Is Your Relationship With Your Parents Normal?

By Katherine Schreiber

Oh, parents. By now, you know that they're not exactly normal, and you're totally okay with that. What you aren't exactly sure about is — how normal is your relationship with them, actually, especially compared to the parent-child dynamics that your friends experience?

It’s a common concern, explains family therapist Judye Hess, Ph.D. The transition into adulthood reconfigures what it means to be attached to the people who raised you — especially when you’re no longer living under their roof. The evolving shift in how dependent you are on Mom and Dad, how much you’d like them involved in your adult life, and how great of a burden their needs become as they age can pave the way for unanticipated tensions, Hess says. And because so many of us are reluctant to voice our unease — either talking directly to our parents or venting to our friends — we end up feeling far more alone than we actually are.

The truth is there are plenty of others out there who feel the same way you do about family. Check out five common sources of conflict between adult kids and their parents, plus expert guidance for how to deal with all those tricky situations.
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Your dad's number appears on your “recently called” list more than your BBF's does, and you see your parents multiple times a month.

When a parent’s support becomes unwanted or over-the-top, communicate your needs for autonomy, Hess says. Simply saying, “Mom, I love you. But when you keep asking me whether I can afford my rent, it makes me feel incompetent, not empowered,” can do the trick.

But just because you have a close relationship with a parent doesn’t mean you’re fated to be incapable your whole life. Psychologist Karen L. Fingerman, Ph.D., has found that millennials who relied on their moms or dads for emotional support, advice, or as their fallback dinner dates up to several times per week tended to be happier than those who didn’t do it as much. Other research has also found that young adult children who connected with their parents through not one, but multiple mediums (think: text, email, Skype) reported greater satisfaction in their relationships with their folks.

Fingerman believes the changing nature of adulthood in the 21st century explains why leaning on a parent well into your 20s may not be such a bad thing after all.

“Parents have 25 or more years of experience to bring to bear on these problems,” Fingerman says. Bottom line: As long as you feel okay with how things are, don't worry about being close and sharing what you wish to share with your parents.
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Maybe you're the complete opposite: You talk to your mom or dad once a month, tops, and when you do, the conversations are more of the “strictly business” type, with few details.

Megan Gilligan, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, assures that being estranged from your parents is more common than you may think. About one in 10 moms have an adult child they don’t keep in regular contact with, according to Gilligan's studies.

Psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., believes that because we don't have as many institutional and communal forces tethering families together in today's times, “the primary thing that binds today’s adult children to their parents is whether the child wants the relationship.”

If you’re really unhappy about the distance between you and a parent, there are measures you can take to reconnect. Be clear about what you'd like your relationship with them to entail, and attempt to find empathy for whatever the situation might be that’s caused them to pull away. “In most cases, it can be difficult to realize that, realistically, they’ve always been doing the best they can.”

But, if you can’t re-establish a connection with an estranged parent, try finding what you feel you need from them elsewhere, like from other family or close friends.
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Holding a grudge against your parents for something they did in your childhood is not unusual, says Fred Luskin, Ph.D., director of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. It's in part because we often lack the understanding that parenting is an unbelievably difficult job, atop the insight that parents are bound to screw you up to a certain degree.

But harboring resentment toward those who raised us only hurts us most, in the long run. “Part of growing up is dealing with whatever damage you got from your childhood and working through it,” Luskin says. First step in that process? Forgiveness.

No matter how bad your situation was growing up, Luskin believes that in order to lead a happy, healthy life, you need to expend less energy pointing the finger and more energy mastering coping skills for dealing with emotional triggers and relationship issues. Therapy is always a great option, but so are things that quiet and calm the mind and body, he says.

In the event you must scratch the itch to confront a parent for previous wrongs or discuss the root cause of your resentment, brace yourself for their reaction, Luskin says. Not only will they likely be hurt by your confrontation, they may not remember things like you do, and you may end up feeling invalidated by their response.

Related: Why Do I Feel So Needy? You're Not Alone On This One
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If you disagree with your mom or dad over money, lifestyle, household standards, or work habits, you’re not alone. Tension between parents and adult children are pretty standard — especially when the adult child depends on the parent a great deal for support, when the parent overdoes it with unsolicited advice, and when either the parent or child feels ambivalent about being a significant part of the other’s life.

The good news is that this tension decreases with age, as we learn to pick our own battles and accept our parents for who they are. And parents and adult kids who can find the humor in their frustrations tend to have an easier time in their relations with one another, Fingerman adds. So if opportunities to laugh arise — seize them.
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Many of us may see worries as negative emotions, but worrying about someone may make them feel more loved, according to another study by Fingerman. So long as it doesn’t become invasive, that is.

Fingerman’s research found that nearly all of us are at least “a little” concerned about our families. So, not only is worrying about a family member common, a moderate amount of it may be a psychological method of regulating one’s own anxiety.

By verbalizing or mulling over concerns about another person’s well-being or an upcoming event, worriers feel slightly more empowered to anticipate and prepare for potentially negative outcomes. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by how much you’re freaking out about a parent— or how much they’re losing their cool about you — it may be good to reach out to a professional for help managing stress, or to communicate to your parent when enough is enough.
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Like every individual, each family has its own idiosyncrasies. Those of us who fret that our own isn’t normal are typically unaware that most people struggle with the same issues. So long as inevitable woes aren’t getting in the way of focusing on your own needs and goals, you’re probably in the clear. In the event you find yourself held back by your relationship with your parents, don’t be shy about asking a family therapist to help you figure things out.

Next: How To Know If Your Relationship Doubts Are Deal Breakers (Or Totally Normal)
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