How can I communicate better with my parents or at least let them understand my point of view when they don’t want to listen to me?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How can I communicate better with my parents or at least let them understand my point of view? They are pretty stubborn. I always try telling them about my feelings about the matter, but they won’t bother listening to me, or in some cases, they think that I’m just being “emotional and whiny.”

I respect and love them a lot, and that is why I stop pursuing the matter, and I always end up being the one to apologise even thought it was not my fault. It’s really annoying and sad that it always ends like that. Do you have any advice on what I can do about this?

Yes, parents are awfully tough to deal with especially if they’re stubborn. But there is one additional problem you must deal with now that you are a young adult in university. This is the age where you are discovering yourself, you are discovering what independence really means (e.g. living on your own in campus, working part-time jobs or internships, having relationships, coming home late or bunking in peoples’ houses, paying your own bills, etc.). And this is also the age where parents are starting to realise that their “little” child is not little anymore, and many parents are afraid to lose their grasp of that “little” child that they have cared for so long. It’s rare for them to admit it. Maybe it’s an Asian parent thing, maybe they just don’t have the concept to make sense of what is going on. Whatever it is, there is a fear of losing you, and some will try to increase their control in an irrational attempt to grasp on to the past.

At your age, I don’t think it’s healthy to keep apologising especially when you are not the one at fault. Because you do need to discover your own independence and individuality. If you ever have to live on your own in the future, you need to know – now, at this formative age – how to stand on your own two feet. I know someone who only discovered real independence in her 30s when she had to go overseas to work. But because she never knew how to be independent on her own in her formative young adult years, she’s been pretty self-destructive as she doesn’t know how to cope with such independence and freedom.

Or if you find a partner whom you wish to settle down with, you don’t want your parents to be too involved in your relationship that they begin to dictate the terms of your relationship/marriage. I know someone whose girlfriend’s mother did not like him and she dictated the terms of their relationship, e.g. how the girl can interact with him, and all that. It’s very unhealthy for both of them (the girl especially) and for the relationship.

For many people, overbearing future in-laws are a deal-breaker because they don’t want to marry into a family whose parents are control freaks. Regardless, such parents do introduce a new vector of stress into your relationship.

It’s good that you love and respect them. It’s also time to learn to be your own self and to stand on your own two feet. Most people lack patience in dealing with stubborn parents, and so it leads to a lot of arguments and fights. But here’s the thing… The problem with verbal face-to-face communication is that most people are not very calm and patient. They tend to react upon hearing something they cannot accept, and especially so if your parents feel that they are losing their precious little child who’s growing up too fast. And so what often happens is that they react and they end up disrupting the communicative process. So you don’t ever get to finish presenting your line of reasoning to them. The conversation would have ended just as you got started.

There are two ways around this that will be a lot more peaceful. It doesn’t mean there won’t be fights, but at least you can be sure that you can get your point across and hopefully elicit a calm(er) response from them:

(1) Write a letter to them stating your point of view. Be sensitive to their feelings (their fears and anxieties) are you write the letter. It can be as long as you want. Writing a letter is also good for you because you don’t get agitated by their reactions, so you can write calmly throughout. Handing your parents a letter will be a very unusual move. Who gives letters to parents these days, right? So the very act of handing them a letter will be incredibly dissonant to their heads, and best of all, they have no past experience to look to as a guide on how to react.

This will force them to read the letter in its entirety (because they care for you). Even if they get upset reading it, they can still continue reading, and this allows you to get your point across. The fact that they have no past experience in dealing with something like this means that you are forcing them to think harder about how they should respond to what they have just read and experienced. Now, I don’t know about your generation of parents. But mine are not very educated, so they won’t be able to articulate clearly their own thoughts into a letter. If your parents are like this, then ask them to find a time where they are not busy to respond to the letter in person (give them time and space). Otherwise, if you have parents who are quite educated, then ask them to reply in writing. The act of writing forces people to think and rethink their own thoughts, beliefs, and even actions. And so that can be very beneficial to draw them out of their stubbornness. So this is something you can consider doing.

I highly recommend the above method, i.e. letter writing. But if for whatever reason letter writing may not work for you, you might want to consider the second method:

(2) Invite an outsider whom your parents respect and regard as a neutral party between you and them. This would be the mediation approach. The mediator will set the rules for engagement: only one person gets to speak at a time without interruption, accusatory language should be avoided at all cost, and we must acknowledge that each other’s feeling are valid and real. The mediator should give both parties equal air time, and if possible help to rephrase the points and help to highlight the main message that each party is trying to convey. With an outsider present (one whom your parents respect), you can be sure that your parents will not lose their shit when you share your thoughts and views. They will do their best to not lose their face in front of this outsider (usually), and they will play by the rules of engagement. The mediator also helps to protect both sides from attacks, so both can be vulnerable and open without fear. In this way, you have a space to open your heart out to them, and they’ll be made to respond to what you say in a calm and rational way, so that both parties can have a calm discussion.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to engage them in a more productive and calm way. I wish you all the best in this matter. Have patience, and courage!

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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