Mom, we don't need to talk about things that aren't relevant anymore
July 21, 2009 5:44 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with times when family mention things from the past in conversation?

I am an upper-level undergrad. I am currently visiting my folks.

I have had, in the past, bad shit happen to me. Some of it common, some of it less common.

My parents have a bad tendency to rehash things from my past which I have already resolved and put behind me. I frequently tell them that they don't need to mention things that aren't relevant to the present, particularly because sometimes I don't want to be reminded of them, and they KNOW there are a handful of things I don't want to be reminded of, but they do it anyway, and I don't know why.

Please hope me, hive mind.
posted by kldickson to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You can always leave the conversation if they bring that stuff up. If you've been crystal clear about the fact that you don't want to discuss these things and why, then you shouldn't have to listen to it when they talk about it. Sooner or later they'll get the picture that you are not going to engage them in those lines of discussion.
posted by easy_being_green at 5:47 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it were me and they brought up something that they knew I didn't want brought up, I'd just up and leave the house after calmly stating why I was leaving.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:48 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

We could help more if we knew the things - their reasons for bringing things up and your tactics for redirecting the conversations would depend on the nature of the topic.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:50 PM on July 21, 2009

Two options:

#1: Be straightforward and honest, in the moment, and set the boundary: they bring it up, say "I really don't like talking about that; I've put it behind me, and I hope you will, too." If they continue talking about it, leave the room. If they follow you to the next room, leave the house for a few hours. Rinse, repeat. Then, before the next visit, state explicitly that you will not tolerate discussion of those topics, and if they bring them up, you're leaving and going back home -- and do it.

This has worked successfully for my wife with her dad (re: politics) and her mom (re: my wife's weight); we only had to walk out on her dad once, and we never had to walk out on her mom. We still have an excellent relationship with both.

#2: Give what you get: if you have stories that they find unpleasant or embarrassing, bring them up immediately, every time they so much as hint at yours. I personally don't enjoy this approach, and prefer being straightforward, but your family dynamic might work better if your family is made up of the kind of thing who respond to "please stop punching me" by punching you harder.
posted by davejay at 5:50 PM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

"i'd rather not be part of a discussion about X"
family continues to push the topic
"i've already asked to not be a part of discussion about X, please respect me enough to change the topic."
family continues to push the topic
"i was having a really lovely time, however i feel like i'm not being heard. i'm going out for a while. hopefully we can discuss more current things when i return."

next time it happens, ask for a topic change once and then leave.
posted by nadawi at 5:52 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

...but your family dynamic might work better if your family is made up of the kind of thing who respond to "please stop punching me" by punching you harder.

That may be the most fucked-up sentence fragment I've ever written. Let's try that again:

...but your family might respond better to this approach, if your family is made up of the kind of people who respond to "please stop punching me" by punching even harder.
posted by davejay at 5:54 PM on July 21, 2009

My mother does this. It helps to remember that when they do this sort of stuff, espcially if it's in public, that they look really creepyweird by doing it. For a while it really bothered me "Oh man my Mom is bringing up THAT, jesus fuck I'm embarassed" but then at some point realized, through conversations with other people in the area, that it reflected much worse on her than on me, that she was embarassing herself. I'm also anti-drama and I see my family rarely enough that I can basically make this a semi-enforceable aspect of my spending time with them. The real trick is to sort of not become part of the cycle that goes something like this

Mom: says something embarassing
Me or You: please don't keep bringing that up
Mom: What's the matter... you're just sensitive. And it's relevant to this conversation because of bla bla bla [keeps talking about it]
Me or You: Seriously I'd like to talk about something else.
Mom: You seem to have some sort of problem with this, what's the matter? [keeps talking about it]
Me or You: *fumes* *tries to change subject*

I do something like this

Mom: says something embarassing
Me or You: I've asked you politely to please not bring that up. Please don't bring that up.
Mom: What's the matter... you're just sensitive. And it's relevant to this conversation because of bla bla bla [keeps talking about it]
Me or You: If you bring that up again, I will leave
Mom: You seem to have some sort of problem with this, what's the matter? [keeps talking about it]
Me or You: *leaves*

Repeat until they get the picture or until your time with them is over.

