Social Minefield: How To Get What You Want From Your Parents

Even adults need things from their parents from time to time. Whether it's distance, acceptance, or cold hard cash you crave, we'll show you how to get it.

Parental relationships can be tough to navigate as an adult — especially when what you want doesn't line up with what your parents want for you. Below, some tips on negotiating with your parents if you want ...

Distance

If your parents are micromanaging your life, or insisting on daily updates, you might start to want some breathing room. But unless you want to break up with them, you'll have to do it in a way that doesn't totally freak them out. Dr. Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along, says that any request for distance should probably be a "series of conversations" rather than just one. He explains that a tactic like sending a letter saying "I need to take more distance" is "very alarming to the parent." A better way might be to ease your parents into it — explain to them that you'd like to talk less frequently, listen to their responses, and answer them respectfully but firmly. If possible, try slowly ramping down contact rather than cutting it off with one fell swoop. But if you do need a total break, Coleman suggests saying something like, "this actually has little to nothing to do with you, I just feel like I'm going to be out of contact for a while, and I don't want you to worry about our relationship or me." He says parents will be less likely to freak out if you give them a time when you'll get back in touch — say, a month. And be prepared to do some "cleanup" — distancing yourself from parents, even if you do it gracefully, has a tendency to make them upset.

Another tip, from Jane Adams, post-parent coach and author of I'm Still Your Mother: How To Get Along With Your Grown-Up Children For The Rest Of Your Life : "boundaries without consequences are just nagging." If you say you want to talk once a week, don't pick up the phone more than once a week. If you say you'll call back in a month, don't call back before then, even if you get a bunch of obnoxious emails. It's hard to say no to people you love, but setting boundaries and not enforcing them will eventually just lead to friction and resentment.

Respect

Want your parents to treat you like an adult? The classic parent answer is "act like one" — but that's not very helpful or specific. Luckily, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children, has some more targeted advice: ask your parents about their lives. Asking questions like "how was your week" or "what's happening with you" can put you on more of an equal footing and create "a more collegial relationship" — rather than one where they're always giving you advice. Dr. Nemzoff also advocates listening to your parents' perspectives, but letting them know that you're getting advice from other people as well. Showing them that you're capable of gathering information yourself can help convince them that you can manage your own life. Oh, and when you go home, consider picking up a broom or spatula: "grown-ups know nothing happens by magic. Share the work!"

Acceptance

Parents can be critical, whether it's of your weight, your career status, or your dating or lack thereof. It can be pretty hard to know how to respond to these criticisms without getting into a big fight or retreating to a corner in a haze of silent rage. So how to get your parents to just accept who you are? Sadly, this isn't always an easy proposition — but there are some tactics that may help. Dr. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation suggests a redirect: "try asking for advice on topics that are not sensitive to satisfy the advice-eager impulses, but gently deflect those that are." How to deflect? Say something like, "I know you only want the best for me and you may be right, but this is what I've decided on, so please don't bring it up again. It only makes me feel bad and won't change my decision." As a last resort, try "if you bring it up again, I'll end the conversation." And keep your word. Remember: boundaries.

Another thought, courtesy of Dr. Adams: do things with your parents rather than just talking about things with them. Meet up with them for a fun activity that has nothing to do with the part of your life that they don't like — for instance, if they criticize your child-rearing abilities, find a babysitter and hang out with them kid-free. Adams says the activity approach can "reassure them that they're still a part of your life, but quarantine them from some of the areas you don't want to talk about."

Money

Okay, so respect and acceptance are all well and good, but they don't pay the rent. How do you get cash money out of your folks? Dr. Coleman says you need to be mindful of your history — if you've asked them for money a lot in the past, show that you're not oblivious to that by saying something like, "you've been super-generous in the past, and I don't want you to feel like I'm always going to be coming to you with these kinds of requests." Adds Dr. Adams, "when you do need help, whether it's financial or another kind, you need to be really straightforward about it." She suggests: "be really clear about what kind of help you want and how you intend to repay it." Dr. Nemzoff agrees that it's important to discuss repayment up front, but adds that you can be creative about how you repay — maybe you don't expect to make a lot of money any time soon, but there's something you can do for your parents that would be valuable to them.

But be wary of repaying by giving up control over your own life. Says Dr. Adams, "just because you ask for their help in one area doesn't give [your parents] the right to stick their nose in other areas." If they act like it does, she suggests saying something like, "I know that you love us and that you want to help us, but just because we're asking for help in this one area doesn't mean we want to turn our life over to you for review."

One more tip, from Dr. Nemzoff, applicable to all situations: "ask your friends what has worked with their parents." There are tons of possible strategies for approaching your parents about everything from money to respect to giving you a break for a change, and talking to your friends might give you ideas you never would've thought of on your own. At the very least, it'll reassure you that you're not the only one who sometimes needs help dealing with the people who raised you.

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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You And Your Grown Child Don't Get Along
I'm Still Your Mother: How To Get Along With Your Grown-Up Children For The Rest Of Your Life
Don't Bite Your Tongue: How To Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children
You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers And Daughters In Conversation

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