he gave her a package of eyeglass wipes and advised her to keep her eyeglasses clean. That little box of wipers was the only thing Maisie had ever gotten from her father—except for the explanation that he had run away because he felt she deserved more than he had to give. She never saw her father again but that explanation of why he had made the disastrous escape from her life gave her the goal of hanging in there and raising her own children. She realized that she didn't have to be wonderful to raise children, but she did have to be there. Maisie was forever grateful to her father for that insight, and she always kept her eyeglasses clean. We don't know what the meeting between father and daughter did for her father. He ran away again after that.

The hardest part of becoming an adult with your parents may be this: getting close enough to truly understand them and why they did what they did.
The hardest part of becoming an adult with your parents may be this: getting close enough to truly understand them and why they did what they did. You can't expect to satisfy your parents and you can't expect to fix them, but you must understand their life and yours from THEIR perspective before you can truly forgive them. No matter how awful, incestuous or homicidal your parents, they must be faced and understood, not for their sake but for yours. As long as you fear your parent is out to do you in, you can never feel safe in the world.

It may take a lifetime. Some of it will happen automatically as you raise your own or are involved with other people's children, but some of it can only happen as you examine your parents, living or dead, present or absent.

Dismantling the Family Hierarchy and Becoming Peers

For a grown child to expect respect from parents, he or she must accept responsibility for his or her own life and act like a grown-up. If the grown children are still trying to blame their lives on their parents, no respect can be expected.

In considering the ledger equal, it must be understood that the greatest gift you have given your parents is the opportunity to raise you. The things a child gets from parents can't compare to the things a parent gets from raising a child. Only by facing the experience can you understand the degree to which children give meaning to the lives of parents.

To make the member of the child generation feel quite sure that the debts are paid, it is wonderful when the children get to take care of the parents as they grow old or sick, and die. There is nothing quite so liberating from parental guilt and empowering to your adultness as nursing your parents through to the end. It can make you feel wonderful when your parent needs you more than you need him or her. But if you are still feeling guilty, as if you have not paid enough, achieved enough, reinvested enough, or suffered enough for the parent, then you can come to feel like a slave. You must decide when you have bought your freedom, and then you must give a bit more just to be sure. When you have paid back your parents for your life, and paid more than you owe, then you are indeed your own person.

Tricks for Taming Used Parents: Getting Them to See You as an Adult and Treat You with Respect

Meanwhile, there are techniques for achieving hierarchical equality with your parents. Here are some tricks that my children have taught me, tricks that I didn't learn when I was coming into adulthood because I wasn't mature enough to face my parents head on. My kids are an improvement, especially in the ways in which they deal with their parents. These techniques are guaranteed to work better than whining childishly or storming adolescently at your parents complaining they don't treat you as an adult.
  1. Tell them about you. Tell them what you like and what you don't like. You be the expert on you.
  2. Explore them, not you. When your parents try to tell you more about you and your shortcomings than you really want to hear, ask them about themselves at your age.
  3. Thank them for any criticism, and ask them what their experiences were that led them to their opinions.
  4. Ask for their advice before they have a chance to give it. If they know you are taking their advice seriously, they may give more sympathetic advice.
  5. Explain how much you value their opinion, and be especially careful to add that it is one of those you will particularly value as you make your own decision.
  6. Don't hide anything from them. Secrets and lies will make you ashamed of yourself, and will make them think you are hiding things from them, like a child.
  7. Invite them to do a lot of things with you, whether they like to do such things or not. And accept their invitations in return. Include them in your social life.
  8. Ask them to tell you family stories. When they tell family stories about you, give them the necessary information to change your position in the family myths.
  9. Tell them whether you need cheerleading or criticism at the moment. Remember, they want above all to feel needed and to be a good parent. Structure them in doing so.
  10. Find things they can do for you now and ask them to do such things. Think of expertise you need, information you need, and give them ample opportunity to feel useful.
  11. Find things to thank them for, especially memories from the past. Thank them randomly.
  12. Tell them what a terrible child you must have been, and how bad you feel for having been such a bother to them.
  13. Reveal all the things you kept secret from them at the time. Blow their minds. Actually, it will probably surprise them that you weren't worse.
  14. Call them more often than they need for you to. Try to call during their favorite TV show, so they will be in a hurry to get you off the phone.
  15. Don't criticize them to others. Get into the habit of praising them to your friends. That won't change them, but it will free you from your adolescent pout with them.
  16. Name your children after them.
  17. Don't name your pets after them.
  18. Take them to movies about parents and children. Mommie Dearest or The Great Santini are good choices. Then talk about it, taking the parent's side. Since they've been children longer than they've been parents, they might just counter by seeing the conflict from the child's perspective.
  19. Give your parent a copy of this article.
  20. Take your parents with you to your therapist and tell the therapist what wonderful parents they have been. If your parent doesn't respond by telling your therapist how wonderful you are, give him or her another copy of this article, and underline the parts that seem relevant. 

