OPINION: How to Navigate Strained Relationships with Parents

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Mother’s Day can be a joyous or painful day, as many children have strained relationships with their parents. Having a strained relationship can have many varying levels. They can be temporary or long-term, and the individuals involved can be on speaking terms or not in contact at all. They can arise from many different situations, from unrealistic demands, communication failures, not setting boundaries, rejection, abuse and so many more situations. It is very common for those transitioning from adolescence into adulthood to have some friction in their relationships with their parents. It can be uncharted territory for many parents to have a shift in dynamics with their children. For the children, it can also be difficult, as they are becoming self-sufficient and economically independent in many ways for the first time, and they are finding opinions and viewpoints separate from their parents. Leo Kiralla, a Psychology teacher at Bellevue College, said that “it is certainly normal to have a strained relationship with one’s parents and potentially could be healthy in the short term…[and] It’s essential to understand this situation with the context of both the individual and the family.”

The effects relationships have on our lives are crucial, especially those with our parents. They directly affect our mental health, and with parents, we tend to imitate the behavior we see in them, which can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the person and situation. As the relationship children have with their parents is the first one they build, parents can heavily influence the worldview, upbringing and interests of their children. Unhealthy relationships with parents can seep into other aspects of a child’s life. Kiralla described how “in various therapeutic modalities, we stress the need to allow for self-differentiation and to properly set boundaries in relationships. At times, relationships will thrive and find great harmony; at other times, these relationships will be strained. This can potentially be part of a developmental or individuation process; it can also be an important red flag for bigger problems.”

If the strain is caused by abuse or an unsafe environment, interventions are critical. The BC Counseling department is a great resource for handling different stressors, having a place to talk through issues and receiving help. They have many crisis resources, one specifically designed for aiding children being abused. In counseling, students can seek assistance for many issues, most pressing on this topic being all levels of abuse, relationship issues and life transitions. The BC counselors can also recommend outside resources for more long-term care. Students can also take classes such as Social Psychology (PSYC240); Lifespan Psychology (PSYC&200); Dating, Relationships and Families (SOC255); Cultural Anthropology (ANTH&206); and American Life and Culture (ANTH180), where they can learn more about what may be impacting their relationship with their parents. 

Thinking about repair can mean mending the relationship to a point you are comfortable or being able to find peace and closure in a relationship that is not serving you. Kiralla said that “rupture and repair are a necessary part of all relationships. At the heart of psychological health is the balancing of our sense of agency and our need for communion. Dr. Gabor Maté describes this as our drive for authenticity and our need for attachment.” There is no one-size-fits-all for repairing relationships. There are many different circumstances and factors that will impact how to go about repairing.

A good starting point would be creating time for both parties to share their experiences to better understand where the other is coming from. With these conversations, it is important to have reflective listening and to focus on “I” statements. For example, “I feel you do not listen to me” versus “you do not listen to me.”

Setting healthy boundaries can also be crucial in repairing relationships. This can range from voicing concerns over resentment to letting go of codependency and allowing space for your own identity. In this process, parents can affirm their love and support their children, and children can clarify their feelings, which will empower their voices. These conversations can be difficult, and it may be useful to bring in a licensed mental health professional who can model behaviors and communication skills for the parties to utilize. “When parents and children can engage in this way, there can be profound repairs and important developmental milestones. Ownership of feelings, forgiveness and empathy can catalyze important breakthroughs in mutual understanding,” said Kiralla.