Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square area, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

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Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square area, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

Family Relationships & History

Introduction

“Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities,
of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.”
~Queen Elizabeth II

This is a huge topic. It is not possible in the scope of this website to address all of the ramifications of all the issues that are part of this subject. Those that show up the most often in therapy will be addressed, but it is by no means complete. Consider it an introductory window onto one of the most complex subjects of the therapeutic (and life) experience.

The Oldest Attachment

Family relationships are the oldest and most enduring of human attachments. They go back to before we are born. The bonds between parents and children are deep and intimate, but can also be fraught with conflict. The initial relationship, of parents caring for small children begins to change as the infants mature into children and then young adults. We all know that 2-year olds’ favorite word is No!, and that this is a normal part of development as they begin to explore their universe and fight to become separate little individuals. As they grow into adolescents, peers often become more important than parents, and belonging to a group is critical.

Caught off guard, parents may encounter the bewildering experience of their formerly devoted offspring feeling utterly humiliated merely to be seen in their presence. “Mommmmmmmm! Daaaaaaaaaaaaad! Chill! (Major eye-rolling and sighing.) What-ever” They’re trying out a new sense of autonomy and identity. This is appropriate. But parents should be reassured that as embarrassed and put-upon as their children seem during these years, they would be lost and bereft without you. And then before you know it, they’re gone – off to college, a job in another city, a live-in relationship or marriage and children of their own.

Conflict & Control

Family conflicts are often about control, in one way or another. Who’s in charge, who’s setting the rules, and what the consequences are. And that control covers a lot of ground. It’s not just about curfews and car keys and boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s about ideas and politics, religion, values, and lifestyles.

Most parents try hard to teach their kids what they believe is right and wrong, but at some point (sometimes sooner than you would guess) they begin to think for themselves and their choices may not mesh with what they grew up with, and parents are faced with the hard reality that they can no longer control their children’s choices. This is hard for everyone, and often a source of conflict that lasts for years.

What You Didn’t Get

Frequently it’s about what the adult didn’t get, or get enough of as a child. “My parents were too busy to care about me. I had too many siblings and there wasn’t enough love to go around, so I didn’t get my share. They loved my sister/brother more than me. My parents were so involved with their jobs that by the time they got home they were so exhausted they might as well not have been there.” And so on. Some or all of which may have been true, but unfortunately you can’t now make up for what you didn’t get as a child. Parents make mistakes, and you have to come to accept it.

No Two Alike

All families and family relationships are unique. In not every family is it the case that parents and their children are best friends at any point along the way. When they are, sometimes it is too close, manipulative, suffocating and ultimately damaging to the young adult’s need to learn to be truly independent. When a 30-year old feels the need to speak to Mom several times a day, it’s probably an indication that appropriate adult separation has not occurred.

There comes a point where it is no longer age-appropriate to be so dependent on your parents. On the other hand there can be great emotional distance. Entrenched bitterness over old grievances, unresolved anger, battles of who was right and wrong that day eleven years ago at Thanksgiving, interfere with a warm and close relationship among adults.

To Parents:

If you are a parent coming to talk to me about conflict with your young-adult child or children, it’s likely that we will be focusing on the fact that they are adults now. It can be hard to swallow, especially if their choices are not as you would have wanted. But if you have any hope of a good relationship with them, you will have to accept that and allow them their life choices. It’s difficult but necessary to accept children for who they are rather than push them to be who you want them to be. It doesn’t mean you have failed as a parent. It simply means that they have made their own choices and will learn to deal with the consequences of those choices, good or bad.

To Young Adults:

Letting Go of Old Stuff

If you are a young adult coming to talk to me about your parents, the issues we focus on will be somewhat different. Yes, they get on your nerves. Yes, they’re still critical. And yes, you still want their approval. The important lesson here, and it’s a really, really hard one, is that you may never get it, so you’ll have to stop trying, or spend possibly the rest of your life in the attempt. You’re going to have to stop being angry about what you didn’t get, release all that old stuff and move forward with your life as you envision it.

