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You Do Not Owe Your Parents
How to create a relationship based on love + commitment instead of fear + guilt.
There is a type of adult-child and parent relationship that rarely ever works out. It’s the one where the child feels like they’ll never be enough and the parent feels like they’re owed something for their labor. In this relationship, the child is “spoiled” and “ungrateful.“ The parent sacrificed and now they want the gratitude and love they were promised.
“I did everything for you.”
“I paid for your school.”
“I had to work two jobs to keep a roof over your head.”
“You have no idea how hard it was. You’re so ungrateful.”
The relationship hinges on this: I gave you X and now you owe me Y.
But here’s the catch, in this type of relationship, the parent always gets to decide what Y is, there is an endless list of X’s, and most of the things the child is attempting to repay are required of the parent by law. The debt will truly never be repaid. The child may do exactly as their told, but it’s only because they’ve become acutely aware that their parent’s love hinges on their performance. If they pay back their debts, maybe everything will be ok.
A child can be grateful for the roof over their head, but they do not owe their parents for it. A child can be thankful for the meal in front of them, but they do not owe their parents for it.
If you’re a parent, I want to make something really clear: parenting is hard. It’s a sacrifice. It’s often thankless. It’s still not our child’s job to repay us. We have to go into the job knowing that. I know this idea of “owing your parents” is also deeply cultural and nuanced. A commitment to family is valuable and I think we are rewarded immensely when we attempt to invest in and maintain family relationships. But, guilt and shame are not the most effective ways to create those bonds. We want to create bonds through love, affection, commitment, gratitude, and respect. When people actually feel bonded and close, they want to do nice things for one another. They don’t need to be shamed into doing it.
As a therapist who works with a lot of young adults who are struggling with their relationship with their parents, this is a pattern I see often and I want to help you out of it. A parent + child relationship that is built on making up for a debt will never truly flourish. It may function on the surface, but it will likely feel emotionally shallow and transactional. It will feel like love that was purchased.
There are a lot of adults who have genuine appreciation for their parents. They understand and respect the effort that it took to raise them and they are grateful. This type of relationship can be achieved without using guilt, shame, or demanding a payback.
If you want a mutually satisfying, loving relationship with your parent or with your adult child, here’s where to start:
Throw out the idea that your child owes you anything for their childhood. This will help eliminate some resentment.
As children become adults, we have to get to know them again and build a new relationship. Can you get to know your child’s interests, hobbies, wishes, fears, etc.? Can you create new avenues for connection based on these things?
You may have had parents who used these tactics with you. How did it feel? Did it make you actually want to invest in the relationship or were you just fearful of what would happen if you didn’t?
Children have what they have because parents give it to them. If you are guilting your child for things that you chose to do or purchase, remember, that wasn’t their choice.
Ask yourself, why do I feel like I have to shame or guilt my child into being there for me or helping me? Is there something missing from our relationship that makes me believe they don’t feel close to me?
Try to ask for help without using guilt or shame. Instead of saying, “You have to help me move this week, you owe me!” Try, “I am moving this week and could really use some help. Do you have any free time to help me move some boxes?”
Once you accept that guilt, shame, and control will only push adult children away, it become very obvious that you need to use other methods if you want a close relationship.
You can love and appreciate your parents without sacrificing your entire wellbeing for them.
You have to take care of yourself if you’re going to help take care of your parents.
If you want to have a deeper relationship with your parents, you will have to release the belief that everything is transactional and that you “owe” something.
You can respect, love, and appreciate your parents and everything they did without feeling indebted to them.
If you continue this pattern with your parents, it will be very hard to break it with your own children.
You can have gratitude and appreciation for your parents without giving into all of their demands. Living your life exactly how someone else wants you to isn’t a great way to show appreciation. It’s just obedience.
True gratitude, love, and compassion does not seek to control another person. You can feel all these things towards your parents without them controlling your life.
You were a child then. You couldn’t pay bills, make decisions, or feed and clothe yourself. You did not create this debt.
On paper, relationships that are built on guilt and a sense of debt seem close but they rarely ever are. The key to feeling appreciated and loved by your adult child is releasing the need for payback and allowing a new relationship to form. And for the adult children, you have a right to pursue your own fulfillment. Living your own life and setting boundaries, while also having gratitude and compassion for your parent, is not cruel or ungrateful. You can do both.
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