Home Truths

Dear Viv: why do I turn into a kid around my parents?

In this week's Home Truths special, Viv discusses how to avoid behaving childishly around your parents, a girlfriend with a moany mum, having disinterested parents, and what happens when you have to move back in with your family 

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv, 

How can I stop becoming a giant baby around my ageing parents? When my sister and I are around my my parents, we revert to the behaviour of our teens. Bickering and arguing; we are stroppy and sulky. It’s unedifying, because we are both in our late 30s and married with a baby each of our own. I always end up feeling ridiculous and disappointed in myself, and so have begun to avoid going to gatherings that my sister will be at. Which upsets my parents. How do I stop being a massive baby around my parents? And how do I get my sister to stop being a massive baby too? I feel like we bring it out in each other, and it will take a joint and concerted effort to stop it. 

Why on earth would you want to stop becoming a giant baby around your ageing parents? This is one of life’s greatest pleasures. That aside, your letter made me sad. You’re actually avoiding going to events where you’ll see your sister because you don’t want to see her behaving like a baby and you don’t want to see yourself behaving like a baby around her? I actually think that is very sweet and self-aware on one level. But, really, come on. This is actually quite controlling, unrealistic behaviour. You have to live your life! And by avoiding this problem and putting your head in the sand, you are still actually behaving a bit like a baby. I repeat, though, I kind of approve of this as there’s no point in any of us pretending that we are ever anything other than childish around our families of origin.

I’m serious about enjoying being a massive baby around your parents and with your sister. There are some things in life that really are very difficult to change and it’s a giant ask to expect yourself to be totally mature and adult in the family in which you grew up. I’m sure you’ve read Oliver James’ They F*** You Up but he and any psychotherapist will tell you that it’s almost impossible to escape the role you play in your family drama. 

But as Oliver James says himself, you don’t have to absent yourself from that drama to survive: simply choose to behave slightly differently. Could you decide to be calm no matter what your sister does? Let her be the baby for once. Smile and be indulgent. Or just take your focus off her and onto your own child. At the next gathering, do the one thing you would never do. If you always cook, arrange for someone else to cook. If you never cook then cook. If someone says, “But you always cook” then put your arm in a sling and say you have broken your hand.

I feel like you’re ready to do something like this and you want to make a change. Go for it. But don’t be afraid to lapse back into being a baby. It’s totally normal and human and universal. You don’t have to be superwoman and perfect. And if you are going to be stroppy and sulky then who better to do it than in front of your own parents who are totally used to it? Good luck with changing but also don’t be afraid of not changing.

Dear Viv, 

My mother-in-law treats her daughter, my girlfriend, like a therapist, calling her at all hours to discuss her problems (she’s going through her second divorce), leaning on her for advice and support. And it’s exhausting. I see my girlfriend really strained under the stress of it and it makes my blood boil. My mother-in-law is supposed to be the grown-up, you know. My girlfriend would never say anything to her mother though, she doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, and she’s worried that she’ll explode; she’s pretty volatile. But I’m tired of it, and I really want to put some boundaries in place. Calling in hysterics at 1am just isn’t OK. How do I make that clear? 

Hmm. To whom do you want to make this clear? I can feel how angry you are here with your mother in law. And her behaviour does seem, I agree, to be totally unreasonable. This isn’t a healthy relationship between a mother and a daughter and it must be exhausting for your girlfriend, aka the free therapist. However. There’s one person whose feelings we don’t know here. You say “I see my girlfriend really strained under the stress of it”. We can’t know exactly what this means. Have you tried talking to her your girlfriend about how she really feels? You say she doesn’t want to hurt hurt her mother’s feelings. The problem is, if this really is the most important thing in the world to her, she will go to any lengths to please her mother and it won’t make her happy to change things. She might be happy to be under a bit of strain. She might enjoy her mother’s attention.

You need to have a long talk about what your girlfriend is getting out of this. If she is getting what she wants out of it -- closeness with her mum, a feeling of being needed -- at the cost of a bit of stress, the situation may not bother her as much as it bothers you. On the other hand, if she feels bullied and intimidated and wants to get out of these obligations but can’t... That’s where you can help by talking to her about how she can set some boundaries for her mother -- ie: “Please don’t call after 11pm -- my phone will be switched off.” But it needs to come from her, not from you. By the way, I think you should really nice. Well done.

You can hear the answers to these and the following question on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above.

Dear Viv,

Whenever I talk to my friends about their parents, everyone seems under enormous pressure to settle down, get married, get a nice job, etc, etc. My parents, however, seem curiously disinterested. My mother routinely reminds me that she has "enough" grandchildren (she has two) that she doesn't "need" an extra son-in-law (she has one). On the few occasions I have told them about promotions or pay rises they never seem to think it's quite enough. My brother is about to bring his new girlfriend home for the weekend, and has already been told by my mother that she doesn't have the energy to "any more" new partners. I'm not sure there's anything we can do here. Or is there?

Dear Viv,

I’m trying to start my own business and have moved back with my parents in order to save up for launch, and take some financial worry off my mind. I’m really worried about how to approach this. My parents are already making rubbish jokes about leaving dirty pants around, and drinking all the milk. I want to step out of unhappy family roles that were ascribed to me as a kid, live my life my way and basically not feel like a moody teenager. 

Got a question for Viv? Email her at DearViv@thepoolltd.com. The Dear Viv podcast airs fortnightly on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

You can now subscribe to The Pool's podcasts on iTunes

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