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The Awkward Power Dynamics of Being Friends With Your Parents
The other night, I was in the middle of an argument with my boyfriend when my mom called. I picked up, because if I don’t, she’ll keep leaving voicemails until my phone explodes.
“What are you two up to?” she asked.
“Oh, uh, nothing. Just talking.”
“Are you two fighting?”
“Yep,” I answered, mostly relieved that she’d guessed correctly so I didn’t have to dance around the truth with my boyfriend nearby, listening.
“Uh-uh,” said my mom. “Well, call me back afterwards and let me know what happens.”
“And be nice!”
My mom knows me really well. No surprise there as I talk to both my parents every day. My dad calls in the morning, while he’s driving to work, and I talk to my mom at night, sometimes featuring round two of dad, if they’re out together. I see them nearly every weekend.
Because you know each other so well — what makes you tick, what drives you nuts — a small comment can easily turn into a bigger falling-out.
While I used to worry that this meant I was in some failure to launch scenario, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to consider that it might actually be the opposite: that my parents and I have reached a phase in our relationship where we’re more like friends, and maybe even like equals.
It felt nice to realize that. But it also felt a little strange. In any close relationship, blood relative or not, there’s potential for conflict. That’s especially true when you’re transitioning from a parent-child relationship to a friendship-based one. Because you and your parents know one another so well — what makes you happy, what drives you nuts — a small comment can easily turn into a bigger falling-out. And then there’s the fact that you’re not exactly starting from a level playing field; for most of your relationship with your parents, the power dynamics were in their court.
Even so, it’s not impossible to become friends with your parents. “If parents can recognize that their child is a grownup, they can enjoy a true friendship,” says social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD., the author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. Happily, that recognition may come more easily than it once did. “This generation of adult children grew up with more democratic parents who listened to their children and gave them more say than did autocratic parents of earlier generations,” Newman says.
Here’s how to navigate the tricky parts, to turn a potentially fraught parent-child friendship into a solid one, with advice from a few people who’ve made it work.
Recognize Common Friendship-Type Bonds
Once you’re an adult, parents can do all the things a friend would: serve as a sounding board, give you guidance, and help you navigate work and life. Sometimes, that relationship gets its start early. “When I think of what I look for in a friend — honesty, reliability, shared interests, someone I can have fun with — my mom encompasses all of that,” says Alexandra Papazis, 31.
To help move the relationship into actual friend territory, think of your parents as you would another close friend with regards to what you talk about and what you do when you’re together. Cultivating similar interests helps. Tyler Brandon (who asked to be identified by his first and middle names), 35, compares it to the Bechdel test, i.e. a test of whether two women in any given fictional work talk to each other about something besides a man. “If a certain percentage of your conversations with your parents is about something else other than your family, then you’re passing,” he says. “If you can have a conversation about what books you’re reading or music or whatever, you’re good.”
I can attest to this. Nothing is off-limits with my mom, I even talk to her about sex; although, we have an unspoken agreement that she cannot talk to me about sex, because we all know a stork dropped me off. Alyssa Raines, 25, is the same way, leaning on her mother for advice on the same things she’d ask her friends about. “Anything goes when it comes to discussing things with my mom, whether it be about friendships, breakups, sex, or work conundrums,” she says.
Ideally, that comfort goes both ways and extends to heavier subjects as well. While you may be used to calling your mom when you’re feeling down, for instance, consider that she may need similar support once in a while. In this case, being a friend can mean being privy to more of her life than you were before.
“Parents are the people adult children turn to when they need assistance or advice until the tables turn,” says Newman. “Then, adult children come to the aid of their parents.” This can also mean witnessing more vulnerability from your parents than you’re used to. Depending on what your dynamic was like growing up, this can be a shock to the system. Give yourself time to get used to the idea that truly being friends with a parent can often mean seeing their messier side.
You might not want to hang out every night of the week with one friend, and the same goes for your parents. “My mom has her own interests, her own friends, and her own life and passions,” says Papazis. Start conditioning your ego to accept that, sometimes, your parents won’t want to hang out with you either.
For Tyler, whose parents live in another state, location is a big part of why it works. “It was only after I truly struck out on my own that I felt like I started to become friends, or peers, with my parents,” he says. “They have their own life to live.” And the physical distance has helped create a healthy emotional distance, too. “I would hate it if they were constantly bothering me, or wanting to hang out, or texting me.” Sometimes, stepping back, on both sides, can be just the room the relationship needs to grow.
Pay Attention to Childhood Dynamics
It’s inevitable that you’ll occasionally fall back into your old roles of parents and child. Since families tend to be built upon routines, it’s easy to revert to them when you return to some semblance of it, like being at your parents’ house for the holidays. Or maybe your parents slip into serving as the authority.
“My mom and I can go into mom-daughter mode easily. I know, even as an adult, she’ll always have things to teach me,” says Papazis. “She says, ‘I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but…’”
It’s the biggest point of contention between my mom and me, too. Ever since I had a liver transplant to treat cancer a few years ago, she comments on whether I drink, keeps tabs on how much I drink, and even pretends she wants to try half my beer, even though we all know she prefers wine.
There’s a fairly simple fix for this one: awareness. “[Parents should] be aware of the tendency to pitch in to solve a problem when you may not be wanted — and especially when you are not asked for help or an opinion,” says Newman. Adult children, on the other hand, should speak up when a parent is driving you up the wall. “Parents have been parenting for so long that they often are unaware of behaviors or actions that upset their now grown children,” she explains. “Some are automatic, almost a gut reflex.”
Create a Clean Slate
The most important part of creating a lasting platonic bond is mutual respect. That means learning to see your parent not just as your parent, but as an individual, with flaws and interests and needs.
If you’ve been holding a grudge against your parents for chasing your shitty high school boyfriend out of your house (which is something my mom actually did), maybe it’s time to let it go. After all, a true friendship can’t really develop if you’re still feeling bitter or resentful over old arguments.
Just as important is getting to a place where you see your parents as individuals and making sure that they see you the same way. It can be hard for one or both of you to get into that mindset, but a big life change of any kind, like a promotion, an illness, or a move, can often provide the new perspective that helps you get there. Recognizing those opportunities can go a long way towards helping you view each other as peers.
I called my mom back that night after reaching détente with my boyfriend. It’s funny, as a teenager, I made my phone calls from my bathroom floor, with the fan on and the door closed to make sure my parents weren’t eavesdropping. Now, I’ve swung completely in the other direction; when I want to spill the details of my current relationship, they’re the ones I go to. That doesn’t make it easy or mean it’s always peaceful, but life is still better, if slightly more complicated, on this side.