The most common thing people in therapy discuss about their parents, according to therapists

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The most common thing people in therapy discuss about their parents, according to therapists

The Netflix film Otherhood follows three empty-nester mothers (played by Felicity Huffman, Angela Bassett, and Patricia Arquette), who decide to invade the lives of their neglectful grown sons under the guise of being helpful. The ill-fated plan of the overbearing parents eventually leads each woman to realize what she needs more desperately than attention from her child is to form an identity outside of motherhood—both for the good of herself and her child.

Though none of the three sons in the film attended therapy as a method for handling stress and feelings associated with events related to their…intrusive mothers, based on what two pros tell me, it seems like the very topic that comes up most often when clients discuss their parents in sessions. “Common conversations I have with clients about their relationship with their parents revolve around having overbearing or ‘helicopter’ parents and having difficulty creating boundaries with them,” says counselor Liz Higgins, LMFT and founder of Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas.

This often happens as a result of people needing to develop the capacity to rely on themselves early in adulthood, and trying to detach from parents to some degree, says Portland, Oregon-based psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock, LPC. Parents who are overbearing or even simply too available make this separation incredibly difficult, and as a result, some people, especially generations that are currently navigating the earlier stages of adulthood, are failing to form what Byock calls a “deep trust that one can survive and rely on themselves without their parents.”

“People’s parents are often accessible any time of day via text email or phone, so differentiating one’s self and the capacity to rely on oneself from the fact that their parents are immediately available for all sorts of needs is important.” —psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock, LPC

This creates a dependence that is not necessarily a failing on the part of the child. “Many millennials are categorized as entitled, lazy, and selfish. However I often hear this generation express difficulty finding their own autonomy and place in the world, especially when parents seem to enable, or perhaps disable, their adult children from experiencing normal life progressions and consequences,” says Higgins. 

What this may look like in action, Higgins says, is ongoing, unfettered financial support or rent-free living with no eviction date. But Byock points out that it can also manifest as 24/7 emotional support. “People’s parents are often accessible any time of day via text email or phone, so differentiating one’s self and the capacity to rely on oneself from the fact that their parents are immediately available for all sorts of needs is important,” she explains.

It’s a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all solution, but according to Byock, it’s important that everyone involved acknowledges whats going on and respects everyone’s point of view. One strategy for accomplishing that piece of the puzzle? Therapy—for parents, too. “Parents these days want to be immediately available to their children,” Byock says. “Their own sense of identity is wrapped up in the children they raised and their own deepest relationships may be with those children.” For this reason, she says, it’s really important for parents to be in therapy themselves so that they can learn to let go of their kids.

It’s really crucial work, since living within the scope of a dependent dynamic on an ongoing basis has its consequences. “It can really create issues for both parent and adult child, and this shows up in many different ways, ” says Higgins, who notes that some of the ways include anxiety, unhealthy communication, misunderstanding and depression.

So, the next time your parent makes you feel guilty for remaining on their payroll or calls you 20 times in one day, communicate your feelings and consider suggesting therapy. Or, you could just casually suggest they watch Otherhood and hope the hint gets taken that it’s time to stop being overbearing.

Looking for more free therapy? Find out why one pro thinks people cheat. Plus, here are a few things therapists advise never saying in an argument