A Loving Parent, A Tormented Child

I was just thinking about how many grown people I know who are still being emotionally manipulated by their parents. Not only young adults, either—I know people with more than half their lives over who are still having their strings pulled and their buttons pushed by the people who brought them into this world.

I’m not talking abusive parents, I mean parents who love their children, but who expect certain behavior from these adult children. They don’t demand the behavior— they blackmail the behavior out of their kids. And by blackmail I mean they hold the love their children feel for them hostage to their demands. There’s an unsaid subtext of demand in every invitation, every request: “If you love me, you will do this.”

The “this” in that sentence can be anything from the tiny to the huge: “Why don’t you come to dinner more often?” “Why don’t I ever get to see you wearing a nice dress/a nice suit/the cross Grandma gave you/the shirt I bought you?” Or, something as serious as demanding a grown child not marry the person they love because that person is not on the parents’ list of approved spouses.

The subtext is from the parent to the child is: “You’re not satisfactory. You’re not pleasing to me.” And if these parents are challenged by their adult children, they won’t say that outright, they’ll say things like this: “When you wear a suit, you look so in charge,” or “You look so feminine in a dress,” or “Your grandmother gave you that cross because she loves you,” or “I spent a lot of money on that shirt.” They might take out the big guns, and say, “If you do that, you will destroy your life.”

What these sentences actually mean when translated are: “I want you to look a certain way, think a certain way, do and be only certain things. Anything different and you are not what I want you to be. You disappoint me.”

Remember what that felt like the first time you heard, “I am disappointed in you,” from your mother or father? Go back, and remember when it was—how ashamed, how heartbroken, how scared you were. It’s a life-changing moment the first time it happens, and each time it happens after that first time, you feel less and less worthy of love.

This is a powerful tool if a child has truly done something unacceptable—stealing, bullying, cheating—all the things people should be ashamed of. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who stole something small from a neighborhood store, just to be daring, just to impress her friends. The problem was, her mother found out, and said to her, “Do you know how hard Mr. So-and-So works at that store? Do you know how good he’s been to us, when we needed him? Did you really need this so much that you had to take food out of the mouths of our neighbor and his family?”

My friend told me she never felt so small. She couldn’t bear the look in her mother’s eyes when she said those things to her. She never stole as much as a penny after that.

That’s using shaming effectively.

But when a child is shamed on a regular basis, for things such as what kind of clothes he prefers to wear, what he chooses to do for a living, who he falls in love with, how many times he eats dinner with you, well, a parent who does that might as well be beating that child. Words are as brutalizing as deeds.

But parents who do this believe they’re acting out of love and concern: “She won’t make enough money if she chooses that career,” “People won’t respect her if she dresses like that,” “She won’t be happy if she marries out of our religion,” “Families should see each other often, so they can look out for one another.”

The look in the parents’ eyes tells a different story. It’s that same look my friend saw in her mother’s eyes—shock, hurt, disillusionment.

Those are not emotions any child should see in the eyes of any loving parent, unless that child actually is a thief or a criminal. But for wearing the wrong shirt? For choosing a spouse or career path? What’s wrong with letting an adult child find out on his or her own that they might not get a promotion if they’re not dressed according to corporate expectation? Or if they decide to change religions, or not have a religion, or raise their children in both religions? What’s wrong with choosing a career one loves and maybe failing at it?

The answer? Nothing is wrong with any of it. The fact, it’s good for a child to make autonomous decisions. It’s good to fail and learn from failure. And a truly loving parent is there with a show of support no matter if their child succeeds or fails at his endeavors.

Anything else is not love in the truest, most beautiful sense. Anything else is self-serving. If you’re a parent who is doing any of this, ask yourself if you’ve made your child happy to see you when he or she sees you, or if they’re doing it mostly out of a sense of obligation. Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard your child laugh, freely and with true joy, in front of you. Ask yourself what your child’s body language says when you are together. Ask yourself how your child feels when you voice your opinions about his choices—does his face or hers register that these are simply loving suggestions, or does his or her face register pain when you speak? Ask yourself if your child evades your questions or lies to you because it’s easier than hearing you lecture, seeing your deep and inexcusable disappointment in them.

And the bigger question to that child: If you are subjected to this, I know it makes you unhappy and sad, and maybe even contributes to your daily stress. I know that you are unhappy with this situation either way— if you give in to your parents’ demands, it makes you unhappy, but if you don’t give in, it also makes you unhappy.

So, which would make you less unhappy—living your life as you see fit, and disappointing your parents for the amount of time it takes them to adjust, or for the rest of their lives wearing the suit they want you to wear, even if it chokes you, taking the job they expect you to take, even if it causes you profound depression, marrying who they want you to marry, even if there’s no happiness in it? Ask yourself what kind of a life you will have made for yourself if you do the latter, and what will be left of the real you once your parents are gone?

How will you feel when you’re sixty, and you’re spoon-feeding soup to a dying parent who never approved of you? Will you be sorry to see this person leave this world, because you stood up for yourself years earlier, and your parent managed to come to terms with it, managed to accept you as you are?

Or will you be still in service, even then, to someone who brought you into this world, giving you life with the expectation that they were well within their rights to ask you to sacrifice that life in service to them? Will you be feeling relief that it’s almost over, and guilt that you feel relief? Will you finally—at that parent’s dying moment—get the approval you sought so desperately that you were willing to give up your dreams and your youth for it, or will that parent say, “I don’t like this soup. Did you make it?”

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