Are you an adult who has problems with one or both of your parents? Maybe they're intrusive, or maybe they're critical. You may still feel like a child when you're around them. Wonder how to improve the relationship? Let me suggest one thing you might not have thought of doing. Work to give your parents independence. Work on remembering that your parents are people in their own right, not just your parents. Recognize that your parents are more than just parents so that you can fully be more than just their children.
We all know that gaining some measure of independence from our parents is important for healthy development. God's great call to Abraham -- "“Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you" (Gen. 12:1, NIV) -- is a call not just to depart physically but to take a separate life course, and as such it is the call we all receive. We need our own space, our own friends, our own finances, our own sense of self; otherwise, we remain just an extension of our parents. What's little appreciated though, is that gaining our own independence and seeing our parents as independent of our expectations are closely related to each other.
This dual process of becoming independent and granting independence to our parents begins early in life. The infant has no self-independence of her or his caregiver, and the caregiver's absence seems to be abandonment. Eventually, though, the child accepts times of separation without protest. The child recognizes that mom or dad have a separate existence, and thereby acquires a sense of self separate from the parent. A dozen years later, adolescents often seek greater separation. The teenager's effort to become independent isn’t only a desire for freedom to choose activities, friends, and the like. It is also a matter of both parent and child recognizing that the teen is increasingly a person in his or her own right. This recognition occurs successfully only if both can recognize the same is true of the parent. Our life's course is different from theirs; each is valid and valuable in its own time and place.
The child's independence -- and their recognition that his or her parents are more than just parents -- doesn't always occur by the end of adolescence. As a psychologist, I’ve treated many young and not-so-young adults who haven’t fully recognized the independence of one or both parents. I think of one client, a woman in her early 50s, who as the oldest child in her family had been given lots of responsibility for younger siblings and became her mother’s confidant. Though her mother also had a successful career as a teacher, my client never quite accepted mom as a person with a full life outside the family. She worries a good deal about her mother (who is now in her late 70s) and thinks her mother needs more assistance than I suspect is the case. In not seeing her mother’s separateness, my client also traps herself in the role of responsible older child who works hard to do the right thing yet never feels appreciated.
I lived at some distance from my parents beginning in my early 20s. This not only provided me with independence, but also helped me give it to my parents. On my visits home, I enjoyed hearing about their travels, their friends, and the many neighbors, relatives, and acquaintances they invited to swim in their pool. By the time I was in my 40s, they were leading a large seniors group at their church. My dad, who played the piano, became regular entertainment at local elder-care facilities. During one of my Christmas visits, my parents were hosting a group of “Lost Boys”—refugees from the Sudanese conflict who had just been resettled to West Michigan. Learning that the “boys” had no warm clothes, my parents outfitted each of them with winter coats and gloves. Our Christmas pictures from that year feature grinning Africans proudly wearing their new winter clothes.
I loved to hear of my parents’ exploits, and was glad that they showed hospitality far beyond the confines of the family. True, there were some things about each of them I didn't admire, but I accepted these as well, appreciating that for them, as for all of us, both positive and negative characteristics are packaged together.
Before he died, my dad lost his independence to dementia. At age 89, my mom is still very much her own person. She asks for advice at times; I give it tentatively, and am not at all troubled that she doesn’t always take it. It’s important to me to still see her as an independent person with her own beliefs, values, and priorities. By viewing her that way, I'm also viewing myself as independent of her.
I encourage those who still feel too tied to their parents—too desirous of approval, too reluctant to make choices on their own, too determined to change their parents, or too worried about their parents’ welfare—to work on granting their parents (and themselves) independence. Scripture says,
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
We show our parents respect by honoring them as individuals and stepping away from dependency. Let your parents be themselves, and that will help you be yourself.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra