I can't handle my angry parents!

I'm 48 years old, but when my mom and dad yell at me I turn to jelly.

Published December 16, 2004 9:50PM (EST)

Dear reader,

Remember that problem you wrote to me about this year? So, how did things finally turn out, anyway? Assuming I answered your question in the column, would you be willing to write to me and let me know? That would be great if you would. Then I could write a year-end piece and call it something like "How I'm Doing Now -- A Look Back at Since You Asked 2004."

You don't have to go into great detail. Just remind me what question it was -- if you have the URL, that's even better.

Now, this is a rush rush thing. I know I said that the masculinity series was also a rush rush rush thing, and that turned out to be a little delayed. But really, this time, I mean it. This is, after all, the fast-paced, always-changing world of daily online journalism, and the end of the year is nigh! So hurry up and drop me a line at advice@salon.com, subject line "How I'm Doing Now." I can't wait to hear from you.



Dear Cary,

I'm 48 years old and I still can't figure out how to get along with my parents. I'm an artist, happily married with a wonderful 12-year-old son. But I am haunted by my unhappy childhood. It's the usual story -- neglect, constant criticism. I did my best to conform to my parents' expectations. I was an extremely lonely "good" girl who hated herself. The last years have been an uphill climb out of depression, trying to define myself apart from my parents. In the past year I have made great progress. Self-help books and therapy have given me more self-confidence. This is even reflected in my paintings, which have gone to a new level of meaning and accomplishment.

But now I am unable to get along with my parents, whom I see about twice a year on our vacations. (We live in Germany now.) When my father yells at me or tries to bulldoze me I get really upset. Then my mother supports him and turns on me too. They were both abused children and have been each other's great support in life. So I guess they don't know another way to treat me. But I can't take it anymore. They are both often quite wonderful to me too, and I know they love me, but they don't know how to love a child without being mean to him or her.

I've had discussions with my son about his grumpy and mean grandpa, and about my "mean" voice. That is the reason I started making all these changes, when I realized I was being unpleasant to my son the way my father and mother were mean to me.

I can't expect my parents to change. They are both 81 years old. I need to find a way to distance myself. I know I am unpleasant back to them -- they see themselves as the victims of their powerful, mean daughter when I flare up at them. So I need to stop getting angry, get some distance and find some Valium. No, seriously, I would appreciate any advice on how to stop letting them get to me.

Parents Are Getting to Me

Dear Parents Are Getting to Me,

How can we learn to respond to our aging parents like the adults we are? The most success I've had -- and I admit that's not much success -- is to stop trying to be so darned reasonable and face the fact that parents are dangerous animals easily provoked.

It's the same thing with parents as it is with cops. Now that I don't look so much like a burglar with a dope problem driving a stolen car, they don't pull me over as often as they used to. But it used to be they pulled me over all the time. You have to smile and act deferential or they'll beat you about the head and face. Parents aren't much different from police that way: They're dangerous animals and they have all the power. So treat them that way. Stop pretending they're benign. They're not. They're deadly. Don't startle them. Don't arouse their fear response. Don't poke into the sensitive areas where they feel protective.

Not only do you have to avoid provoking them, but you have to remember that if you don't provoke them, they will attempt to provoke you. They like it when the claws come out. They live for those moments. It makes them feel alive. It makes them remember the war. It makes them feel like giving birth again, like they're not at the end of life at all, like they can still do battle with their loved yet hated progeny who mock them with their nimble ease in the slipstream of modernity.

So don't kid yourself. Be careful around them. Watch your back.

Not only do they seek out your buttons and push them just for entertainment; what's worse is that in their presence you become a child again and want so desperately what you can never have -- the closeness, the care, the dependency, the warmth. And that'll cause you to take fatal chances. So don't go there. Watch out for signs of yearning. Yearning will trip you up every time. You're never going to get it, whatever it is. Not from these folks. It's not there. They haven't sold that brand for years. Underneath that desire to make things right is the desire to return to a place that never was. You think: Ah, this time they're going to give me the candy. But they'll never give you the candy.

So stop wishing for it. Face it: The bus is not coming today. They're not picking you up from school. Daddy's not coming home from work; Mommy's not baking cookies. There is no lunch money. Your room really is full of monsters. The monsters are real.

Here's the bright side: Compared with the monsters in your room at night, Mom and Dad are nothing.

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