Parents are Just Humans, Too

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant
I could hardly 
stand to have the old man around.
But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished
at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

~Mark Twain

This is not easy. But perhaps you can imagine your parents simply as human beings who also happen to be your parents, and understand that they have needs, aspirations, hopes and desires just like anyone else. They’re not superstars, just your mother and your father. Along with their strengths and virtues, they have flaws and have made mistakes, just like everyone else. It’s easy to play the blame game, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Taking Responsibility

If you want to be seen as an adult, you have to accept responsibility for your life, your choices and also your own mistakes. If your parent treats you like a child, it doesn’t mean you should act like one. And if you’re still making choices to please them even though it doesn’t feel right for you, or the opposite, doing what you know will upset them, you’re not an adult yet.

Realistic Expectations

If expectations are realistic, it may be possible to develop or redevelop a closer familial relationship. You will all have to figure out what works for you – the lines between what is close enough and what’s too close, what’s worthy of sharing, and what’s to be kept confidential. Parents and their children are all entitled to a certain amount of privacy – not everything must be divulged. Parents and children are not the same as friends – you don’t necessarily tell them everything. Sometimes it’s appropriate to keep it to yourself.

The Family Drama

Family dramas evolve with implicitly assigned roles: the caretaker, the problem solver, the peacemaker, the troublemaker, the scapegoat. Scripts get written very early on, and have an odd habit of playing out exactly the same way every single time the curtain goes up. When players come to me, they hope we can do some problem-solving and get everybody to behave as they’re supposed to. Unfortunately we can’t fix or change other people. Only ourselves. Too often the thinking goes “if only I could get them to…” but it doesn’t work.

How It Gets Better

“Parents can only give good advice or put [you] on the right paths,
but the final forming of [your] character lies in [your] own hands.”
~Anne Frank – age 15

The conflicts will ease when you become tired enough of trying to change the past that you can accept that it’s impossible, recognize that your parents are who they are and you can’t make them not be, give up trying to win approval that will never come, and begin to make choices that are self-promoting instead of self-undermining. Only when you become accepting of their shortcomings and your own limitations, and change your role in this drama will there be a happier ending to this play.

Change

Change comes in many shapes and sizes – some big, some not so big. And one size does not fit all. The kids leave home for college, they get married, a parent or grandparent dies. Not uncommonly, parents get divorced and remarry, sometimes bringing new siblings into the picture. The “family” per se is no longer as it was, and the notion of who the parents are, who the family is, where you live and what the rules are changes and gets complicated. Everyone feels caught in the middle, even if the events and choices were foreseen and inevitable, and emotions will be all over the place.

Empty Nest

With the children out of the house – in college or beyond – life can feel as drastically changed as when they were born. For a couple of decades you’ve molded your life around their needs and their schedules, and now they’re gone. Now what. The new freedom can be exhilarating. No more panicking when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, no more listening for the key in the lock, worrying about what they’re doing with those unsavory characters they met, helping with homework that’s so beyond what you learned in school you need your own tutor. You’re free to go away for the weekend any time you want, make vacation plans that don’t revolve around the school schedule or at the last minute.

And yet, it feels empty. Like Prof. Higgins, you’ve grown accustomed to their face. All of a sudden you feel lonely. How odd – you couldn’t wait for them to leave. The transition is not easy, and sometimes parents find it hard to let go. It’s necessary to remain connected and involved, of course, but finding a healthy balance of involvement, separation and over-involvement can be tough. You can’t be expected to somehow just know how to relate to your grown children as adults. There’s no road map, no formula, no handbook where you can look it up. Patience, understanding, and trial and error over time are your best tools. Failing that, it can help to talk to someone who can help you through this most difficult time.

