Freedom to Not Care
June 8, 2011 3:49 PM   Subscribe

My parents' comments can bother me for days. I'm looking for ways to not allow their attitudes, beliefs, and comments affect me.

My parents can be jerks sometimes. They are mostly respectful of my feelings and don't say offensive things around me because they know it upsets me. Sometimes they can't help themselves and they'll say something racist, not overtly racist, but it reeks of racism. They'll often make deragatory comments about the political party I belong to. Or, they'll make a comment or a dig about one of my children, in a jokey way but it upsets me. I can end up seething for days.

I know my seeting and bitter feelings are unproductive. I can't change their beliefs or opinions. I dislike when my father seethes and becomes upset by the things he can't change (entitlement programs, differing political opinions, current president) but I'm being just like him. They are my parents and I want them to behave like mature adults, however they let me down again and again. I'm an adult and they are human. I'm nearly 40-years-old and what they say and do can really get under my skin. How can I stop caring? To add to the dysfunctionality they still treat me like a child sometimes and my father was abusive growin up. I find myself talking to myself and saying things like, "I'm not going to talk to those assholes ever again" or "I hate their guts." I will not cut them off. I know they love me and would be devestated if we didn't have a relationship. Their transgressions are not worthy of a cut-off. My anxiety would only increase if I didn't have a realtionship with them. I only see them once a week, or once every two weeks, since we live in the same city.

How can I stop caring what they say and do? My sister has the ability to let their comments run off her back. When I'm complaining about them or ruminating over something they have said or done, my sister is somewhat shocked and finds it odd I'm letting a comment affect me in such a way.

Any wisdom or advice appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Won't cut them off? You're going to hear over and over again in this thread that they won't change. After all, they've made it THIS far, why should THEY change for YOU? One day your kids may feel the same (or not. Break the cycle.)

They're walking around thinking you're an idiot (they don't really think this - they just think you don't have the perspective/understanding they have). You're listening to them tell you that you're an idiot (which they don't mean.)

Lessen the value. Understand that they'll say 'stuff.' Just consider everything they say as if it was coming from the mouths of crazy people. Insane people. Who just happened to raise you.

When you remind yourself of their lack of basis in reality (or your reality) you can even say - "wow, not really interested in your opinion on this topic, thanks."

They'll argue, but essentially, you're shutting them down both externally (not interested, thanks) and internally (they're misinformed crazy people!)
posted by filmgeek at 4:03 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't want a full cut-off, but have you considered a situational cut-off? Each time something hurtful 'slips out' - calmly say something like "I don't appreciate that comment. See you later." And then leave. Keep it unemotional as much as possible, and don't get drawn into an argument about it, but remove yourself from the situation. On your side, it makes it easier to handle because you're immediately away from that nonsense. On their side, you're training them to think a bit more about what they say, and letting them know that if they value their relationship with you they have a clear way to make it work.
posted by Paragon at 4:16 PM on June 8, 2011 [20 favorites]

They are my parents and I want them to behave like mature adults, however they let me down again and again. I'm an adult and they are human. I'm nearly 40-years-old and what they say and do can really get under my skin. How can I stop caring?. . .and my father was abusive growin up.

That, right there, your father being abusive? That is worthy of a cut-off. And there is no reason to expose your children to him. Please try and remember how you felt as a child being mistreated (whatever it was) and take steps to ensure your children remain safe.
posted by mlis at 4:23 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Think about the sort of comments that you find unacceptable. Derogatory comments about your political party - probably something you can live with. Derogatory comments about your kids, or racist comments (especially in front of your kids) - utterly unacceptable (in my opinion - you will have your own definition of what is and isn't unacceptable). Think about why you find the comments unacceptable though. Come up with an objective reason, rather than just "because they upset me" - why do they upset you? Then when they make those comments again, tell them that they are out of line. In a clear, calm, controlled, non-emotional way. Don't get into an argument about it. Then change the topic - "so, have you heard from Aunt Maureen lately?" / "How are the spare bedroom renovations going?". You can't change their opinions, but you can change their behaviour around you and your family.

It isn't easy to not care about the opinions of people that you care about. How has your sister done it? Might be worth having a chat with her - she might have some useful tips!

