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.

Not believing people in a helpless position when they tell you about their needs is an abuse of power

TW: mention of abuse, rape, sexual abuse

For the longest time I’ve had a phobia of situations where others have power of me and might not listen to me, like being in a mental hospital or being raped.

At the same time I have a very shaky relationship with authority figures and I really dislike having power over others, especially being in any position where I might have to go against their will. This aversion is strong enough that I’ve avoided getting pets and felt unsure about wanting children because of the power dynamic I would have to be part of.

In short, I have difficulty trusting that people in power will listen to and care for the people they have power over.

I have often been surprised to realize that my problems mimic the problems of people who have experienced abuse by authority figures.

I have had loving parents so I believed it couldn’t be their fault. Instead, for a long time, I suspected that I had been sexually abused by some stranger and forgotten about it.

It wasn’t until I realized I was autistic that I started understanding that my parents abused their power in their treatment of me.

Autistic people have special needs. They experience the world differently. For instance, what is painful for an autistic person is not necessarily painful for the majority of people.

Now, a person who believes that the child’s needs are safe and worthy of being met will meet them, even though they are different. A person who sees needs as dangerous, on the other hand, will see special needs as particularly problematic and will try to “train them out of the child”.

Very indirectly, this is what my parents did.

Even after I realized that my parents neglected my needs in this way I couldn’t see how this related to my fear of people having power over me. It’s not like my parents beat me, controlled me or humiliated me. They were all about independence and autonomy.

Then I realized that for small children this kind of neglect is a form of abuse of power.

Telling a child that they ought to be more independent and their needs are not real or worthy of being met is an abuse of power.

Let me explain.

Small children are helpless. They depend entirely on their parents meeting their needs. This means that the parents have a responsibility to meet their needs. And refusing to do so is an abuse of power.

The situation is similar to one where a person in a nursing home asks for help to go to the toilet and the nursing staff refuses to help them. This is clearly neglect. And because of the power dynamics it is also an abuse of power.

Being unable to meet the needs of someone who is helpless is not always an abuse of power. So, what makes this kind of refusal abusive? The fact that the person in power is taking in what the helpless person is saying about their needs (regardless of whether they believe them), and Choosing not to act on it.

The message that the helpless person internalizes isn’t that the people in power are inadequate to help them, the message is that their own needs are not real or worthy.

How does this lead to a fear of people having power over you?

If you believe that people will not meet your needs, will not listen to you, will not believe you, then anyone having power to meet or not meet your needs is dangerous. And then depending on other people in any form becomes dangerous and power dynamics start to look inherently abusive.

So you make yourself independent. And you react negatively to others who show needs, because they remind you of your own vulnerability. And you try to help “train it out of them”.

And so the cycle continues.