Adult Conversations Help Earn Adult Privileges

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Reader’s Question

I’m 20 years old and I’ve lived with my grandparents since I can recall, but somehow they just won’t see me as an adult. They won’t let me go out at night, ask me all the time where I’m going, and do a lot of things like that. Basically, I’m restricted from living my youth. I’m in captivity, and turning into a sad, lonely, closed, very unsocial person with some self-destructive and suicidal thoughts; I have no will, no urge; I’m an empty shell.

I tried talking to my dad, who lives abroad, to persuade them to let me be me, but he couldn’t help. They turned him against me as if I was complaining. I urgently want to move, because I feel like I can’t take it for much longer, and I don’t want it to get any worse, although I feel like I’m overreacting sometimes. I have no job, no guts and no encouragement to get one. They’re also getting old, and it feels like I would be abandoning them when and if I left. I just want to be able to feel happy and live like I’m supposed to, but I’m trapped.

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m guessing that your grandparents find themselves stuck in one of the most challenging aspects of parenting: acknowledging that you are getting older and need a different kind of care. While the task of parenting is one that constantly changes, it’s easy to continue to use rules that have worked before (like not going out at night) instead of taking the time and effort to figure out what needs to change. It’s also comforting to engage in behaviors that soothe our worries (like asking where you’re going) rather than doing what may be best for you. So the first step in making this situation work better for everyone is realizing that your grandparents are not trying to make your life miserable. They are simply doing what they believe is best for you and easiest for them. That’s completely normal.

I think part of the problem may be that you have not approached the situation from an adult perspective. Engaging in difficult dialogues with people, especially family, can be difficult. Such conversations can involve messy emotions and the risk that we may not get what we want, so a lot of people try to avoid them. It sounds like this may be what you have done. Instead of talking with your grandparents directly, you tried to involve your father, someone who does not live there and cannot even offer accurate observations. The behavioral term for this is triangulation, the addition of a third party to the interaction brought in specifically so that the original two parties don’t have to deal directly with each other. This is not helpful. For example, in your situation, all your father knows is what you and your grandparents tell him. Given that all of us provide information based on our own perspective and biases, the information your father is getting is unlikely to be accurate. Plus, by bringing him into the discussion, you tried to work around your grandparents instead of confronting them directly. I imagine that this may have irritated them.

It could be that they need to hear from you in order to change their thinking. Toward that end, making a plan for communicating your thoughts and ideas may be in order. Instead of withdrawing and being miserable, calmly talk to them about what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. For example, if you want to go out at night, find out from your grandparents what their actual concerns are and then try to alleviate them. If they want to know where you’re going, give them an itinerary or arrange to contact them every few hours. If they’re worried about your safety, let them know the things you do to keep from getting hurt. If they still are uncertain, ask if you can start slowly and then gradually build. Thus, maybe you can start by going out for an hour and then work your way up from there.

If continued conversations with your grandparents don’t get the desired results after a reasonable amount of time (please keep in mind that this is a process), it may be time to consider another plan of action, like getting a job. If you start having adult responsibilities, this may be the impetus they need to start seeing and treating you like the grown up you are. Whatever happens, I encourage you to keep the lines of communication open. Even if you don’t agree, at least everyone will know where you all stand and such conversations pave the way for a smoother future.

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