Imperfect Parents

One of the most highly valued functions of used parents these days is to be the villains of their children's lives, the people the child blames for any shortcomings or disappointments. This approach toward escaping guilt is an effort to protect the self-proclaimed victim from having to take responsibility for his or her own life. But if your identity comes from your parent's failings, then you remain forever a member of the child generation, stuck and unable to move on to adulthood in which you identify yourself in terms of what you do rather than what has been done to you.

I know your parents, like most parents including my own, including me, made a lot of mistakes. That was then; this is now.
A lot of parents came into adulthood as they raised you, and are better people now than they were then.
A lot of parents came into adulthood as they raised you, and are better people now than they were then. There are great advantages to seeing yourself as an accident created by amateur parents as they practiced. You then have been left in an imperfect state and the rest is up to you. Only the most pitifully inept child requires perfection from parents. It might help for the parents to apologize a few times, but the child who would become an adult must finally get off the parents' back and get on with the job at hand.

Some parents were awful back then and are awful still. They got stuck in childhood and adolescence, and the process of raising you did not turn them into grownups. Parents who were clearly imperfect can be helpful to you. As you were trying to grow up despite their fumbling efforts, you had to develop skills and tolerances other kids missed out on. Some of the strongest people I know grew up taking care of inept, invalid, or psychotic parents—but they knew the parents were not normal, healthy and whole. Children of imperfect parents might be grateful to their imperfect parents for the opportunities to develop unexpected strengths. My sister and I are firmly convinced that our mother's alcoholism made us stronger people and better caretakers. Such a tragic-comic existence certainly did wonders for our sense of humor.

The Problem with Some Family Therapists

I end up doubting those mental health theories that find closeness and interdependency between the generations unhealthy. I'm not convinced that people are better off if they differentiate a lot as Murray Bowen would have us do, break free from all their warm, cozy enmeshment as Sal Minuchin advised, and leave home the way Jay Haley encouraged us to do. I like being as close to my children as I am, talking over cases and writing papers with my psychologist daughters and working out with my triathlete son. Our son is also our accountant and Betsy's primary source of business advice. My 90-year-old psychiatrist father-in-law, who has been a source of much of my clinical wisdom, is now living with us and letting us a do a few things for him, to pay him back for all he has done for us.

Whose life is it anyway? As we raise our children, as we invest our hopes, our energies, our futures and our very beings into them, we are hoping for something back, something that we will get from our children, both now and in the future, that will make up for whatever the deficiencies in our own parenting. Each life carries within it all the generations that came before and all the generations to follow. In whatever we do, we must be aware of both. I have lived through adolescence, in which I felt only connected to my generation, and oppressed by anyone who would require my allegiance to anything outside myself.
I have lived through the adolescent sense that the history of my family and of the human race begins and ends with me, and now that I see myself connected on both ends, I no longer feel lost and alone.
I have lived through the adolescent sense that the history of my family and of the human race begins and ends with me, and now that I see myself connected on both ends, I no longer feel lost and alone.

Therapists Who Blame Your Parents

There are therapists who have had wonderful training wasted on them but who will never be therapeutic because they are still members of the child generation and have not moved up to the parent perspective. They might do well to rethink their career choices until they have worked out their business with their own parents. Child-generation therapists might think that guilt is a killer, and any relationship, any reality, any responsibility must be shucked to protect grown children from guilt. They may encourage you to blame your life on the mistakes of your parents rather than encourage you to find out what the experience was like for your parents, how they learned to be the people and the parents they were, and how they would do it over again now. That exploration brings parents and children together, and can set them both free. An adult-generation therapist (of any age) will see both you and your parents through the eyes of an adult rather than just through the eyes of a child, and will know that you must forgive your parents if you are ever to be free of your sense of childlike helplessness.

The point of exploring your parents' deficiencies is for you to correct the misinformation you've received as a result, not to blame your life on them and then avoid them. You can't escape them anyway. Your biological parents are present in every chromosome in your body. The parents who raised you are present in every word you speak, every action you take. Your job is not to satisfy your parents, nor to fix them, but to understand them. Only through understanding them can you finally understand yourself.

This article was excerpted, in part, from Grow Up! by Frank Pittman. 

Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved.
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Frank Pittman Frank Pittman, MD (1935-2012) was the author of Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult (1999), Private Lies: Infidelity and Betrayal of Intimacy (1990) and Turning Points, a book about treating families in transitions and crises. He is also featured on the video Empowerment Family Therapy. Dr. Pittman practiced out of Atlanta, Georgia, where he was active as a psychiatrist and family therapist from 1962 until his death in 2012. 

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the relationships between parenting and being parented
  • Apply attachment theory concepts in working with your own couples

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here