Dealing with parents that are not ready to change the way they treat you

Our parents make mistakes in our upbringing that wound us. When we are grown they can keep treating us in ways that tear at those wounds. If we have done some work on ourselves we will often understand before our parents do that their behaviour is damaging.

However, if we try to talk to them about this there may be defences in place that keep them from being able to take in what we are saying. One issue is nature of the parent child relationships. It can be hard to take in critique from someone you believe you ought to know better than. Furthermore, if being a good parent is very important to you it can be heart-breaking to imagine that you have made mistakes. Other defences go back to our parents’ own childhood and the world view that they had to adopt to survive their own upbringing.

This can cause significant tears in the relationship, and significant suffering for both parties – where one is opening old wounds by exposing themselves to their parent’s denial, and the other is desperately but subconsciously holding on to their own world view, so that they don’t have to open their own wounds from childhood.

Sometimes the child’s need to be heard and the parent’s defences are equally strong and the only way for the relationship to progress is for each party to work on their own wounds before they can have a healthy discussion.

While it is not healthy for the child to try to supress what they have learned about themselves in order to maintain the relationships, they may be able to fulfil their need to be understood elsewhere, validate their pain and make peace with their parent’s limitations in such a way that they no longer take their parents harmful treatment to heart. Importantly, this does not mean having no boundaries. This approach requires a clear understanding of what treatment still opens old wounds and enough self compassion to not put yourself through that.

Alternatively, the parent might be able to process their own wounds in such a way that they can understand that they are treating their child in a way that is hurtful. Only then would they be able to treat their child the way that the child is asking to be treated.

If neither person can process their wounds they will continue to find interactions damaging, but neither will they be content apart.

How non-normal needs are rejected

I have written before about how discovering my needs made me realize that society rejects non-normal needs, and the negative consequences that this has. In that article I mentioned that we live in a society that treats certain needs as more valid and natural than others. Quick recap from “Rejected needs and societal structures“:

An easy example can be taken from how people view autistic versus allistic (non-autistic) needs.

To stereotype a little:

  • Allistics need you to look them in the eye for emotional validation when you speak with them, autistics need to look away in order to process information when you speak with them.
  • Allistics need spontaneity, autistics need routine.
  • Allistics gain comfort and information through social non-literal social exchanges such as “how are you – good”. Autistics need exchanges to be literal for understanding.

Both the autistic and the allistic person has “demands” on what the other person does, and yet at best we see only the autistic person as the person with needs, or at worst we see the autistic person as a person with unreasonable demands. This regardless of the effort the autistic has put in to accommodate the “invisible” needs of the allistic person.

This has effects on how both the autistic and the allistic needs are seen. We may compare the experience with swimming with or against a current – the current being a metaphor for which needs are treated as “normal” and thus for the support you are automatically given in society. (see “the hidden brain”

When you are swimming against the current and nobody acknowledges that there is a current you attribute your struggle to yourself and see yourself as defective. The autistic thus starts to see their needs as invalid, as me and my sister did.

At the same time the allistic’s needs and dependence on society are masked. When you are swimming with the current, and no one has told you there is a current, you don’t notice that you are being helped and that you would struggle and need help if you were swimming in the other direction. You attribute your success to yourself, not the stream.”


When the person swimming with the invisible current meets the person swimming against it

In this article I want to talk about the two ways in which privileged people (those who are swimming with the current) tend to react to the declared needs of non-privileged people (those swimming against the current).

Throughout my teenage years I made myself easy to handle for with-the-stream (privileged) people because I denied my needs, was extremely independent, and did not ask anything from anyone. I watched others with similarly non-normal needs be rejected, and I did not want to give anyone that kind of power over me. While this saved me from a lot of conflict and rejection in practice this made it difficult to associate with others as equals because I wasn’t showing my full self.

Lately I have been choosing to be more open about my needs and have gotten to experience first hand the kind of direct rejection that I used only to observe in others. The advantage of this is that I have realized that privileged people (and non-privileged people who have internalised this way of thinking) have a couple of very predictable ways of reacting when against-the-stream people make it clear what they need:


  1. Acting like the need isn’t there

The first predictable way of reacting to a declared non-normal need is acting like the non-privileged person is mistaken about the need. This is sometimes thought to be due to the ignorance of the non-privileged person but often due to some kind of personality flaws of theirs, eg. they have a vendetta (angry man hating feminists), or they are in it for the attention (non-binary people), or they want to find an excuse for their laziness (people with mental health problems or learning difficulties) or they are just “too negative” or “too emotional”.

A natural response is then to ignore the person or give the person well-meaning advice not to focus on the “need”, as if it were an unhealthy obsession of theirs. The most harmful thing about this approach is that it takes the authority away from the against-the-streamer: they are not treated as the best judge of their needs. It states “I know better than you what you need” Such treatment has huge consequences for the ability to trust both yourself and others. Some examples:

  • When I took issue with the way disabled people’s confidentiality was handled in my college they acted like I was a single “angry trouble maker” and there was no problem.
  • My father once told me that he shut down a discussion about gender equality at work because focusing too much on it was impairing women’s performance.
  • When I first developed an undiagnosed illness people told me not to “obsess” about finding a diagnosis because it was “probably just stress”.
  • I once got caught in high waves and signalled to my father on the beach to come help me. He saw me and ignored it. Later he told me he would have come “had I needed it”.