I have a similar relationship with my mother and a couple of things that have helped me have been reducing contact (not cutting her off), and keeping the conversation to safe topics (i.e. topics that I don't have an emotional interest in - basically I don't tell her very much about my life at all, as that just leads to criticism!). It's taken a few years but she's learned that when she avoids being judgmental and moralistic, we have a better time together. And that when she does overstep the mark, I tell her. The more I set and stick to boundaries in our relationship (even though the boundaries are all in my head, I've never sat her down and told her what is and isn't acceptable to me), the less she oversteps them, but more importantly, the less I care if she does.

The clearer the line is between acceptable and not acceptable, in my head, the less it affects me if she's over the line. Because I can tell myself that she's made an unacceptable comment, and that's not my problem, it's hers, and that's based on a decision I made earlier, rather than an emotional response at the time.

Good luck.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:25 PM on June 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Imagine that your parents are characters in a movie that you can view with detached interest. This might help you see that their appalling behavior really can't affect you and make it easier for you to walk away when they become intolerable.

People are capable of change, especially when they realize they're in danger of losing something precious. But, paradoxically, you have to be able to show them that they can't push your buttons anymore and that you are immune to their antics.
posted by tully_monster at 4:41 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can't change your parents. You have to accept that if you want not to care about what they say.

I put up an emotional wall where my Mom is concerned. I just won't let what she says get to me. If she makes stupid suggestions, I just listen and say okay and then ignore them. It takes practice, but it can be done.
posted by luckynerd at 4:42 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was raised in a very confusing way - my dad hates organized religion, my mom is a Mormon; my dad's side is on the Democrat/socialism (not used casually in this instance I assure you) side of the spectrum, my mom and stepdad on the Rush Limbaugh/Constitution party/Objectivism side. I was probably eight or nine years old the first time a person in authority over me said something I found hateful and wrong and incomprehensibly insensitive. Amongst my dad, mom, stepdad, and uncle, rarely do a few days go by without something mind-boggling and "crud, I hope no one notices they just said that" showing up on my Facebook page. I've had two this week so far.

The only strategy that has ever been effective in preserving the peace and my sanity is changing the subject and/or ignoring the inappropriate stuff. When someone gets into a real snit and won't drop things, and I can't escape, I might offer a "you're not living up to your own ideals with that statement" line or two, but the key is really to refuse to engage. I'm not 14 anymore, and no one has the power to decide not to drive me back to the bus station for the trip home or tell my dad I'm being rude and should be deprived of dessert or whatever.

It's also helpful to separate their behavior from the beliefs that they're expressing, and both of those things from their relationship with you. It helps me that I get just as many crazy pro-Rand and pro-Marx comments to deal with. But you can totally a) love a parent, b) disagree with them on some issues, and c) find their attitude and way of expressing their beliefs very frustrating. I'm usually in all three states with regard my dad, mom, and stepdad at all times.

I've noticed, also, that on the Facebook things, all the other people I know are happy to engage in the "he didn't say anything at all" game when something totally nuts is said. Which reminds me that any sensitivity/mortification I'm feeling is probably excessive given community standards.
posted by SMPA at 4:48 PM on June 8, 2011

A close friend went through this and the best advice she got was very similar to Paragon's. If you stop responding in a way that perpetuates the dynamic, you take control of YOUR part in it. You can't change them but you CAN control your part in it by momentarily removing yourself.

Whenever their behaviour is unacceptable, tell them that you're hanging up (or ending the visit) because you're offended. No drama and no lengthy explanation -just be gone and let them work through it. That's the only power you have, so use it.

They won't fundamentally change but they'll be more careful about what they say.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:50 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a close family member with opinions much like you describe (racist, politically opposite to me, judgmental etc). But we love each other and, underneath it all, he's a totally decent guy. We've managed to get along harmoniously for years by becoming very adept at changing the subject, quickly. We just skip over the opportunity to argue; anytime a touchy remark is made, the other person will say "new topic," and shift the conversation.

I wouldn't argue in favor of cutting off contact, assuming that there's no concern for possible abuse of your children. People do grow and change as they get older--my conservative, patriarchal, controlling father became a progressive feminist in his 80s and 90s. As long as everyone is safe, give your parents a chance to surprise you. It could be good training for your kids, learning to deal with people who have strange opinions and say hurtful things.
posted by Corvid at 4:57 PM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

It took me a long time to realize that when I reacted in a similar way to my parents' comments like these, it wasn't really about the content of the comment, but by what I was reading into it. A famous episode had me storming out of a restaurant on a family vacation in tears after a heated discussion about term limits of all things. Ridiculous! BUT, it was more that I felt like I was being told I was ignorant, and immature and all of the good things that had come from negative comments from my dad in particular in the past. Time, distance and other things have helped, and I can usually blow this stuff off now, but it took a long time and hard work.

