Three step approach on how to cope
CHILDREN begin by loving their parents; after they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they, forgive them." Such was the prognosis of family attachments by Oscar Wilde.
According to the authors of a new book, How to Cope with Difficult Parents, the phenomenon of troublesome family relationships is by no means new. It has however become more widespread.
"The over 65s are now one of the fastest growing age groups in the Western world. This increased longevity, coupled with the tendency towards early marriage and childbirth has created a bigger overlap between the generations. It is not unusual to find grandparents who are only in their forties and great grand parents in their sixties," write authors Dr Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon.
Together with such demographic changes comes an increased knowledge of the psychology of relationships which informs our expectations and perceived obligations to ourselves and our parents. A difficult parent can no longer be submerged by the extended family network and adult children are more aware of how excessive parental criticism, overprotectiveness or emotional manipulation effects them personally throughout their lives.
As experienced counsellers, Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon use an approach known as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). First developed in the United States, REBT views problems from the standpoint that we all hold both rational and irrational beliefs, which influence our emotions and behaviours.
While rational beliefs such as "I would certainly prefer to have my parent's approval for decisions that are important to me, I don't absolutely have to have it" are useful in shaping a mature attitude to life, irrational beliefs such as "my dad is a bad person who doesn't deserve to be treated with any respect whatsoever" can lead to unhealthy emotions and nonconstructive action and behaviour. The approach prescribes that we become aware of our irrational beliefs and replace them with more rational ones.
In their book, Dryden and Gordon suggest three basic steps along the route towards achieving better relationships with difficult parents. The first task is to get yourself into a healthy frame of mind emotionally by removing so called emotional roadblocks to effective communication and developing more rational and constructive attitudes. This then acts as a foundation for the second task which is to understand and accept your parents with their difficult traits and behaviour. The third task is to act in an enlightened self interested way towards one's parents.
With chapters on how to cope with demanding and critical parents, rejecting and neglectful parents, parents who use emotional blackmail and how to cope when you don't love your parents or you love them too much, Dryden and Gordon take readers through their three tasks with case histories illuminating the process.
Learning to appreciate your parents own childhood experiences is often a key towards better understanding. Finding out how they themselves were brought up can be achieved through asking questions about their upbringing, the affection displayed within the family and whether they themselves were subjected to constant criticism or demands during their formative years.
"If you demand that your parents be different, or change their ways because you don't like the way they are, you are behaving irrationally yourself," write Dryden and Gordon, who repeatedly suggest understanding and disentanglement as better ways of dealing with difficult parents.
Although sometimes seeming over simplistic, the Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy approach to such problems is firmly grounded in the individual's current situation and does not delve into past traumas and family crises that have long since been forgotten, even if they remain unresolved.
"It is less a question of facing up to emotionally charged childhood incidents and releasing the powerful feelings associated with them but rather of focussing upon the attitudes you brought to bear upon these childhood incidents - attitudes that you still are carrying around inside you, consciously - or unconsciously," say Dryden and Gordon in How to Cope with Difficult Parents.
"If you want to rid yourself of your unhealthy emotions about the past, then you have to change your attitudes about your early traumas," they continue.
Dryden and Gordon do however bring up an interesting point for those embarking on the journey of improved relationships with their parents. "Immature relationships of all kinds are constantly glorified and glamorised by the media in our society with hardly any let up. This means that if you try to break out of your unhealthy pattern of relating to your parents, you may encounter resistance.
DOES this mean that many of us secretly relish unhealthy relationships because, they allow us to indulge in immature behaviour ourselves? Perhaps not but the resolution of a difficult parent child relationship is one that often leaves us with an ability to deal with other conflicts that arise in our personal and professional lives.