Returning to a stressful home environment during school breaks
December 29, 2013 8:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my early twenties. Whenever I come home during breaks in school, I find the atmosphere at home unbearably stressful. It's so bad that my sister (who is in college and also comes home for breaks) and I prefer to stay literally paralyzed with anxiety in bed all day or either leave the house for most of the day. It mostly boils down to the fact that we can get yelled at for almost anything we do. There is no way to win-- I will get yelled at or criticized or caught in some argument over the most ridiculous thing no matter what I do. Alternatively, I will have to watch my siblings get yelled at for something equally innocuous. My siblings and I walk on eggshells all day. It's exhausting. But I love my parents. I already don't see them very much and I just want to enjoy the time I have with them. How can I better do this? Any tips or strategies to reduce the stress?

I can get yelled at for sleeping too much, for saying the wrong thing, for eating the wrong way, or for staying out of the house too much (or not going out enough). I can get yelled at for making statements like, "I feel stressed...". It gets better when only one parent is around, but usually during holiday breaks, both parents are home. It was like this when I was in grade school too, but I dealt with it because it was the only home environment I knew growing up. My parents actually do like each other and care about each other, so it's not as if they're in the middle of a divorce or anything. My siblings and I are all really good kids-- we do well in school, help out around the house when we can, don't spend our parents' money, call our parents regularly-- so that's not an issue either.

I don't think I can change my parents at this point. They recognize that the way they act is problematic, but that's about as far as it has gotten (and this was after I explained it to them, which really wasn't easy in itself). I sometimes fend them off by saying that I have to be out of the house to get schoolwork done, or by trying to clean the house as much as possible to give my parents one less thing to yell at me for, but there has to be a better way, right?

I know a simple solution could be just to not come home during breaks, but at the same time, I love being home. I love my parents very much, and I get to see my siblings, relatives, my hometown friends, and it's a good time to reflect with my family. I miss my mom's cooking, and my house is still my home. Staying with other friends in my hometown over break isn't an option.

To make it very clear, my parents are not narcissistic/abusive parents -- they care very deeply about me and my siblings and would do absolutely anything to support us. My parents went through a lot in their childhoods and as immigrants, so I understand that is partly where they are coming from. I'm in therapy for other issues right now, so I could eventually get myself therapy for this, but I'm not ready to talk about my parents at length because I feel like it's rife for cultural misunderstandings-- I feel like anything I say could be stereotyped as a case of bad "tiger parenting" (which, it truly, truly isn't). (Here is an article that sort of describes how I feel about that issue -- ctrl+f "Western psychotherapist" to reach the relevant section).

Many thanks for your suggestions.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Human Relations (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, I understand how you feel about wanting to be home, but it is clearly not an environment that is going to help you feel better. Either limit your stays there or stay away entirely. Part of the problem is that you're in your 20s and are still allowing your parents to treat you like a child. That needs to stop if the relationship is ever to mature.
posted by xingcat at 8:14 PM on December 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

How far a distance are we talking about? I know a lot of people, myself included, who do not have trouble getting along with their parents so long as they are not staying in a home with their parents. You're in your twenties. Your parents' house really can't be your home forever. At some point, it's really okay to start staying at a motel when you visit if it keeps everything more sane, and doing so for shorter spans of time--i.e., not your whole break.

You need to start forming a notion of home that isn't with your parents, and that will start to be a break into full adulthood that will probably lead to them treating you more like you are a grown-up. Like, now is the time to be learning to cook, yourself, instead of pining after your mom's cooking. Start making your day-to-day living situation "home", and go see your parents a couple times a year for shorter spans of time, frequency dependent on how far you have to go to get there.
posted by Sequence at 8:27 PM on December 29, 2013

Best answer: I understand your reluctance to label this as abuse, for many reasons--cultural context and loyalty among them. But this level of criticism would easily fit the definition of verbal abuse. At the very least, it sounds like a deeply unhealthy environment for both you and your sister. The level of anxiety you're experiencing sounds crippling, and that, alone, is deeply unhealthy--physically and emotionally.

The fact that your parents have had difficult lives, the fact that they've learned to treat their children this way because of a broader cultural pattern . . . none of that excuses their behavior. At the same time, as someone who has dealt with similar levels of criticism and invalidation from a parent who has had a difficult life and who undoubtedly loves me, I get that these situations are complex and less black and white than some people treat them. I understand your loyalty, your love for your childhood home, and your love for your parents--the sense that they're doing their best. But their best isn't good enough; it's not good for you. You say you're happy at home, but are you actually happy when you're there, or is it the sentimental idea of home that you're attached to? Because I know that I often look forward to going home only to find myself a wreck of anxious, self-destructive behaviors (face picking, personally) when I'm there. And I suffer the consequences after the fact, too--weeks of neurotic, self-critical and anxious behavior as I recover and heal from the constant onslaught of not being good enough and total inability to make my parent happy.