The fact that there was abuse in your past relationship imbues these stupid comments with tons of other messages, whether your parents intend it or not and whether you intend to take it that way or not. It's absolutely understandable that negative comments toward your kids would be a sore spot, and even more given that you want to protect them from what you may have experienced.

You cannot change your parents, and they will continue to make these comments forever and ever. What is in your hands is how to respond and what boundaries you put in place to protect yourself and your family. Talking to a therapist may help you put your finger on those "hidden" messages or interpretations that you are responding to and can help you select how to respond. You can also absolutely make choices about where to draw the line with what you will allow. If they make comments about your kids, you are within your rights to say that your visit with them is over and leave. Even better if you can choose a calm moment before one of these episodes to say what these boundaries are (e.g., I'm bothered when you say ____ and if it happens when we're together with the kids, I'll need to leave.).

You can make this better for yourself. Take good care.
posted by goggie at 4:59 PM on June 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

they still treat me like a child

That sounds like contempt coming from them, especially their use of hostile humour. I can't think of anything more destructive to a relationship than contempt. And I also can't think of anything YOU can do to make the situation better unless they are willing to change their own behaviour; if someone is punching you in the face it doesn't really help you to suggest they kick you instead. They need to stop their abusive behaviour - they are the only ones than can control that behaviour. Unfortunately the only carrot and stick you have to offer is your contact and contact with your children. I agree with the others upthread though that point out as a parent your priority must be to your own children - they do not deserve to feel the way you felt growing up and the way you feel now.
posted by saucysault at 5:24 PM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

They talk shit about your kids? To your face?

And then...they tell you they're just kidding? That you should grow a thicker skin or whatever. Do they say shitty things about your kids to your kids? Are you sure they don't, or won't?

I might be willing to try to let things roll off my back if the remarks are about me, but about my (purely hypothetical) children - I'd do Paragon's technique: "I don't want to hear you talk that way about your own grandchildren," and then get up and go.
posted by rtha at 6:14 PM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I only see them once a week, or once every two weeks, since we live in the same city."

"Only?" That's a lot of contact. I think you need to get busier and less available. Let the parents see that you are in demand among friends and acquaintances.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:19 PM on June 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Ok, you need to take control of your life. You are letting them play the parent role and place you in the child role. Playing the child when you are all grown up is uncomfortable and depressing because it is infantilizing.; it removes all your achievements and growth and makes you doubt yourself. What you need is a game plan, which you should rehearse a little in your head (or role play with your spouse if you are comfortable doing so.)

1. Identify red button issues: these could be religion, your weight, the way you spend your money, how you are raising your children, and so forth; these are the issues that your parents use to belittle you and exert their control.

2. When you are with your parents be pleasant and courteous and really listen to what they have to say. In short give them some quality time.

3. If a contentious topic arises or your parents over step their boundaries, you give them one warning. "I'm sorry I can't discuss that with you." or "I'm sorry I can't listen to you criticize my children." If they continue to attack, punching your buttons, stop whatever you are doing and leave. Be a pleasant as possible, but firm.

4. When your parents ask you to visit again, remind them "I would love to see you but I can't discuss X with you." You don't have to tell them why or give an explanation, or apologize, just keep repeating "I'm sorry I can't discuss X with you." Only when they assure you that topic X will not arise do you promise to visit.

5. On your next visit continue to be pleasant and attentive but don't allow them to over step their boundaries. Remember you hold all the cards-- they want to see you and they want to see their grandchildren.

Hopefully by having a plan and by taking charge of your relationship your anxieties will be lessened. Just keep reminding yourself that the only reason they have this hold over you, the only reason they can make you feel so upset is because you let them.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:06 PM on June 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just ignore their comments. You only have one set of parents, and as flawed as they are, you are just as flawed. We all are. When you can tell that they are about do "it" again (and you know you can), simply excuse yourself or change the subject. It's simply not worth the trouble. You are of a different culture. You can spend years telling them to bite the wax tadpole, or you can be kind to the people who raised you by avoiding conflict.
posted by brownrd at 8:40 PM on June 8, 2011

Wow. I'm so sorry!

