Caught between adult children and aging parents

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The question
I’m 45 and I’m going through a difficult period in my life now. I’m having trouble controlling my adult daughter and dealing with aging parents, and I feel like I’m making my husband unhappy. I’m so stressed out.Whatever I do seems wrong. Any suggestions?

There’s a name for people who are excessively preoccupied with the needs of others at the expense of their own. It’s called “codependent.” Codependency is often characterized by low self-esteem, people-pleasing tendencies, emotional reactivity, excessive guilt, feelings of over-responsibility and a desire to fix and control others.

If you are codependent, you’re in good company — many people demonstrate some degree of codependency, especially if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, which many people do. The good news is that codependency need not be a chronic condition. With a little awareness, you can start to develop new habits and breathe a bit easier.

Let’s start with your daughter. Unless she has substantial disabilities that prevent her from taking care of herself, she is an adult and, by definition, responsible for her own life. Whether or not you approve of her life choices, they are hers to make and learn from, even if she falls. Letting go and setting boundaries can be one of the most difficult but important acts of love a parent can do. It communicates a subtle, often unspoken trust in the adult child’s abilities to make decisions.

Regarding your parents: While it may not be easy, you’re not alone. According to recent statistics, more than 48 million Americans are currently caring for aging parents (and spending a fortune in the process). And yes, it is stressful. If you are feeling overly responsible, try to share responsibilities with other family members and utilize community resources whenever possible. I suggest visiting the Administration on Aging’s website (www.aoa.gov) for information about services in your area.

Relationships with significant others (like your husband) is where codependency can be most insidious. There isn’t enough space in my column to do this justice so I’ll try to summarize. We are responsible for our own feelings. No one can strong-arm you into feeling joy. Yes, our actions have consequences on our relationships. But how others respond to and interpret our behavior is their choice, just as how we respond to their behavior is ours.

Finally, and most importantly, is the relationship with yourself. Take time to nurture yourself and reflect on how excessive people-pleasing and care-taking deplete you. Ask yourself questions like, “What do I want?” and “How do you I feel (about such and such)?” Since self-neglecting behaviors are often rooted in our families, consulting a therapist or attending a free Codependents Anonymous (www.coda.org) meeting may be helpful.


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