At some point, if your parents are behaving inappropriately in this sort of way, you have to try hard to not care that they think you're a sensitive pain in the ass if you react to it in some sort of way. This means that you can state your boundaries and otherwise not engage. It doesn't matter what the thing is (unless your parents maybe need to talk to you about this for some reason), you have a right not to talk about it and you don't have to give a reason other than "I'd prefer not to" or if you must "That makes me unhappy and I'd like to have a nice time" or something bland.

Adults (in my world, on my planet) don't treat adults like this and I don't want to spend time with my folks playing weird dominance and power games, so I walk. And then,m I get over it. I can't change them [insert AA or Buddhist mantras here] but I can change my reactions to them and that's what I try to do.
posted by jessamyn at 5:55 PM on July 21, 2009 [20 favorites]

By the way, you may have noticed that (a) most of the people commenting so far have recommended the same approach, and (b) it resembles the type of boundary setting approach that works particularly well with toddlers. I say this as a parent: parents and children often have a relationship in which boundaries must be clear and firm, to an extreme. After all, children start off with no understanding of boundaries (because they are children) and parents start off with no understanding of boundaries with their children (because they birthed them and supported them and changed their diapers.)
posted by davejay at 5:58 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

They're getting, or think they're getting, something out of mentioning these things to you. I don't know if it's your reaction or some illusion of how essential they are. You need to figure out what this is.

"You know mentioning these things bothers me. What I want to know is why you appear to feel compelled to repeatedly do it in spite of this. I'm ready to talk with you about this stuff, but absent this sort of honest discussion, I'm simply going to reserve the right to change the subject, launch into an oratory on the virtues of my favorite personal lube, or leave when you do this."

If they can articulate this, you can respond. If they can't, I think jessamyn's got the right idea.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:07 PM on July 21, 2009

Response by poster: jessamyn, when does the next shuttle to your planet leave?
posted by kldickson at 6:10 PM on July 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

I'll take a stab without knowing what general sorts of things happened to you, because your title is probably not a good tactic. Quick story - my sister was in a terrible accident a few years ago - she's completely OK now, but she could have died. The corollary to that is we could have lost her. It happened to her, but it also "happened" to the family, and was significant for everyone... and my mother talks about it a lot. So if this bugged my sister - she could say, don't talk about that because it embarrasses me, or because it upsets me to remember that time, or because it makes me anxious about my future health.... but to say that "we don't need to talk about things that aren't relevant" wouldn't be helpful or true. That experience is relevant to my mom, and she clearly does need to talk about it. So I think before you employ the sorts of Walking Out or Hanging Up kinds of (helpful) tactics above, it's more fair and reasonable to at least give your parents a shot at understanding you by explaining your reasons for wanting to avoid the topic(s) - which can include acknowledging their reasons for continuing to dwell.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:12 PM on July 21, 2009

Yeah, been there. Parent in question liked bringing it up in the car, that is, a situation in which I am trapped like a rat and cannot just leave. At one point I finally said, "I have asked nicely, several times now. The next time you bring that up, I am going to make a horrible noise, no matter who is around." This was ignored.

A few weeks later, it was brought up ... well, I am capable of making this loud, awful, ragged sound which will cause dogs, small children, and lampposts to flinch; the spectral analysis of its frequencies probably looks like a giant middle finger. It sounds like what I imagine the noise a pterodactyl with its genitalia caught in a thresher might make. I make the noise without hesitation.

Never brought up again.

When you're dealing with the rude, one approach is to show that you can be more obnoxious; when you are dealing with people who are so habituated to whatever pattern of behavior (like parents ignoring their kids), a short, sudden shock can snap them out of their trance. This accomplishes both. Develop your own unique and personal Screech of Response.