I have to say, I think this would be the perfect sort of problem to take to a therapist. The right person can help you see patterns, come up with coping strategies, and put things in perspective. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great tool.

I have a crazy parent. Our family therapist helped me learn to deal with some very practical suggestions. In my case, it was absolutely no use trying to encourage a change in his behavior. Instead I had to set boundaries and defend them. Dynamics changed when I had my first child, and we don't talk right now because he refused to honor expectations set by my husband and me for our own family. Many of the suggestions above assume that your parents will be influenced by things like getting to see the kids, or having time with you. I worry that those sorts of manipulations just amp up the controlling behavior in the relationship and make it worse. As parents, they wrote the original rule book for your family's games. It's pretty hard to win in that situation.

It's worth seeking professional help, believe me. You can't ever change them, all you can do is change your own response to their behavior, and a therapist can be very useful in analyzing and fine tuning your reactions. Good luck, I hope things improve.
posted by hms71 at 8:46 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

My relationship with my father used to drive me crazy in much the same way that you're describing your relationship with your folks (though thankfully, he was never abusive - just a garden variety shitty parent). And now? We get along fine. The one and only breakthrough that I can really credit with this was accepting that we will never agree on anything ever. It's amazing how even though this is true, we have an amicable relationship.

There was one real watershed moment when we were having an argument and I just simply said "Let's just stop, I'm not going to change your mind and you're not going to change mine." I had to repeat myself at least ten times, but eventually he let it go. It's become my strategy anytime something comes up that we used to argue about pointlessly: simply stating - very politely - "Ok, we're not talking about this anymore." And sticking to it.

I used to think if I could make him *see* that he was saying hurtful things that he'd stop. This was totally not true. The way to make him stop was to stop engaging.
posted by sonika at 3:30 AM on June 9, 2011

Or, they'll make a comment or a dig about one of my children, in a jokey way but it upsets me

I know they love me and would be devestated if we didn't have a relationship.

So here's something you can do. You can ask them to stop a behavior, and remove yourself from the situation if they won't. Then you can try again later. If they truly would be devastated to lose their relationship with you, they'll accept your terms.

Mom: [Jokey dig at Anon jr]
You: Don't talk about my child that way.
Mom: I was just joking. Geez!
You: I don't care if it was a joke or not, I don't want to hear that kind of comment about my child. Let's talk about [some other topic] instead.
Mom: [keeps going]
You: OK, I told you I'm not interested in talking about that. We'll visit again another time. Bye!

And then leave. You're not punishing her. You're not being petty. You're not cutting off the possibility of a relationship with her. You're telling her what behavior you will and won't put up with. That's your right as an adult and your responsibility as a parent--you don't just need to teach your kids what behavior you'll accept from them, you need to model appropriate expectations of others' behavior and appropriate, healthy reactions to others' bad behavior. I think that's actually something that trips a lot of people up as kids: they learn how to practice good behavior, but they don't learn healthy ways to deal with bad behavior from others, particularly loved ones and authority figures. There are many steps between total acquiescence and total estrangement. You need to find your place in the middle and see if your parents will meet you there.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:44 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder what it is you get out of hanging around them at all, if this is how they treat you.
What would you do if this were a friend, instead of your parents?

The most valuable advice I've been given is: You can't change another person. You can only change how you respond to them.

So, stop feeding the trolls, as it may be that they know these topics gall you and they enjoy seeing you rise to the bait. They bring up a topic you don't want to discuss? "I'm not interested in discussing this right now." They make a dig about your child? Look at them blankly. If changing the topic doesn't work, leave. Do not go back until asked to.

I used to interact with my mother much the same way. I'd keep going back to her even though I knew what she'd have to say on any subject would piss me off. When I finally grew up enough to realize that my parents are human and make mistakes just like me, their opinions mattered less and my mother's criticisms were easier to brush off.
posted by noxetlux at 7:59 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have to voice support for the strategy of removing yourself at the time of the offense. Although to all outward appearances nothing's different, it's astounding what a boost it is for one's psychological well-being to take such action on one's own behalf.

(Having similarly dunderheaded parents myself, I wish you luck. It's all about making your life easier when it comes to interactions with them.)
posted by PepperMax at 11:23 AM on June 10, 2011

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