Rick Sabo, 53, couldn’t summon the courage to stand up to his overbearing father until he saw the effects of his dad’s criticism on his own daughter.
On a camping trip with Sabo’s dad, Sabo’s 13-year-old daughter, a vegetarian, told her grandpa she couldn’t eat the meat he’d prepared. Sabo says his dad assumed the girl was making excuses to skip dinner and questioned her honesty.
“Why did Grandpa call me a con artist?” she asked her father later. “Why doesn’t Grandpa like me?”
“It hit me then that he was doing the same thing to my kids that he’d done to me,” says Sabo, a suburban Pittsburgh business owner. He recalled childhood nights in his parents’ kitchen pushing around a slice of liver on his plate by oven light, restricted to the table until he choked down the gag-triggering dish.
Nothing was ever good enough for his father, a U.S. Marine who held his family to stringent standards, Sabo says. Sabo joined the Marine Corps as a young man, hoping his enlistment would make his father proud. But when Sabo handed his dad the “My son is a U.S. Marine” bumper sticker the recruiter gave him, “he told me, ‘Make it through boot camp, and I’ll put it on my car,’ but he never did. He never gave me a ‘good job’ [compliment], even after I graduated. But standing up to him wasn’t something I ever thought I could do.”
It’s difficult to stop seeking your parents’ approval, no matter how old you are. Our 6-year-old emotional self never completely grows up, says Terry Dockery, a Marietta, Ga., psychologist who works with family businesses.
“When you were a child, you were helpless to do anything about an overbearing parent. Your survival depended upon pleasing your parents,” says Dockery. “Those fears often follow you into adulthood, long after the real risk is gone. That’s why it feels so dangerous to disagree with your parents, even when you’re an adult.”
Sabo had known relatives and family friends who stopped visiting after conflicts with his dad and feared he would suffer the same estrangement if he defied his father. But when Sabo’s daughter questioned why her grandpa didn’t like her, he saw his younger self reflected in her slumped shoulders.
“I felt bad for her because she was so dejected,” Sabo says. “She was just having fun at camp, no trouble at all.”
It took Sabo a few more years to stand up to his father, his confidence gained mainly from a legal battle with his former employer in a whistleblower lawsuit. Finally, when Sabo’s dad took his brother’s side in a business dispute, “I told him I wasn’t going to put up with his crap anymore,” he says.
After the confrontation, Sabo’s parents canceled the annual Christmas gathering at their home, planning to visit each sibling separately due to the brothers’ conflict, he says. Sabo told them no thanks and sent back a box of Christmas presents they mailed, viewing the gifts as an empty gesture.
“That was the last I heard from them, around 16 years ago,” says Sabo. His daughter is no longer in contact with her grandparents, either.
When you’re angry with a parent who criticizes or meddles in your life, that anger often conflicts with guilt about your feelings. While there are plenty of toxic parents, Dockery believes that most parents do the best they can with what they’ve got to work with.
“Parents never stop worrying about their children,” says Dockery. “Most times, they really believe they’re helping when they’re making the situation worse.”
Unhealthy parenting patterns are multi-generational and can continue until the adult child sets emotional boundaries, says Kurt Kazanowski, a speaker on aging and author of A Son’s Journey: Taking Care of Mom and Dad.
If an overbearing parent is resistant to change, you might consider asking your religious leader to intervene or even hiring a mediator. “A mediator can eliminate the feelings, put the real topic on the table and help each party reach a resolution,” says Kazanowski.
If the adult child is also the parent’s caregiver, the situation can become even more dicey. The parent may be beginning to lose control over parts of his or her body and life or may take mood-altering medications. “They hit the panic button, and overbearing behavior intensifies,” says Kazanowski.
If you have overbearing parents, Dockery recommends using the BARB model of communication:
“You may have to do this multiple times,” Dockery says. “Longstanding habits are seldom changed through one-trial learning.”
Remember that you can’t control someone else’s behavior.
“If you don’t succeed, then spend less time with this parent to minimize this source of unhappiness in your life,” says Dockery. “You deserve to be happy and treated with respect.”
What if you don’t get the results you want?
“It was real easy to walk away,” Sabo says. Yet he wonders if things might have gone differently if he’d tried a more diplomatic approach.
Sabo suggests standing up for yourself by taking “baby steps” and talking to your parents in a professional manner to avoid embarrassing them. If nothing changes, at least you know you tried.
Sabo says his dad’s rejection hurt him for years, but standing up for himself instilled a newfound confidence when dealing with others in business and in life.
“I was bitter, but I’m at peace with it now,” says Sabo. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
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