I'm a big fan of operant conditioning, even if I do tend to apply it with a sledgehammer.
posted by adipocere at 6:32 PM on July 21, 2009 [19 favorites]

I firmly believe that it is important to be respectful to my mother. There is one subject she brings up that I cannot tolerate. When she brings it up, I pretend to listen and then immediately change the subject. I don't really listen at all, and I never comment on it, not ever. I honestly don't think she has ever noticed my reaction. It makes the situations where she brings up this subject far and few between because it garners no attention whatsoever.
posted by inkyr2 at 6:48 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think the walk-out advice given above is great, but I wanted to stress the importance of your demeanor in implementing it.

You should say you're going to leave calmly, lightly, even gently -- "Mom, I'll talk to you in a little bit, 'kay?" -- so that it's not a storm-out, but a walk-out. If your mom is accustomed to getting into a big blowout fight with you over this stuff, that is what's satisfying to her, and that's what she's going for when she brings it up. So a huffy storming-out-of-the-house-and-slamming-the-door ending might actually give her the same little hit of satisfaction that she gets when you yell about it.

It's also why I'm not sure that davejay's second strategy would work -- hitting back with nasty stuff about her. The kind of family members who do this would relish a big ol' blowout like that.
posted by palliser at 6:53 PM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Everyone has already given spot on advice. I'd just say that I now want adipocere to post a mp3 of this noise. Just in case anyone needs to replicate it.
posted by canine epigram at 6:54 PM on July 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

I only had to actually leave my parents' house once when I was college-age from them talking about something I had told them not to talk about. As others have described, I just said, "Dad, I told you I wouldn't stay if you kept making comments about my weight or what I chose to eat. I'm going to go now; I'll talk to you later." I said it calmly, and didn't bring it up again, was perfectly nice on the next visit.

One time. 20+ years later he's never mentioned it again.

Some families may require more training than this, but it really does seem to be the way to make people see that you are serious.
posted by not that girl at 7:02 PM on July 21, 2009

You don't mention whether you have siblings. If so, your parents might not have yet learned your individual boundaries - after all, they've been imposing their own on you for a couple of decades.

You do need to teach your parents where your boundaries lie, and be willing to acknowledge that they may be different to those of your siblings. My eldest daughter hates any suggestion that she was a less than perfect teenager and so we focus on what's happening in her life now and her future plans and don't discuss her youthful indiscretions. By contrast, her younger sister will happily dine out on tales of her own teenage rebellion and quite often starts the "remember that time when I..." conversations in front of others. Their boundaries are very different, but equally worthy of respect.

I'd have one shot - and one shot only - at the "your behaviour when I visit makes me uncomfortable enough that I no longer want to spend time with you" conversation. We teach people how to treat us, and you may need to disengage for a while in order to teach your parents how to respect your adult boundaries. Life's to short to spend it with people who make us feel diminished and disrespected, family or not.
posted by Lolie at 7:03 PM on July 21, 2009

No one can do a don't. People should learn this from dealing with children: Never tell someone to not do something. Not-doing is impossible. So give the person you're dealing with a positive, substantial thing to do.

Yes, change the subject. You can just do so and force the conversation elsewhere. Or you can say: "I want to talk about better things. Listen: This really happened to me the other day ..." and then off you go.

Or say: "But look at us. We're doing better now. And mom, you look happy. Tell me what you're doing." Even if it's cheese and it's untrue. Try it.

If you want to make the pronouncement, make a phone call and say in advance: "Listen, I'm working on this promise to myself to stick to positive things, and talk about the good things that are happening now. Can you help me try that this weekend. I have a lot I'd like to talk about."

You do have things you'd like to talk about, don't you? Work on it.
posted by argybarg at 9:01 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

particularly because sometimes I don't want to be reminded of them, and they KNOW there are a handful of things I don't want to be reminded of, but they do it anyway, and I don't know why?

Promise me that for the rest of your life you will not stop thinking about how these things have shaped you.

Get more comfortable with what happened. Whatever happened back there, you need to interact with your feelings and reactions to it that are going on now.

Its my experience that people walk around with a lot of scar tissue from stuff they subconsciously decided they were going to cope with by ignoring it. Usually its the only way to get through the moment when that stuff happens. Eventually, however, you have to deal with it. It may be that your annoyance with these things coming up is an arrow that points to unresolved and painful feelings about those things that happened back there.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:13 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

How about being glad they're talking about things that actually happened?