Extended, Blended Families

You didn’t see it coming. Your parents hid their conflict and increasingly dissatisfied marriage from you well. Or they didn’t. All they did was fight and you couldn’t stand it. Either way, whether you knew or didn’t, it was probably still a shock to learn that they planned to divorce. And even more of a shock if one or both of them had someone else who quickly or not so quickly enters the picture. Decisions about where to live, with whom, how often, how far you had to travel to see the other parent may have been made with no input from you.

All of this can be deeply traumatizing, even if it happened after the youngest left for college. While you probably adjusted to your new situation, which may have included new siblings or a new mother or father, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there are residual feelings about it that you never knew how to process.

Guilt. Embarrassment. Confusion. Feeling somehow responsible for the breakup even though the rational part of you knows you didn’t do anything wrong. When these feelings are suppressed, they have a funny way of popping up down the road in other situations where they don’t belong. They can affect you long after the fact, and influence choices in your own relationships, and the dynamics of how those play out. But you don’t need to bear that burden forever. Therapy can work.

Boomerangs

We live in difficult times. Sometimes it’s just not financially or logistically feasible for a young adult to live alone or even with roommates. Sometimes the only sensible thing to do after college or even later (say, if an early marriage doesn’t work out), is to return to the parental home. Having gotten used to freedom, all of a sudden the child, now a young adult, is back on parents’ turf. This adjustment should not be underestimated for either side. In order for it to work, both parents and adult children have to take into account factors that were either not relevant or taken for granted when the kids were kids. There should be a clearly communicated arrangement that is understood and accepted by all involved before the move back home. It is not unusual for old conflicts that melted away to resurface.

To Parents:

Your children are still your children, but they’re not children anymore, they are adults and should be treated as such. It is oh too easy to slip into being a hovering, controlling presence in your young adult child’s life. Respect them, keep a certain distance, and you will gain their respect in return.

It is still your house. You’re allowed to set rules. If you think it appropriate for them to pay rent (if they are earning money) and do chores, you can assign them, but be reasonable, and make them age-appropriate. They are used to being independent, so curfews may not make sense anymore, but doing their own laundry and some grocery shopping may.

Continue to live your life. Don’t give up your theater subscription, your weekly lunch dates, your weekend getaways, your date nights or continuing education courses. As adults, they don’t need you to be around all the time. And you will feel less resentful of their invasion.

Encourage their independence. Let go of the fear that something terrible will happen.

To Young Adults:

Your parents are allowing you to live in their house. If you want them to treat you like the adults you are, it is important to behave responsibly.

It is still their house, and while you may have adopted certain lifestyles and made choices that differ from theirs (regarding anything from eating habits to religion to partners to morality), if you live in their house it’s only fair to respect their values even while creating your own.

Look after yourself. Don’t expect your parents to do your laundry and pick up after you. In other words, easy as it might be, don’t let your parents be your parents.

Understand that your return may cause them frustration, even if they’re initially glad to have you home. They’ve gotten used to living alone, and they may feel their privacy is being invaded. Be respectful.

Your presence may be an added financial responsibility for them and a windfall for you. Contribute in whatever way you can.

In-Laws

So here you are, married, planning or already raising a family. It turns out to be less idyllic and way, way more stressful than you ever imagined. One of you remains very close to your parents and family, maybe the other less so. Or maybe equally so. Either way, it can happen that the older generation has ideas about how your married life should play out, and interferes in ways that are infuriating and inappropriate. But it’s delicate from several points of view.

Tales of conflict between the new member of the family and the in-laws are legion. You don’t want to insult them, but you really can’t stand the way your mother-in-law treats her son as if he were a 12-year old. And how can he go along with it?! You start feeling to feel marginalized, unimportant, a merely tolerated disruption of the way things used to be.

Priority: Your Relationship

The priority is your relationship. If either of you is consulting your parents instead of each other, imagine how that feels to your other half. It’s devaluing to the other person and damaging to your relationship. There can be times where advice from those more experienced is appropriate – like the how-to’s of a first purchase of a home, for example. But it’s an easy slide from there to advice on the decor, and rejection of that advice feels like, well, rejection. So it’s tricky, and sometimes the better choice is a neutral third party.

