When your parent comes to you to vent about their own parents or in-laws, it can feel like a trap: Either you side with your grandparents and deal with angering your mom or dad; or you end up gossiping about your grandma, which doesn't sit well, either. This type of scenario is so common, especially as we age and our relationships with our parents evolve, but that doesn't mean that it's fair or easy to deal with.
Seeing your parents going through a painful situation is hard when you still feel like somewhat of a kid, says Esther Boykin, LMFT, a relationship therapist in Washington, D.C. "As kids, regardless of how old we get, there's a piece of the relationship with our own parents where we don't expect to have to take care of them on an emotional level," Boykin says. Even thinking about taking on the role of a caregiver for our parents can make us feel stressed or unsure how to act, she says.
It's easier said than done, but part of having an adult relationship with your parent involves setting boundaries. "You can hear some of those things and be empathetic, but also let them know where the line is for you — and that's different for everybody," Boykin says. One way to do that is saying something sympathetic, like, "That sounds like that's really hard for you," without adding additional commentary. But that may not be enough.
"Really assess if they're complaining about something you can relate to," Boykin says. For example, if your mom is upset because she feels like your grandma isn't appreciative of her help, think of a time when you and your mom worked through a similar issue. Or, if it's a problem that your parent tends to bring up often, mention the last time you recall this happening and what they did to resolve things. "That can be another way to let them know you hear them, without letting it turn into a place for them to just vent and, frankly, dish about your grandma or grandpa — nobody wants that."
You can hear some of those things and be empathetic, but also let them know where the line is for you — and that's different for everybody.
Esther Boykin, LMFT
You might still be discovering how to have an adult relationship with your parents, Boykin says. While you'd gladly debate politics or discuss your job with your with them, when the topic of conversation is your own grandparent, it puts you in the middle of their drama. And that can feel uncomfortable, especially if you're close to your grandparents, too. This can be a good time to practice what Boykin calls "courageous conversations."
Be concise and direct and say something like, "I know this is really hard for you, but when we talk about it, it brings up weird feelings for me." Then you can segue into what it is you want. For example, "I'd like it if we talked less about what's not working between you and your parents, because it's uncomfortable for me."
"Ideally, that should be enough for your parent to sort of recognize that they're crossing boundaries, and back off," Boykin says. But this strategy may not work for everyone, in which case you might want to draw a firmer line. You could suggest that they call someone else next time they need to talk, such as their sibling or friend, or even that they seek emotional support from a professional, Boykin says.
If they're resistant, you could point out someone they know and admire who also goes to therapy, Boykin says. And maybe that's you. "If you went and found it useful when dealing with a relationship or family issue, maybe they want to try it, too?" In other words: The student becomes the master. And isn't that all any parent wants?