Honestly, the best and healthiest thing you can do is create space and boundaries. For me, this meant moving away and not coming home for more than a few days at a time. I can still spend time with my parent, but the dynamic is different in my own territory--I feel safe from replicating the patterns of my childhood; I can create space when I need it without resorting to self-destructive behavior. And, yes, you should absolutely talk to your therapist about this. I don't know what issues you're in therapy for, but in my experience, so much goes back to this sort of harmful narrative created for you by your parents. Progress in other areas of my life absolutely depended on progress in this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:30 PM on December 29, 2013 [22 favorites]

Hey, I could have written this in college! There's no easy answer. I had to abbreviate my visits (one week over Christmas/summer, spend the rest working in the city where my school is, etc.) and still do so. I've learned that more than five days at home is where things start really getting to me, so I don't go home for more than five days at a time. I love my mom, my siblings, my family, my friends, my hometown...but I can't be there and stay with my family longer than five days.

I just got back from five days in Chicago, and I can tell you that I am so happy to have my life here in another city, a life that I love, with people I love, with my stuff, with my systems. It's not home-home here; I didn't get to do everything I wanted to do; I didn't get to see all my friends or spend enough time with my sister; it's okay. Because this is what I have to do to keep myself safe and happy.
posted by quadrilaterals at 8:32 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My parents are like this too. I love them but even now that I am in my 30s it is still like this. They are incredibly supportive but also very demanding - even when they are not trying to be - and it is very stressful. I also love my parents deeply and want to be there, so I really understand where you're coming from.

I've stopped talking to my parents about my feelings or concerns. That really helps. The other thing I do is I just don't spend as much time visiting home as I would like. I love seeing my parents and I love being at home and seeing my sibling and the pets. The food is great, the heat is always on, and it's just a nice cozy environment... except for the stress and the disappointment in me.

Our relationship is really complicated but I do know that they love me very much. And I love them very much.

So, I just take shorter trips home (4 days is about the max, before the yelling and meanness gets to be too much for me). I also try to make sure that I have a great book or two that I am reading, an interesting crochet project or two, and that I help my mom in the kitchen a lot. Basically, I do the things I really enjoy, and try to just let the bad behavior roll off my back as much as possible.

Oh, therapy - my therapist gave me her cellphone number and I've called her when I need to if I'm there, even over the holidays. You might want to ask your therapist if you can do something like this.

Also, mindfulness helps me a lot. Just walking away (I spend a lot of time in the bathroom hiding out), breathing, and reminding myself why I love my family helps, too. And reminding myself that I'm only there for a few more days when it gets really rough.

Good luck. It's great that you were able to talk with your folks about this - I've tried, and it never goes well at all. That was really brave of you and even if it didn't go perfectly you've opened up the window which might help in the future.

At a certain point, when you are self-sufficient, you can stay in a hotel when you visit home.
posted by sockermom at 8:33 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Get a temp job for break. You'll be out of the house a lot, making money, and can't get yelled at for "being out too much/not enough" because you're busy working, but still get to have some quality time.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:57 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You know who's called your family abusive before? You.

I think you need to practice tough love. Tell them that if they're not prepared to treat you with respect, you're not going to stay with them.
posted by ewiar at 9:02 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

A very good friend of mine is in her early 30's, has a reliable partner, and deals with this every Christmas when she goes home. This year she said it was good because there was only one fight, but she has to budget in one day of total peace and relaxation to recover from her "Holiday Vacation."

I was dropping off her key yesterday when she shared this with me. We long ago bonded over our dysfunctional families. Her mom is absolutely Borderline Personality Disorder. (Although socially, I like her mom a lot! But the way her private behavior effects my friend? Not so much.)

It's abuse, what you are describing.

Basically, you've got to decide how you want to deal with it.

My friend's partner is very understanding, but in my case, I would NEVER subject a partner, spouse, or child to my family. Ever.

My toddler is just about 3 years old and he's a TOTAL handful right now. When I was dropping the key to my friend, I pointed to my son and asked her how she was going to cope when she has her own children with her in that environment over the holidays. My point was if she found the experience near-debilitating now, how was she going to cope while being a properly engaged parent in the middle of chaos and bad intentions.

She's lucky her loving partner supports her during these visits, otherwise, she might not still be visiting them. That said, her partner might change his tune when his own minor children are in the line of fire. (She'd never stand for bad behavior towards her children either, yo. I just don't think she's thought it all the way through yet AND she's hoping something might change by then. Sound familiar, maybe?)

My advice is you should make abbreviated visits and stay at a hotel.

Let go of your fantasy - your family hurts, and hurts you. Grok it.

There's a bigger, more stable network of people out there for you than your family of origin. Make room in your life for these people to find you.

You're not the first to deal with this. Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:17 PM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do you drive or have a car? My family situation isn't exactly like this but I don't have a car so when I flew home, I found myself relying on family and friends for rides. Renting a car when I go home has made life easier that way. I can go to the grocery store and zone out, go to yoga, just get a coffee, etc.