Young couples need to be able to make their own decisions, even if they turn out to be mistakes. Offering them unsolicited advice is bad for their marriage and your relationship with them. It implies that you don’t trust them to be able to learn from their mistakes – meaning, you don’t accept them as the adults they are.

You, the new couple, on the other hand, should not criticize your in-laws to each other or expect or allow your parents to arbitrate your differences. If you’re having problems, learn to work them out yourselves, and if that fails, consider couples therapy.

Siblings

Just as your parents will always be your parents, your brothers and sisters will always be your next-closest relatives, even if you aren’t in touch at all anymore, because they go just as far back. Meaning that feelings about them run as deep, and can be just as ambivalent. You may never have been close with them, but it would be surprising not to find elements of friendship, competition, resentment, jealousy, dependence, admiration, and longing for approval mixed in with love and hate.

It’s always revealing when one sibling asks another about perceptions of their childhood, growing up with the same parents in the same house at the same time. Outside of specifics like “remember that trip we took to California when the car broke down?” it is often surprising how one sibling will have no memory at all of a dynamic that the other thought obvious and prevalent.

You didn’t choose your sister or brother anymore than you chose your parents. You are not required to be best friends or even friends at all. You may choose very different lifestyles and values. If there are hurts going back decades and you’ve been estranged for years, it may be difficult if not impossible to repair and not particularly rewarding to try. However, you may wish to try, or at the very least to lay to rest whatever remaining nagging undercurrents still find their way to the surface from time to time. Therapy can help untie these knots.

Aging Parents

How Did This Happen?

Life goes along. Spring turns into summer, summer turns into autumn, and then one day you wake up and realize it’s winter: you’ve become the parents of your parents. How could this happen? The people who raised you from infancy, nurtured and took care of you, ferried you around to play dates and piano lessons, stood by you through all your trials and tribulations, rejoiced in your triumphs, and shared your disappointments, the ones you turned to for help – all of a sudden they are not just older, but old. They are failing and they are failing you, and to your shock and dismay you find that it is your turn to take care of them. The repercussions are enormous.

Just when you are in the prime of your life – perhaps nearing retirement and your own so-called golden years – you’re saddled with the responsibility of managing their illnesses and diminishing capacities: persuading them it’s time to give up their driving licenses, moving them out of their home because negotiating stairs and cooking is no longer safe for them (“I always remember to make sure the gas stove is off”- except when they don’t), making sure their bills are paid because they’re beginning to forget or just don’t care. The list is endless, and unexpected and conflicting feelings arise. Resentment. Anger. Compassion. Horror. Fear. Dread. Guilt. Even guilt for having the feelings and the thoughts that arise when contemplating the decline and eventual death of your parent.

It Isn’t Fair!

Sometimes it happens prematurely. A parent develops early-onset dementia, other degenerative disease or dies suddenly. It isn’t fair! It’s not supposed to happen that way! No, it’s not at all fair. The pain of watching your strong, fearless, capable parent gradually or suddenly turn into a helpless child can be excruciating. Death can come as a relief, but the loss is nonetheless immeasurable. Times passes and the pain diminishes, but nothing is ever the same again. The feelings come out of nowhere. You are overcome with grief and despair. And the glimpse of your own mortality that used to seem unimaginable is suddenly utterly real.

Coping, or Maybe Not

Sometimes the feelings are not experienced so strongly – you seem to be handling everything just fine. This may be your natural ability to process them appropriately, but often they just go underground. The problem is that though they are temporarily submerged and not in your immediate awareness, they’re still there, and they’re still covertly operating. You don’t always make the connection between your newly emerging irritability, difficulties in your relationships, at work, with your children, and what was or is going on with your aging parents.

This is a difficult area to explore, and is intended to help people faced with a failing parent understand that what you are going through, though supremely difficult, is normal, and happens to many people. If it becomes too much, consult a professional. The load will still be there, but it becomes lighter when there is someone to share it with. Help is available.

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