Why don't you just grow up?

You're an adult, you decide your own bedtime - you've got a mortgage, for heaven's sake. So why do your parents still make you quake in your shoes? Eleanor Bailey on the child within

Regular sex, giving up smoking, getting a mortgage and no longer recognising a single character in Neighbours. By such benchmarks, do we attain adulthood. We pay our own bills, decide our own bedtime and are pleased with our status in the world. Until, that is, we return to the family home. Suddenly the finely honed professional image is in tatters. Your mother opens the door and declares that you are not eating enough. Meanwhile Dad is right behind shouting: "What time do you call this anyway?" You cower, you mumble, you quake. You are a child again.

How many of us could assert for Britain when we are at work, but are still secretly afraid of our parents? How many of us, smokers for 15 years, still suffer withdrawal pangs rather than face our parents finding out?

Rory, aged 32, still goes to weekly Sunday lunch because his overbearing mother insists and he's too frightened to say no. "In my working life I manage a team of people, I earn twice as much as my father ever did. I have been living with my girlfriend, Elaine, for six years yet I still can't stand up to my mother. It got a lot worse after my father died because I'm an only child and my mother just can't let go. She wants to have grandchildren but part of me is against the idea because I know she'll be awful. It sounds ridiculous but she is still disappointed that I gave up acting at the age of 14. She's never forgiven me for having a job in the financial sector. And I can't seem to prevent myself from feeling ashamed for having `let her down'.

``Every Sunday, Elaine and I dutifully visit her. I feel like a normal human being during the week and then on Sundays I'm there with my tail between my legs. Elaine says I change completely. Mother criticises me to my face and I just can't answer back, there's just no precedent for it. If I know I've got to tell her something that she won't like - anything from going on a `horrible foreign' holiday to the colour of our new wallpaper, I get stressed about it beforehand. I hate it when she's critical, she becomes so cold. So I go to great and futile lengths to try to avoid upsetting her.''

Mona Sachs, a family therapist, says: ``Many otherwise very successful people still pander to unreasonable parents. Adult children tolerate far worse behaviour from their parents than they would from anyone else because of the emotional involvement. They continue to seek their approval in adult life. There is an unwritten agreement between some parents and their adult children which says that the children must act like children in their presence and it is OK for the parents to terrorise them.''

The paradox is that adults who behave like children in front of their parents are less likely to cope well when their parents die. Dr Dorothy Rowe, a psychologist and author, says: ``A lot of people are devastated when a parent dies because they have never become independent. The relationship became stuck early on. Alternatively they become like a bullying parent in turn and start treating their parents like children, forcing them to sell their homes and give up their independence before it is strictly necessary.''

There is a traditional way of thinking that says that rule by fear creates successful adults. Indeed a lot of very successful people seem to have had domineering parents. Buster Keaton, who began his stage career as a small child helping his father out, would regularly be thrown through the scenery when he didn't get things right. Walt Disney suffered physical violence from his father throughout his childhood until he learned to fight. Once he overcame his father, the relationship changed and he was never afraid again. The result was, however, that he went on to be ruthlessly authoritarian in personal and public life.

``Bringing up children through fear can be the easiest way,'' says Dr Rowe. ``But it tends to engender one of two responses. Either children remain subservient and passive and never establish a relationship with their parents on an equal footing in adult life, or they go the other way and rebel. What we all need our mothers to say is `I love you merely because you exist'. With overly strict or distant parents, achievement is often part of the deal and so `children' retain the fear.''

Even if we don't fear our parents we all regress when we are back in the nest. Dignified adults find themselves squabbling over chocolate cake portions with their siblings out of habit. Often, also, we may want to curb our worst behaviours because different generations have different boundaries of acceptability. ``I don't swear in front of my parents,'' says Karen, aged 29, ``though I'll swear like a trooper on my own. Likewise I don't burp, put my shoes on the table or talk about brilliant orgasms I've had recently, all of which I will do quite happily in front of my friends. This isn't because I am afraid of my parents, it's just because I know it would be a big deal to them. It's respect rather than fear of punishment for being naughty.''

This isn't being dishonest says Mona Sachs. ``It is perfectly normal to display different sides of your character for different people. I'm not saying that you want to lie to your parents, but just because you can't share everything with your parents it doesn't mean that something is necessarily wrong. There can be healthy respect on both sides, which might mean that you don't smoke in front of your parents. There is only a problem when a parent can't let go of being a parent or, as happens, an adult child still feels the need of a parent-child relationship.'' So how do things change for the better? Well, when a bad relationship is entrenched, very often they don't.

``The day my father died, at the age of 90,'' says Margaret, who is 55, ``was the day I stopped being afraid of him. Even when he was old and frail he was still able to make me feel worthless and I would still run round after him like a slave girl.'' To improve relationships the grown- up child should take control and admit they don't have to accept the same lousy relationship that they've endured since childhood.

Sophie, aged 25, who is in publishing, found that years of fear of her father finally came to a head with the birth of her first child. ``My father had laid down an ultimatum. He said that if I didn't get married before I had my baby he would have nothing more to do with me. In the past I would have caved in through fear of the consequences but this time he had pushed it too far. I told him it was his loss and stormed out. I had never called his bluff before. But it worked. He ignored me for a few months and, during that time, I worried a bit but I also realised that my life didn't fall apart without him. Everything was fine and rather than me crawling back to him begging for forgiveness I left it until he got in touch with me on some spurious grounds. It occurred to me that he needed me more than I needed him.''

Dr Craig Newnes, a clinical psychologist, says that Sophie did the right thing. ``People feel very guilty about not seeing their parents, of threatening to cut off contact from their parents, particularly as they become older and frailer. But this guilt assumes that parents are decent people who deserve to be looked after. This is a general assumption that parents deserve gratitude and so we are terribly afraid of letting them down or hurting them. And so you get people in their seventies still terrified of their parents in their nineties. We have to learn to let go.''

Of course, it's not always authoritarian parents and cowering children. Very often, timid parents will incubate monster children. Remember the American parents who didn't get divorced until they were both more than 100, despite having loathed one another for most of their 80-year marriage? They were too afraid of their bossy children's disapproval and so suffered in silence until both the children were dead.


Adolescent or adult: what stage are you at with your parents?

Eternal child

1 Your mother always asks you if you're getting an early night.

2 Your parents have kept your bedroom as a shrine, right down to the David Cassidy poster.

3 They still shout at you.

4 They haven't accepted that you have sex.

Eternal adolescent

1 You tell your mother about your late nights to upset her.

2 They won't redecorate your bedroom - in case it tempts fate and you come back.

3 You still shout at your parents.

4 You can't accept that your parents have sex.

Fully integrated adult

1 Your mother and you stay out late together.

2 Your bedroom has been turned into an office.

3 You shout in unison about world injustice.

4 When your mother picks her condoms up from the doctor she swipes a load for you.

Coping with fear of parents

1 Learn to say no. You haven't got to be on call all the time.

2 You don't have to be eternally grateful to them for your existence.

3 You don't have to like your parents even if you choose to tolerate them.

4 Be realistic about how much you can change them and if necessary accept that they are not ever going to give you what you feel you want.

5 You don't have to turn into your parents - you are not a genetic timebomb.

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas