Help! Can I make my parents change their behavior?

I demand that you change your behavior to make me feel safe!

I demand that you fix my feelings!

Option: Confront your parents and insist they change their behavior so you feel better. Dictate precisely what you need. This has a success rate of something approaching zero.


Dear Thoughtful Pastor: My parents are complicated and volatile. They have been that way since I was a child and have a very dysfunctional marriage. I love them both but I don’t feel 100% secure with them. My daughter was exposed to them being awful to each other on Sunday and it really upset me. I’m considering deliberately seeing them separately but not together to avoid being exposed to this behavior again but I’m not sure how to do it without actually telling them that’s what I’m doing! Any advice welcome!

I wonder how many of us can state, “I grew up in an entirely functional, perfectly loving family.”

I used to say to my teenaged sons, “Why don’t you tell me now what you are going to tell your psychologists when you are 40? C’mon–I can deal with it.”

Except, of course, I would not have been able to deal with it then. Now, that the first one is actually about to be 40, I honestly don’t want to know. That’s my son’s journey, not mine. We all get to make our own.

Part of the movement to emotional adulthood, a place some never achieve, acknowledges that our parents are people too. Our parents had also experienced families of origin. Every adult developed in their own beautiful, loving, fun, dysfunctional, insecure, troubled places.

Although some truly evil people intentionally torture and mistreat their children, most parents are genuinely trying their best. Their best includes dealing with their disappointments, frustrations, relationship tensions, and financial pressures. More, they also have their lives to live, independently from what their children might want for them and from them.

Your dilemma: you don’t want to be in their mutual presence again because the dynamic between the two of them bothers you. You also don’t want to face the repercussions of being truthful with them. So you want to see them separately without informing them why you are changing your patterns and hope they don’t figure this out.

In what ways will this help? It seems to me that such a solution will place smothering pressure on you to control all interactions with your parents. Under these circumstances, parents become objects for you to manipulate for your comfort and sense of safety, not humans with all their complexities.

That, in my opinion, is a pretty unhealthy place to be. I don’t know of anyone who functions well under those circumstances. Both the “controller” (that’s you) and the “controllees” (your mom and dad) will be under the tension of unspoken expectations. Plus, it appears that if you don’t feel safe, in whatever ways you define that safety, it is their fault.

Let’s try a re-boot here. One of my favorite verses in the Bible talks about “speaking the truth in love.” Now, the problem is that many people have interpreted this to read, “I’m going to speak YOUR truth (or what I have decided is your truth) in ‘love’ because you are broken and I’m just the one to fix you.”

That’s not the idea here. Instead, we are to speak our OWN truth, loving both ourselves and others as we do so. Acknowledged that we all have messy and conflicting stuff going on and we don’t always treat those around us well. Typically, we want others to cut us a lot of slack.

So, speaking truth in love–for ourselves and others–means we also cut the people around us a lot of slack because they, too, have got all this crazy stuff swirling around them.

So, what’s your truth here? There’s a part of you that doesn’t feel safe around your parents when they are together. Something about their dynamic brings up childhood traumas or memories that leave you pretty uncomfortable. Start there and consider the options.

I see three possibilities.

One, confront your parents and insist they change their behavior so you feel better. Dictate precisely what you need. This has a success rate of something approaching zero.

Two, avoid the situation by manipulating all contact so you never feel unsafe. Doable but an emotionally exhausting solution.

Three, speak your truth lovingly to yourself: Yep, your mom and dad messed up. You pay the price. You also mess up periodically, and your children pay the price. It is likely that some of their interactions will always trigger this discomfort.

Release yourself from the need to control their interactions. When the tension gets uncomfortable, implement a self-care plan. Recognize that they might get frustrated with you as well. Learn to practice the art of empathetic compassion toward them and embed the habit of continual forgiveness into your soul.

Remember: You are an adult now. Learn to kiss your own tender spots. You will all relax and enjoy each other far more.


ask-the-thoughtful-pastor[Note: a version of this column is slated to run in the March 3, 2017, edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.]

About Christy Thomas

I am an opinionated Jesus-follower, a retired elder in the United Methodist church, a questioner of everything, and a lover of grace. I am married to a wonderful man and together we claim 11 children and 12 grandchildren. I love to travel, garden, walk and connect ideas together.

  • Brandon Roberts

    nice advice

  • Josiah Newman

    Now that my own kids are grown, I feel gentler toward my dad, who could be pretty toxic. These days I’m feeling a lot of regret over the pain I caused my sons even though I did the best I could. It makes me inclined to cut my own father more slack.

  • Margaret Y

    So just don’t say anything? Remember, the questioner was more upset about the fact that her daughter was exposed to this than anything else. This person could at least let her parents know, in advance, something about this self-care plan. “I’m not comfortable having DD witness all-out fights, so please don’t be surprised if, when you two start yelling, we will be leaving.” It’s not a demand, but it does give them an opportunity to reflect before they lose control. (Actually, if it was me, I wouldn’t even want my daughter to see the onset of something like this.)