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
Sunday 09 June 1996
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.
HOW OLD ARE YOU?
Adolescent or adult: what stage are you at with your parents?
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.
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.
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