6 Types Of Badly-Behaved Parents & How To Deal With Them Over The Holidays
Parents are, in general, tolerable inventions, but during the holiday season they can display some behaviors that make you wonder why the human race hasn't yet developed the ability to just sprout in cabbage patches. Something about the combination of forcible cheer, close proximity, complicated cooking, and copious alcohol seems to induce many parents (and relatives in general) to take off their Generally Sane Adult hat and replace it with one that says Driving Everybody Slowly Insane. It's natural that holidays invite flare-ups, but there are certain behaviors that can be dealt with effectively, provided you know the right psychological tips and tricks for dealing with bad parental behavior.
Let's be clear: there's bad parent behavior and then there's toxic parent behavior. Bad behavior is often done out of love, ignorance, or bad habits — while toxicity is often about power, control, guilt, manipulation, or keeping you under their thumb. (If you don't know the difference, here's my guide to toxic behavior in parents.) The important thing to remember about merely bad behavior is that it often doesn't come from a nasty place. All your responses should be tempered by the fact that you love this person and they love you, even if they're driving you so crazy you want to sell them on eBay. Love means respect, giving each other space, and treating your parents like complex adults on your own level as much as possible.
So if you want to survive the holidays without locking yourself or a parent in a cupboard with the leftover Hannukah decorations, here's your expert guide on dealing with some of the trickiest bad parental behaviors. (No, you are not allowed to throw cranberry sauce.)
1. The Passive-Aggressive Parent
How To Recognize Them: They'll tell you it's "fine" that you didn't do what they wanted, and aggressively pretend everything is just great, in a way that implies your sweet potato preferences have really ruined everything, but they're too well-bred to say so. They can't figure out how to voice their problems or how they feel, so they hope you'll pick up on their negative signals yourself.
What To Do: My husband has a fantastic way of dealing with passive-aggression; take everything they say literally. If they say it's fine, say "great!" and cheerily behave as if they really are OK with everything. Ignore their aggressive subtext entirely. Do not reward this behavior with fuss or attention. Rather than confrontation, which can make their conflict-averse problem even worse, Psychology Today also recommends setting out strong consequences every time they do it; ignoring it can often do the trick.
2. The Picker
How To Recognize Them: They just will not leave it alone. Whatever it is (college choices, why you broke up with that boy, why you're wearing that jumper, whether you're doing well at your job), they have absolutely no sense of the word "no". Even if you've told them the answer already. Even if you've said it twenty times.
What To Do: If you've straight-up said "I love you, but I don't want to talk about it" and they're not getting it, resort to other measures. It's important, psychologists say, to give a clear indication every time they break a boundary.
Humor is also often a good way to deal with this one. Blocking their pushing by giving a new, increasingly ridiculous answer every time they ask — "I don't understand why you broke up with that nice boy!" "Well, he turned out to be a Satanist, and I don't like blood pentagrams on my carpet" — will hopefully give them the point that it's off-limits. And if all else fails, enlist a sibling or fellow family member to change the subject whenever it's raised.
3. The Sulker
How To Recognize Them: Something goes wrong, affronts their dignity, or creates disorder, and they have no problem with sitting for the entirety of a festive meal in intense, sad silence.
What To Do: I have a policy with sulky relatives. I give them one chance to explain their problem and resolve it peacefully, but if they get set into a sulk, they can have quiet time on their own. That said, sulkers often find it very difficult to deal with emotions, so a bit of calm and understanding can go a long way.
4. The Interrogator
How To Recognize Them: You and anybody else who brings new partners home have developed a system to prevent this parent capturing them alone. They often mean well, and it's just over-developed curiosity and kindness, but being subjected to a CIA interrogation about intentions, earning potential, and credit ratings can scare the pants off a new flame.
What To Do: Give them a primer before the partner arrives, so the major questions are answered, if possible. Give the partner a heads-up that this is possibly coming, too, so that they can prepare answers if they want. And run subtle interference; try to be present for the conversation, derail any intimate or excessive probes with humor or a well-placed gravy spill, and then exit stage left.
5. The Hyper-Controller
How To Recognize Them: These parents likely have a strong sense of the tradition of Christmas, and often have the kind of system for a perfect holiday that would make your average aeronautical engineer faint. Things are timed to the second, plates are juggled ten at a time, everybody must keep to a rigid schedule, and woe betide anybody who deviates even slightly. What do you mean you're not having fun? Fun is on the itinerary between 6.43 and 6.52 p.m!
What To Do: This can actually be a pretty benign bad behavior, but if fights ensue because things don't go to plan, it's time to step up. Volunteer to help. Encourage them to focus on relaxation. Make them take their sticky mitts off the reins. You are likely dealing with a perfectionist with anxious tendencies, so rolling your eyes and telling them to "chill out" isn't going to help: you need to make them feel safe while allowing them to relinquish control. Let them hover or "supervise" if they start to panic. Encourage them to see that things are still successful and pleasurable even when elements go wrong: concrete evidence to fight their fears is a useful thing for them to possess.
6. The Fire-Starter
How To Recognize Them: They're the ones who like throwing out political questions and controversial topics over the dinner table. A little bit of feisty discussion is great, but if this sort of behavior always ends in thrown latkes and at least one person nursing a slapped head, it's not exactly a peaceful holiday season for anybody.
What To Do: Figure out what they're trying to do. Are they worried that things aren't interesting without current events? Are they showing off their knowledge? Trying to change somebody's point of view? Do they just rejoice in havoc? A polite request to keep high-octane talk away from the table this season might backfire, so peaceful disobedience — refusing to participate, even when people are being complete idiots — may be your best policy.
The expert psychological advice: don't engage. Don't get drawn in. Make jokes about nonsense, go quiet, start your own intense discussion about the merits of mashed versus crushed potatoes: mount an inoffensive rebellion, in other words.
Images: Tribeca Productions; Giphy