Even if you like your parents and get along with them fairly well—talking regularly, swapping recipes and Succession Season 3 theories, and emailing each other the finest Onion headlines of the week—you might still find yourself blowing up at them… more often than you’d like to.
Maybe it’s that every time you go home for the holidays, you end up yelling at your mom for being late, or snapping at your dad for not buying the right kinds of snacks. You know they love you and your sibling equally, and yet you still have been known to accuse them of playing favorites and storming out of the room. So, why is it that even if we can sense that we’re about to be unfairly disrespectful (or kind of rude) to our parents, and even if we regret it after the fact, we can't seem to stop?
First, you should know it’s very normal to fight with your folks. (Or, to quote a 2009 study: “Tensions are normative in the parent and adult child relationship.”) According to Amanda Zelechoski, a clinical and forensic psychologist specializing in trauma and a professor of psychology at Valparaiso University, having conflict with your parents—even if you never really fought when you were a kid—is literally an inevitable part of your teens and twenties.
But if you find yourself constantly blowing up at them—while managing to be pleasant-tempered with everyone else in your life—here’s what might be going on.
You’re trying to establish yourself.
“Growing up is about figuring out which parts of your identity are still OK to be connected to your parents, versus ‘Nope! I want to be nothing like that,’” Zelechoski told VICE.
No one grows up to be a carbon copy of their parents. Even if you once idolized them, eventually you start to see yourself as independent… and you realize they might not exactly know (or be right about) everything. There are physiological factors that can be at play, too. Zelechoski noted that hormonal shifts can cause mood swings, and, not to get too science-y, but your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that regulates decision-making, judgement, impulsivity—doesn’t finish developing or “come online fully” until you’re about 25.
“For emerging adults, the main developmental step with parents is to figure out what we call ‘connected independence’—that is, a balance of ‘me’ and ‘we,’” said Jacob Goldsmith, clinical psychologist and director of the Emerging Adulthood Program at Northwestern University. “You’re figuring out which parts of yourself align with them in which ways, and how to simultaneously be yourself and a part of the family.”
You have unfinished business.
If you’re past the point of adolescence and it’s less of an issue of separating yourself, there are other explanations for why conflict keeps happening.
“The first and most obvious one is that there’s some unfinished business from the past that keeps popping up,” Goldsmith explained. Maybe there’s lingering anger from an old emotional injury (or injuries) that you haven’t addressed yet.
Or maybe you’re still stuck in an old role from childhood, which is causing you to feel resentment or frustration. Every kid performs different roles growing up—the reliable one, the funny one, the baby, the parent, peacemaker, helper, hero, rebel—and if you have changed (or are trying to), you might be feeling trapped.
Your family is actually more toxic than you realize.
Don’t discount the fact that your anger could be a very real and very justified response to bad behavior on the part of your parents. Even if you like them, and even if you’ve always gotten along, it’s worth re-examining what you accepted as “normal” behavior in your youth.
“Sometimes young adults need to create distance and set boundaries—and this can be very hard when you don’t have practice,” Goldsmith said. “In that case, anger may be a first-draft attempt at setting a boundary … Practicing assertiveness, rather than anger, is key.”
Of course, people have been fighting with their folks since the dawn of time. “But it’s definitely harder than ever now,” said Zelechoski, who’s also one of the founders of Pandemic Parenting. If so much of emerging adulthood is about finding your independence, and you’re seeking control and separation? Um, good luck doing it during a pandemic, when you might be forced to be in a house with your family of origin for 24 hours a day, without the time to grow and expand and explore your independence.
Maybe you moved back in with them because of the high case numbers in your area of the country, like those who fled NYC in the early pandemic days. Maybe you’re a college student whose classes were COVID-canceled, so you’re stuck at home instead of having your first fully independent life experience. “I’m a college professor, and for many of my students, what that looked like was having to care for younger siblings, having to pick up part-time shifts somewhere—they couldn’t find a quiet place to do their work,” Zelechoski said. Some of her students were craving a return to campus simply because they couldn’t study successfully at home.