Seriously, I have to remove myself when it gets out of hand. Which can be difficult if we are all far from home and it's cold outside, but that's how it is.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:25 PM on July 21, 2009

They want you to acknowledge the pain you have caused them. Not just that you have put "it" behind you but that you also are adult enough to realize that your actions have affected them also.

Therefore, I'd like to throw out a totally opposite point of view than what has been posted here. SOMETIMES people/parents bring things up when they do not feel that their point of view has been truly understood. For example, if you were a druggie (not saying you were) your parents might be bringing that up because they want you to understand how hard that was on THEM. And if you haven't acknowledged whatever pain they are feeling in an AUTHENTIC manner, then that might be one of the reasons they keep bringing it up. You need to think about it as the difference between someone SNEERING "I'm sorry" vs. an open-hearted, tender "I'm sorry." Does that make sense?

Now, if none of this is applicable, I understand, but honestly most of the time things get brought up because there is not final resolution for the party that is bringing it up.

I would highly recommend getting to the root of the problem. Walking out of the conversation does not do this. I would try something like...

"You must be really hurt to still be bringing that up. I'd like to hear how my actions were hard on you so I can get an outside point of view."

Then, JUST LISTEN WITHOUT BEING DEFENSIVE. If you are so inclined, you can apologize, or even just thank them for telling you what they were thinking/ feeling, etc.

This is the most mature thing you can do.*

*Again, please remember that my entire post depends on what your specific situation is. I'm simply saying that sometimes others need our help to put it behind them. Now, if you have tried this or once you try this the same thing keeps happening, well...then, I agree with the others: time to walk out; however, you really need to get to the root cause first.

Best of luck to you!
posted by hollygirl at 9:59 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

I gotta be honest here and say that given your question history on this site, some of what your parents are saying might actually not be nagging, but relevant to your life choices. You are roughly 21 years old, if I recall correctly, yet your question reads as if you are much older. You are still forming life experiences that are shaping you and likely your parents want to have a hand in that. That doesn't mean that parents can't be overbearing because they sure can, but given the information you've previously supplied about your relationship with your parents and the decisions you have made (or tried to make), I can understand how they may in fact be trying to guide you here as opposed to attempting to quash your feelings or independence.
posted by December at 10:09 PM on July 21, 2009

Response by poster: I'll be a little more specific about what kinds of things are being talked about.

Some of these things were things that happened when I was very young (ages 6-9), and I managed to work through those things.

Some of these things were totally innocuous, but are from periods in my life I'd rather not be reminded too much of because of how much I hated those periods in my life.

And some of these things were things which were more recent and more painful and which I'd really just rather not be reminded of.

I am cognizant of how these experiences have influenced my outlook on life; I have not forgotten them, of course, but prefer to keep them mentally categorized as 'solved problems and solidly in the past' and, to use an analogy, not dredge them up out of the benthic zone. My pre-age-of-18 past is one I prefer to detach from, and ever since starting college I have done much to sever whatever connections to it I have felt it necessary to sever.

Whatever problems I had about some of these things, whatever horrid emotions, have been resolved; it is a pain in the ass when someone attempts to reopen long-healed skin, if it used to have a wound.

(My reluctance to discuss these occurrences more specifically stems from the fact that 1) I'm not sure how relevant the nature of the occurrence is and 2) mentioning them really feels like rehashing it again and again, which I don't want to do.)
posted by kldickson at 11:01 PM on July 21, 2009

Well, here's one thought: You talk about your "pre-age-of-18 past"; I'm guessing that's about when you moved out of home to go to college / whatever.

Consider this: for your parents, your "pre-age-of-18 past" forms almost the entirety of what they know about you. They were immersed in you from age 0 - 18; they have much less intimate knowledge of you from age 18+.

They don't know how else to talk about you in the here & now, except by using your "pre-age-of-18 past" as a bridge to the "you, now".

This is what parents do. It's not something that you can turn off all at once; at least not without much potential for tears and recriminations all-round. It happens gradually, with different aspects happening at different stages. It's taken my father the last 20+ years to come to the realisation that I'm his equal in experience, knowledge, and understanding, and for him to stop trying to connect with me via things that happened before I moved out of home at 19.

