Everyone deals with stress from time to time, but when it starts to elevate it can become unhealthy. Normal stress involves keeping up with responsibilities, dealing with people, bosses, friends, family, school, work, and so on. When stress becomes chronic, it can impact your overall mental and physical health and interfere with your daily functioning. It’s important to know the signs of when stressful relationships are impacting your mental and physical well-being. Chronic unhealthy levels of stress can result in changes in mood and behavior, including fatigue, decreased motivation, depression, irritability, heightened anxiety, poor concentration, and/or weight gain/loss. It takes away from your ability to focus on the good and healthy parts of your life, as well as negatively impact your capacity to continue with your healthy routines, choices, and relationships.
But what do you do if that stress is attributed to your relationship with your parents? We can’t choose our parents, so it becomes difficult to get rid of stress when they are the identified stressor. Everyone has experienced stressful relationships with parents at some point and everyone can benefit from working towards improving the relationship by practicing open and honest communication with them. But sometimes the stress heightens to another level where it becomes unhealthy and dysfunctional that it’s taking away the good in your life and becomes all consuming. Are you unable to focus on your marriage, children, work, or other relationships? When everything else takes a backseat and all you can think about is the stressful relationship with your parents, that’s a problem. Not every adult has a good relationship with his or her parents, which is understandable and not that uncommon for some. There are steps you can take as an adult to either improve the relationship or minimize the stress.
- Identify why the relationship is stressful.
Do your parents interfere with your life choices or marriage? Do they tell you how to raise your own children? Do they still treat you like a child and not view you as an adult? Are they verbally abusive? Do they constantly criticize you, your work, or your partner? Are they overstepping their boundaries now that you’re an adult and feel like they can talk to you as “friends” and go into detail about their relationships and personal life? It’s important to identify the specific cause of stress so you can work towards eliminating it and improving your relationship through healthy boundary setting.
If you are a caregiver for your aging parents and their physical and mental health are declining, although it’s not their fault, it can still cause unhealthy levels of stress and impact your everyday life. While it is responsible and loving to take care of aging parents, it can become a problem if you’re neglecting your own life and your other responsibilities. It will always be stressful to take care of aging parents, but you still need support, coping skills, and self-care. Normal stress is healthy, but when it becomes overly stressful and all consuming, step back and reset expectations and boundaries. Don’t cut out your parents, but modify your plans to help them while still supporting your own needs.
- Identify the positive aspects of the relationship (if any).
Is the relationship adding anything positive to your life? Does it add love, affection, guidance, or support? This will help you decide how, where, and when you want to spend time with your parents, and if you want to put time and energy into improving the relationship. If you can’t answer “yes” to any of the questions above, this might be a sign that the relationship needs some fine tuning and perhaps priorities, boundaries, and changes need to be verbalized. If the relationship offers nothing positive and only stress, aggravation, or emotional/verbal abuse, that’s not OK. Something needs to ultimately change or chronic stress will consume your life.
- Adjust your expectations.
After you’ve identified what is causing stress and what brings joy in the relationship, reflect on your expectations. Are you hoping for a “perfect” relationship? Are your goals for your parents and the relationship too much? Are you trying to control something that’s out of your control? Are you willing to accept your parents for who they are and accept their differences? It’s important to be realistic so you aren’t let down from having unattainable hopes.
- Try to maintain the relationship.
Try to resolve the issue with your parents. Tell them how you feel and what they can do to help. Maybe they just don’t realize how their actions affect you. If they are receptive and insightful, they might be willing to change. Try going to therapy together to learn how to communicate, or get to the root of your stressful relationship. You can set rules and boundaries, letting your parents know it’s for the best in order to preserve, and even improve, the relationship. And, in trying to improve the relationship, be willing and open to take an honest look at your own contributions to the relationship conflict and be ready to find ways to negotiate with your parents so their needs are also heard and considered.
- Are your parents unwilling to change?
If your parents don’t change or are unwilling to try, you have the right to limit contact with them, especially if they are creating a toxic and abusive environment or even adding nothing positive to the relationship. You can decide how much/often you want to see them. Before you suddenly disappear, tell them why you are limiting contact. Let them know their actions are seriously negatively impacting your life. You can say things like, “I feel stressed, hurt, discouraged, or abused when you continue doing XYZ. If you continue to do those things, I’ll have to limit contact with you in order to eliminate the stress I’m feeling,” “Despite my efforts to talk to you about what’s going on, it didn’t work – you haven’t made any effort to change or work on improving our relationship,” or “Accept me for who I am. I want someone by my side to support me.” If setting boundaries and limiting contact are ineffective, and your parents continue to be toxic or abusive, give yourself permission to let go and cut them out of your life completely if it must come to this in order for you to achieve a healthier lifestyle and seek overall mental and physical wellness. It’s OK to put yourself and your needs first.
- Focus on yourself.
In order to get healthy, both physically and mentally, make time for self-care. Are you not putting in enough time to take care of yourself? Are you not eating well? Not sleeping enough? Are you focusing too much on your relationship with your parents? Are you giving them too much of your time while neglecting yourself or your children or marriage? Do they demand too much of your time? Whatever the reason for the stressful relationship, identify your priorities (not theirs) and work towards your goals. Tell your parents what your priorities are, and let them know you intend to start taking care of yourself, which may mean spending less time with them. The only way to move forward with your life is to put your life first. It’s crucial to find a healthy balance between spending time with parents or family and focusing on self-care.
- Feel comfortable with your decisions.
Don’t feel guilty about whatever decisions you make. Don’t force yourself to do something you’re not comfortable with. Feel comfortable with the limits or boundaries you’ve set. If it causes you to be sad or more stressed, don’t do it. If your plan isn’t working, these limits and boundaries can change. They don’t have to be permanent. The whole point is to reduce stress on your end so you can be happier, healthier, and more productive.
Dr. Heather Violante provides therapy to adults struggling with anxiety and stressful relationships. Through therapy, she can help you get to the root of the relationship problems, improve your communication, assist you with setting/ enforcing boundaries, and help you find a solution that is beneficial for you. Contact her today to learn more and find inner peace.