They’re… your parents.
“Sometimes parents are simply the safest or easiest target for our anger,” Goldsmith said. “It sounds paradoxical, but sometimes the people that we’re closest to are the people that we can most easily get angry at. They’re not going anywhere, so we can safely blow up at them.”
Ask yourself if your frustration is really about your folks. Consider whether you are experiencing anger, stress, or hurt in some other part of your life—your romantic relationship, your job, the fact that we’re all simultaneously navigating a pandemic and a global uprising—and it just happens to be coming out as anger toward them, because, well, they’re there!
How to keep blow-ups from happening (and recover after the fact)
Conflict happens, but sometimes it turns into a whole thing—doors slammed, “end call” buttons smashed as forcefully as possible, or just losing your cool and snapping “MooOOOmmmm!” and then immediately hating how much you sound like your younger self. Here are some ways to pull yourself back when you feel an argument coming on, and to try to have a relationship with them that feels better for both of you.
“Know your body, know what things trigger you. There’s usually patterns to that,” Zelechoski said. Are you gritting your teeth or clenching your fists? Do you feel your shoulders rising up around your ears? Signs like these can be a cue for you to de-escalate. It might take some physical and emotional self-awareness to figure out what’s at the root of a blow up.
Talk it out—but take a break during tough conversations.
If you still resent your parents for something that happened during your childhood or even more recently, and you find that it’s affecting your relationship and well-being now, it might be time to talk about it. “We need to be open and honest about our past experiences in order to foster healthy relationships in the present,” Goldsmith said. “With adult parent-child relationships, that means sometimes having tough conversations about the past.”
Whenever you can tell you’re getting emotionally flooded, try saying something like, “I’m getting really frustrated. I know you’re just trying to help, I just need a few minutes to calm down, and then we can come back and talk about this.”
It’s really OK to take that space! Zelechoski pointed out that when we storm off, it often reads as a sign of disrespect—but it might just be a person looking for some distance. Rather than storming off/hanging up suddenly/screaming, “I hate you! I’ve always hated you!” you can say something like, “Can we come back to this conversation in a little bit? I can feel myself getting upset.” Communicating that before leaving can go a long way.
Analyze your own behavior and motivations.
Zelechoski recommends conducting a “postgame analysis” where you tease apart and analyze every moment of every play—or, in this case, the confrontation you just had. Think about your goal: Were you trying to communicate something to them that they’re not understanding? Are you just frustrated with them, and screaming a little bit to make sure they know? Once you figure out why you snapped, you can figure out how to change that going forward.
“Be a feelings detective for yourself—what was really underneath that explosion?” Zelechoski said. Do these blowouts typically occur when they’re nagging you to do something? Is it when they’re asking you personal questions? (When they’re imploring you to get on a plane and come home because “this virus isn’t real anyway”?)
This can be something you do with your parent, too! Sit down and explain what was going on for you, and ask what they were feeling. Asking how they feel about the conflict or what they need from you going forward can help you both break the old routines you’re stuck in.
Don’t shut down.
Along those lines, it’s totally normal that, after a blowout like this, you’ll feel a certain amount of guilt and shame—Why did I do that? What is wrong with me? Zelechoski said you shouldn’t just shove those feelings away; instead, address the problems head-on and do something to repair the rupture.
Avoiding the fact that there was a confrontation is fairly common within families, but it’s not really helpful—it actually just makes us dig our heels in more. Try to normalize talking about the issue after instead. “People experience conflict, and you can repair those tears,” Zelechoski said. “Just like you would do with your friends!”
All of this advice goes both ways. “This is the same advice I give parents,” Zelechoski said. Parents need to know their triggers too; parents need to take space; parents should also conduct a post-game analysis if they’ve been involved in a blowout with their kids.
But you can’t take responsibility for them. (Is that you getting stuck in childhood roles again?) All you can work on is yourself, which you can and should feel good about doing. And if you blow up at them again? Well, they’ll probably forgive you. They’re your parents, after all.
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