This piece originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Ask VICE is a series where readers ask VICE to solve their problems, from dealing with unrequited love to handling annoying flatmates. Today we’re exploring the guilt that can come from breaking parental bonds.
My parents worked insanely hard to give me and my younger sisters everything we wanted and needed. They’re incredibly caring, but they’re also difficult, demanding and dominant.
My mum’s own childhood weighs heavily on her – she’s as sensitive as she is insecure – and my dad’s one of those old fashioned fathers who firmly believes that parents are always right and children shouldn’t have a say about what goes on in the family.
If mum had a bad feeling about a friend of mine, that was it: friendship over. If I took myself to my bedroom to listen to music after a bad day, that was a personal attack on her. I was expected to spend every possible second with my family. There was nothing I could say or do about all this.
Things changed when I went to university. Having spent my childhood accommodating my parents’ needs, I suddenly felt free. I also realised that, deep down, I had no idea who I was. And so whenever I boarded a train on a Friday evening to visit the family, I experienced a wave of stress that only dissipated on the return journey to uni.
In light of the pandemic, and afraid of infecting my parents with COVID-19, I spent nearly three whole months at my own place – and I loved it. As a result, I want to radically reduce the number of trips home I make. My parents, however, still want me to visit every weekend, and I’m expected to move back home as soon as I finish my studies. I’m at the point where I’m considering doing another degree to avoid it. I’m consumed with guilt and don’t know how to handle this without causing them hurt. How can we talk about it reasonably? Am I a terrible child?
Wanting independence from your parents doesn’t make you a bad child. But knowing that doesn’t make what you’re experiencing any less difficult.
Psychologist Jean-Pierre Van de Ven – a specialist in couples therapy – has treated patients in similar situations to the one you’re currently in. “Often it’s a case of parents having a hard time with relinquishing their role,” he says. “This in itself isn’t problematic, but when it escalates, the child can be left feeling very suffocated.”
Van de Ven says it’s crucial to try to understand why your parents are acting like this. Sometimes it can be as simple as parental protection veering into overprotective territory. Then again, it can be a case of parents using their children as a conduit for living the lives they never had themselves. “Parents can feel like failures, and it falls on the child to correct that,” he notes.
In your specific case, S., there may be deeper underlying psychological reasons for your parents’ behaviour. You mention that your mum had a difficult childhood and that she feels rejected when you create distance – physical and emotional – between the two of you. “This is something that could be traced back to attachment issues she experienced in her own childhood,” says Van de Ven. “Some people have been taught to feel anxious within their relationships when they were young, and that they should always feel afraid of a forthcoming rejection.”
Van de Ven theorises that parents who experienced anxious attachment in their own childhoods often “keep their children as close as possible, because they’re so scared of rejection. Unfortunately, this means that they’re hypersensitive to feelings of rejection.”
Sensing rejection, parents might instigate more rules and restrictions for their children in an attempt to mitigate the abandonment they felt as a child. In your case, by expecting you to come home every weekend without fail, your parents are making it clear that they hope you’ll never leave them. As sad as the reasoning behind it may be, the fact is that you feel suffocated. You deserve to feel free to live your life however you want to. It’s as simple as that.
Extending the gap between visits doesn’t solve the problem. Van de Ven says you’re only unwittingly escalating the situation – the more distance you create, the more they’ll try to pull you back. “You’ve got to have an honest conversation with your parents,” he says. “You can try and tell them that their behaviour makes you feel cornered and suffocated. You’ve got to thank them for everything they’ve done for you, but they need to know you’re ready to move on with your life. It isn’t that you want to do it entirely without them, but you have to find your own path.”
On paper, this sounds great, but that doesn’t mean your parents will respond rationally. There may be reason to bring in a third party. It could be another family member, but it could also be a counsellor or a psychologist. The latter might be helpful if there’s something more at play than just sadness surrounding a child leaving the nest. “To some parents, I recommend a one-on-one conversation with a psychologist when this scenario seems to expose deeper issues,” says Van de Ven.
Your parents might not be the only people here who could possibly benefit from talking this through with someone. While the guilt you feel is totally normal, it might be exacerbated by underlying issues, too. “If that’s the case, you can be told over and over that you shouldn’t feel guilty, but that’s not going to quash those feelings,” says Van der Ven. “You’ve been taught that your parents’ rules are more important than your own feelings, and because of this, putting yourself first makes you feel guilty.”
The most important thing to remember is this: doing what’s best for you without feeling guilty doesn’t just benefit you. In the long run, it’ll help your parents too.