Renting a car also makes me feel like I don't have to do what my family is doing anymore. I was home Saturday night and they went to see a three hour movie with plans to get dinner after. I said, let me know where you're getting dinner after the movie and took a nap, watched HBO Go and did laundry instead.

I also try to do things that give me a little space from my family, like yoga and running. If neither of those things appeal to you, try taking walks. You can always call a friend and if a parent gives you a hard time, make up a story like, Friend just split up with her partner and really needed to talk.

I agree that short trips are usually more pleasant and productive. My sister got crabby last night and I had thought of leaving Saturday night. When I make a short visit, sometimes I'll feel sad at the airport when I'm leaving but I tell myself, I'd rather make a short visit and wish it had been longer than make a long trip and wish it had been shorter.

I definitely think that in the long term, you should work on separating yourself from your parents and hometown. You're an adult. Part of being an adult is putting down roots somewhere new. When I leave after visiting my family, I think, I'll miss my family, but I also think, I want to get back to my new home.

I think the best thing parents do is give us roots and wings. Try to stretch those wings. I'm probably not a good poster child for this idea- I've only spent one Thanksgiving away from my hometown and never Christmas - but I'm working on it. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 9:56 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

To make it very clear, my parents are not narcissistic/abusive parents -- they care very deeply about me and my siblings and would do absolutely anything to support us.
This isn't true.

They recognize that the way they act is problematic, but that's about as far as it has gotten (and this was after I explained it to them, which really wasn't easy in itself).
They continue to yell at you, knowing how it affects you.

Before you can work through the issues relating to your parents, you need to stop believing what isn't true in order to deal with what is.
posted by Linnee at 10:46 PM on December 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

You know this isn't a healthy environment. So you limit your exposure to it. Visit more frequently, but for shorter periods of time. Have a boundary with your parents and be prepared to enforce it.

You don't have to make a big deal of it. If a family member says something that is out of line, just say, "I don't like it when you speak to me that way." If that isn't enough to get them to stop, pack your bag and leave. "I love you, and I'm not going to let you be disrespectful to me."

Never put yourself in a situation where you can't leave if you're uncomfortable.

I know that you're in school, are your parents paying for this? If so, you are exchanging monitary support for being an available punching bag. Don't do this. If you can't be financially independant, then don't spend very much time at home.

You are an adult, insist upon being treated as such.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:05 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know a simple solution could be just to not come home during breaks, but at the same time, I love being home.

Don't come home next break, tell them it's because you cannot do any school work with how much yelling and arguing they do. See if that changes their tune for the break after that.
posted by spaltavian at 7:35 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Take a year off, stay at a hotel, hostel, or friend's house. You can also make things easier by visiting when it isn't the holidays.

I wasn't very interested in visiting my adopted family for xmas this year when one of my adopted brothers made antisemitic remarks to me, just days after I returned from my taglit-birthright trip to Israel. This is beef I have with just one family member. How did I get out of seeing him this year while maintaining a relationship with the rest of my family? I decided to visit my adopted family in the Spring next year, when he'll be back at work up north. It's fundamental to recognize your need to keep the toxicity low. It's not a want, it's a need.

If you have the power to do so, be somewhere besides the worst place possible for you.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems my parents, while not without their flaws, were a good deal nicer to be around than yours, but going home for breaks still brought lots of stresses and strains, largely due to the state of their relationship with one-another. Even though I loved them, and even liked being around them, I had to carve out a space for myself, on my own terms, and later space for my girlfriend/wife, with her terms figuring in. In part, that was done by limiting the length of visits, spending some of the nights of our visits with my brother's family, etc.

Good for you for sticking up for yourself and explaining why things weren't working for you. To a large extent, the ball is in your parent's court, but you can only control what you can control, and if they aren't moving far-enough fast-enough based on what you've told them, then the main options open to you are some combination of giving it time, speaking up again, and spending less time at home over break. This might also give you more perspective on things that you do that end up feeding into the family dynamic you are suffering from.

Bottom line, my suggestion is that you make your visits home somewhat shorter, and that you spend some time staying over with friends, or maybe doing something overnight with your sibling.
posted by Good Brain at 12:36 PM on December 30, 2013

Plan shorter visits.

Reduce the waking time spent at the house during your visit. Get a part-time job, take your siblings to the movies, go on hikes, visit other friends and relatives - overnight when possible.
posted by bunderful at 1:17 PM on December 30, 2013

One thing that has helped my family visits is to meet up at a place that is nobodies territory. A beach house, camping, cabins anything that gets us out enjoying the scenary instead of being bossy. It really helps being at a neutral location, then no one is in charge and we can enjoy being together than.
posted by Playswithdirt at 4:07 PM on December 30, 2013

Have you ever directly said to your mother or father, "Mom/dad, I love spending time with you during the holidays, but when you yell at me it makes me feel like I don't want to be around" or something to that effect?
posted by deathpanels at 6:17 AM on December 31, 2013

« Older The realities of online dating in the UK?   |   On job searching and hope. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.