Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not Taking the Bait in Family Discussions

When adult children complain to their parents about how the parents are repetitively engaging in invalidating, hateful, critical, demanding, and or abusive behavior towards them, the elder family members have almost always developed a number of ways to get them to shut the hell up. Often these ways include dismissing the adult children's complaints by accusing their progeny of being:

A) Little snowflakes (to use the current trendy term) who are overly-sensitive, weak, selfish, unable to take a little good natured teasing, or "high maintenance."


B) Stupid - reading things into what the parents are saying that are not really there.


C) Pathological -making things up that did not even happen or twisting the meaning of everything the parents says to unfairly shift the blame for the child's problem onto the poor, put-upon parents.

Unfortunately, in many of today's psychotherapy models, many therapists seems to agree with the parents that the adult child's problems are all in their heads and are not, in fact, due to their having being traumatized or understandably upset by dysfunctional or abusive family relationships.  

And of course, as readers of my blogs know, if parents act as if they expect  their children to act in weak, stupid, or pathological ways, in response the children often do indeed start to act out exactly what they are being accused of doing. When dysfunctional family patterns include that phenomenon in addition to the problematic parental behavior mentioned at the top of the post, the situation is a bit more complicated to talk about and will not be discussed further here.

To solve the problems, the adult children have to find a way to not shut the hell up, but to constructively push the conversation forward in order to put a stop to the problematic patterns. (I'm currently under contract for and working on a self-help book for New Harbinger publishers that discusses in great detail a large number of different strategies for achieving this goal).

This post will discuss one countermove to use when you are being accused of A, B, and/or C above that is often successful in disarming the parents and pushing the conversation onward. Of course, no strategy works with all families, or even all the time within any one family. But this one increases the odds of productive conversations when adult children bring up the complaints mentioned in the first paragraph of the post.

The strategy is based on a premise that was described beautifully and concisely by my colleague Dr. Jami Woods. She said, "You can't be pulled into a game of tug-of-war if you don't pick up the rope."

In this case, the accusations by the parents are bait. They want you to take it. You are being baited into becoming angry or defensive. Once that happens, constructive conversations immediately end in fight, flight, or freeze responses. No problems get solved then. Do not take the bait!

So how to avoid doing so?

Let's say you tell your parents that their demands are getting on your nerves because no matter how much you do, it never seems to be enough for them, and that that they seem to ignore the fact that you have other things to do and cannot just drop everything at a moment's notice to do things for them. Say they respond by telling that you are grossly exaggerating how much they ask of you, and that you ought to be happy to take the time to help them out. They add that you are being ungrateful. Just think of all the sacrifices they had to make for you when you were growing up!

How not to respond:

A) Argue with them about the frequency or reasonableness of their requests, or how much they sacrificed for you as a child.

B) Attack them and tell them they are insensitive, overly-critical clods.

C) Defend yourself by pointing out that your life is busy and of course you cannot always just drop everything to come over and do something for them.

D) Explain in detail your feelings and go on and on about how those feelings are justified.

E). Scold them or lecture them about etiquette and the proper relationship between adult children and their parents.

The basic form of the recommended response:

"Well, maybe so, Dad, but I am finding this situation to be a big problem. Do you think you could help me out by checking with me first about when it would be convenient for me to come over to help you?"

This sort of response is basically a refusal to argue about the merits of your personality characteristics, but trying instead to make a relationship better. In doing this, you are neither agreeing nor disagreeing with their characterization of you. It might be accurate, partially accurate, or complete wrong. Who's to say, really? That isn't the point. The point is how you are reacting to them when they do something, not whether your reactions are justified or not. They should want to know that so that everyone can, to quote Rodney King, just get along.

Surely they'd prefer a pleasant relationships to an unpleasant one. I know that it often looks as if this is not the case, but nonetheless, I advise that you give them the benefit of the doubt. 


  1. Isn't it a little nuts to expect an adult child, presumably in therapy, to expect their untreated parents to comply with and, more importantly, understand how destructive and pathological the parents' behavior has been? At best the parents will cease their behavior, but whatever pathologies existed in the parents in the first place will remain, making a real relationship damned near impossible? I suppose if an adult child is required to interact with their parents by absolute necessity, then behavior modification might be warranted, but as a long term relationship solution, it just seems an inevitable failure.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      It's not adult children's job to "fix" the parents - which ironically is often what they have been trying to do their whole lives, self-destructively, by going along with the parents' seeming program.

      However, they do have the power to fix their relationship with each parent, which then allows them to STOP trying to fix them, and to self-actualize.

      It usually takes several strategic moves, not just one like the one described in this post. It's not easy. They also have to plan for inevitable relapses into old patterns.

    2. I'm someone who deals with this life circumstance everyday.
      It's the most heartbreaking thing to read about your life and the advice you most seek this way.
      I'm 20 and I've been self aware for over 6 years about this, not able to break out of these patterns.
      Is there more literature on the theme of this specific article?
      I cannot tell you how much I relate to this and am desperate to get help.

    3. My self help book that deals with this extensively is not out:

  2. I was just very impressed and taken aback by your article on splitting and how psychoanalytic theory has defined it as an Eco deficit. I was somebody who is dealing with a very fervent domestic violence threshold of attachment based model of "Parental alienation" as specified in foundations, I realized one thing about the world generally. I believe that I am an "empath" with ADD, and I've always known that I care and I'm empathetic and socially invested. I'm the "Diplomat" of the Big 5 test. I've been passionate about Psychiatry neurology sociology sociobiology everything to do with humanities but I believe that with my ADHD I have a skill of really being able to accept ambiguous thoughts and ideas. ( I wrote too much so this is part 1 of likely 4 or 5, cathartic for me in the moment and I don't mind if nobody reads it I'm just putting it out there and that makes me feel good )

  3. That being said, I think that the entirety of Psychiatry and psychology and psychoanalysis is all splitting. Everyone says that this theory is that and that this theory is this and this is the way it is and it is cut and dry. Correct me if I'm wrong but is The Big Bang Theory and evolution and phenomenons and our relation to meanderthals and everything else to do with everything really that formulaic? I definitely free with many of the things you said in that article but what I did note is that even with your points being very valid they speak to the idea of the cut and dry Theory. People used to argue both nature and nurture and I think that human psychology as well as cultural construct forces us to split as you have said in your article. But I think that it's also very pervasive in the very study of the splitting because you have defined it as one way and that the other way is not informed or Fair. But everything is meaningless anyway and phenomenons happen and evolution has many mutations and everything is very complex. I think the first thing that needs to happen is that we need to have much less of a boundary between a lot disorders that overlaps in neurology psychology psychiatry developmental growth emotionality, internal working models and schemas, learned behavior, personal experiences, traumas, illnesses like meningitis and childhood and pathogens of the psyche or even simple influenza and of course genetics. Of course there are multitude of other factors and experiences and Dynamics that matter. I've realized that we in our society do the splitting thing collectively individually and privately. When we look at abuse of relationships we label them as bad. But while you're in that relationship it never feels that way and I maybe I'm speaking for myself however, I don't see it the same way.