You're trying to draw a line, a wall between then and now - but they don't know how to talk to you about now without the reference point of the then.

Now, how you go about getting them to better know the you/now depends a lot on the particular dynamic between you all, and how much you want to distance yourself from the you/then. And that can't be answered by anybody - except you and them.
posted by Pinback at 1:22 AM on July 22, 2009 [6 favorites]

There was a somewhat similar question recently, with some answers you might find helpful. You don't mention if there's a lot of passive aggression and casual cruelty in your situation, as there appeared to be for the anonymous asker, but the ideas on how to deal with unpleasant, repetitive conversations are still good ones, I think.
posted by elizardbits at 5:55 AM on July 22, 2009

Ignoring things and putting up barriers rarely makes them go away.
posted by gjc at 6:01 AM on July 22, 2009

I am in a weird situation, recently which is kind of relevant to this. My parents had a pretty unhealthy marriage, during which my dad had an affair and a daughter, which my parents then colluded to keep a secret from my brother and myself for a number of years. A few years after their divorce, my dad finally confessed to me the existence of my sister, and since that time, it's rarely been discussed.

Since their divorce, my mother has a really unpleasent habit of saying off-handed nasty things about my father and his parents. I have repeatedly asked her not to do that, but she insists. I found the best way to deal with it, as Jessamyn said, was to simply leave when she does this.

However, this technique has come back to bite me in the ass, because I have recently developed a curiosity about my sister and why she was kept secret, how and why things happened the way they did, and she is using the very same technique on me. So I decided to flip my approach. Now whenever she brings something unpleasent, or unfair up to me, I try and be as transparent and patient as I can. I try to give her any information she may want and listen to her opinions on my dad and grandparents and disagree as respectfully and calmly as I can, so that the next time she shuts me down when asking about my sister, I can point to having been as open and honest as I can be.

Communication with your parents, especially when it's about something sensitive, is at best difficult and unpleasent. However, I am finding that dealing with it is necessary if you want them to reciprocate when you have questions that may not be easy for them to answer. If you don't feel the need, then I would suggest continuing on the tack Jessamyn suggested.
posted by orville sash at 7:21 AM on July 22, 2009

I just went through this on a visit to my grandparents.

I had to go to the bathroom a lot in the middle of conversations.
posted by desjardins at 7:22 AM on July 22, 2009

What Jessamyn said. Here's my implementation:

Mom: Blah, blah, embarrassing/innappropriate/inaccurate/obnoxious story
T55: I hate that story. It makes me feel bad when you tell it.
Mom: Blah, blah, hah, hah, it's really a good story
Me: leaves room/house/town, depending

Over time, a couple of things happened. One sibling noticed my reaction to a particularly innappropriate and hurtful story, and whenever it came up, and it always came up, piled on and either changed the subject or supported me. The punchline of the story ends up making my Mom look kind of like a jerk, and we started adding to the ending to make it less mean. In your case you could start saying "I know you're really happy that I got past that event; How can we get you past it?" because maybe they really haven't.

My Mom eventually stopped telling certain stories because the audience vanished.

I leaned to change the subject. One day, we were all tired and stressed from helping Mom move, and she started launching into a diatribe. It was not going to be pretty. I quite randomly asked "So, what kind of curtains are you going to put in here?" My siblings looked at me like I was nuts, but my Mom started talking about curtains, and the diatribe didn't happen. Visiting the folks? Have a few conversation-derailing topics in your emergency kit. When they bring up unfortunate topics "oh, you know I'm so done talking about that. What did you think of Aunt Marla's date? Didja see the tattoos?"
posted by theora55 at 8:58 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

OK this is one of those rare situations where I will depart from my normal "treat everyone around you with respect and assume the best" stance and say:

Train them. Like cats. With that sharp hissing noise you make at kitties when they are being bad.

Mom: Blah, blah and then this one time, when T55 was at band...
T55: Tzzzz
Mom: But it's...
Me: Tzzz!

Point and shake your finger at the same time, and use a spray bottle if needed.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:46 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

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