A special case of this is the insistence that we ought not identify as autistic or disabled, that we are too negative if we identify with such different needs. Let me explain why this is problematic: I am disabled whether I identify with the label or not. Arguing that I ought not identify with my needs does nothing but show me that the person I’m talking to does not believe in my needs.  T

People believe that I will limit myself through reminding myself of my disability but because they don’t believe in my needs they don’t understand is that am more limited by not reminding myself of my disability because then I push myself too far and blame myself when I cannot perform what everyone else can.

The problem is if we focus only on the negatives, regardless of whether you have been validated or not. Validating difficulties does not cause you to focus more on the negatives, rather the opposite, when you have a name for them you can more easily make adjustments and move forward. You cannot ease another’s pain by telling them to ignore it. It doesn’t work and if you are a cause of their pain it is an insult.


  1. Acting like there is a real need but it’s not your problem to deal with

Because people who are swimming with the current don’t see their own dependence they may very well decide that when others show dependence this signals that they should not be considered responsible adults, or even that they have reduced worth as a person.

These privileged people see the problem as lying with the non-normal person, not society, and feel that society shouldn’t have to adapt. These are the people who respond to accommodation requests with “that’s taking things a bit far, isn’t it? We can’t accommodate everything, where will it end?” What they’re not seeing is that society is already adapted, it is adapted to the needs of the privileged.

These people see non-normal needs as real, but as somehow reducing the person’s right to participation. They may thus act like the person is simply too fragile to participate in society on equal terms. This can cause them to advice or force the person to leave a role, or not include them in the first place.

Taken to its extreme, this is the kind of reasoning which caused us to lobotomise disabled people, to put them in institutions, to exterminate them in the holocaust. In short, the kind of view that causes us to view disabled people as worth less.

To those who think that marginalized or traumatised people are asking to be coddled

I recently came home to find that the person I had rented out my room to had left the flat in such an unclean state that maggots had started to populate every room.

After the first two groups were discovered I (rightly) assumed that they would be found in the rest of the flat as well. Not only did my tenant not apologize and get to work cleaning the flat, but he used a variety of coping mechanisms to avoid blame:

  • He made fun of me for “exaggerating” how many groups there were.
  • He pointed out how the maggots were actually pretty cute.
  • He argued that the maggot flies were actually coming in from the outside, not from his trash can that was full of maggots.
  • He mentioned how he had heroically squashed a bunch of flies a few weeks ago, unlike his friend who had just shrugged at them.
  • He pretended he hadn’t noticed a single maggot before we got there.

Since he would be staying in the flat for another week and we were forced to coexist and I needed to get him to see that there was a problem and to do some work towards managing that problem (e.g. vacuum his room). What I was asking for was the bare minimum, but he kept putting it off in a way that compromised the effort that I had already made towards getting rid of the problem. He was clearly in some kind of denial.

So, my task was to talk to him in such a way that got around his defence mechanisms, no doubt grounded in a fear of failure and a desire to see himself in a good light, to make him see and do the bare minimum to deal with the problem. And it occurred to me that I face these defence mechanisms, and the issue of how to get around them a lot when talking to people about oppression:

  • They gaslight you, acting like you are being extreme or unreliable in some way, e.g. paint you as an “angry feminists”.
  • They belittle the problem, e.g. “who doesn’t like being complimented?” in response to catcalling.
  • They argue that the problem is coming from elsewhere, e.g. from “those immigrants with their patriarchal cultures who come here and rape our women”.
  • They mention all that they have done to deal with the problem as they see it, e.g. “I voted for harsher punishments for rape so don’t tell me about rape culture”.
  • They act like dealing with a small subset of the problem was dealing with the problem.

And here I am, trying to make them see that the house is still full of maggots, that they are part of the cause and that they need to make a change to manage the problem.

(On top of that, having been doubted on these issues my whole life, I have to fight against my own instinct to doubt myself, am I overreacting? Are maggots really a big deal? I ask some friends and they assure me that it is. It is harder when you are in the minority and don’t have people around you to ask.)


Who is being coddled?

Why am I pointing out the difficulties in dealing with people who have a vested interest in not seeing a problem? Because all too often I read texts by people who think that traumatised or marginalized people are asking to be coddled – whether they are asking for trigger warnings, accessible spaces or for their correct pronouns to be used.

And yet in their reply marginalized people are putting in enormous effort to coddle those same writers.

When it comes to worm guy I adjust to his defence mechanisms: I don’t ask for more than the bare minimum. I don’t tell him he is being unreasonable. I make sure to keep my tone as unemotional as possible. I point out how good he is being when he takes steps to deal with the problem and how we’re on the same team.

All the while he is feeling mighty inconvenienced by the fact that I am still pointing at a problem that he can’t see. Eventually my insistence visibly angers him. And then I live with the threat of his anger. Because we still share a flat and he is stronger than I am. And he may not be “one of those guys”, but how would I know? So, I take precautions and make sure I’m never alone in my own flat when he’s around.

And still, after all of my adjustments to deal with his insecurity, his anger, and his biases, some people say that it is people like me who are demanding to be coddled.

I guess they don’t want to feel guilty about the maggots.


Recommended reading like this
On this blog: Rejected needs and societal structures
Elsewhere: The hidden brain – how ocean currents explain our unconcious social biases