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My Parent is Stuck in a Defensive State...

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

I don't exactly have the best of news on this one, but I have to be honest, as best I understand it. You can't change your parents. You don't control that. You can't change anyone, really. Anyone. Except for yourself, I suppose. That limitation is our bumper lane. We have to stay within those bumpers, or else we end up in the gutter of trying (and failing) to change someone.

Still, though, you're dealing with a parent (or anyone) in a defensive state. That means they are stuck in a shut down and disconnected place, or a sympathetic angry or avoidant place. They don't have access to their safe and social system. This can be tremendously frustrating, painful, depressing, hurtful, rejecting and more. Take your pick, am I right?

First thing is to work on you. Make sure you're in your best state, with as much of an anchor in safety and sociability as you can. If you're not there yet, that's your task. That's it. Once you get a stronger anchor in safe/social, the rest of this is going to make more sense and be more doable.

When approaching a parent in their own defensive state, it needs to come from love. From curiosity. From compassion. Not from wanting to change them. Not from an agenda. If your motivation to reach out to a parent in a defensive state has something to do with, "I need them to..." or "If they would just..." or "Why won't they...?", then you've probably got an agenda.

That's not what curiosity sounds like. Nor compassion. Someone in their own safe/social system doesn't need something along those lines from someone else. They don't need anyone else to change, because they're already in a good place and they know that their own happiness is not dependent upon someone else's. If they find another to be toxic, they create distance, listening to their cues of danger they're picking up on. If they find another to be toxic, they create boundaries until it's safe. Until that person becomes safe to be around again.

"I'm in a good place and I would love for you to join me, but you don't have to and I respect that" is what compassion sounds like to me. That sentiment has nothing to do with changing someone and is fully respectful of the other person's choices they make for their own life.

When reaching out to a parent in a stuck defensive state, it may be helpful to look at it as an opportunity to make a brand new connection. As a new relationship without an agenda. Like with any new relationship, you'll be sensitive to potential danger cues. You won't give away too much or take too much either.

Does this mean you somehow forget about any pains that this parent may have caused you? No, I don't think so. I think it's always important to honor our pasts. Your parent is probably the same person. Time doesn't necessarily change someone and we can exist in our states for a very, very long time. They're probably the same.

But you're not. You may have a stronger safety anchor now. Or healthier boundaries. So when I say it may help to start over, that's what I mean. You're a different person. You see the world differently. You're more confident, self-assured, feel more connection. You're bringing this new version of you to your parent who is stuck. You're reintroducing yourself in a way. They're going to get to know you (if you allow it) and you're going to get to know them.

We don’t control others. We can’t fix others. But we can be well. We can insist on it for our own sake. Insist on it, just for you, just for yourself. Or out loud if you need to. Put yourself first. You need to be the best version of yourself. Only then are you able to make stronger connections for your own children, to function better at work or have a healthier romantic relationship. All of these depend on you being the best you.

You don't control your parent in a stuck state, but they don't control you either. No one does.

Creating boundaries doesn't mean you're ending a relationship. To me, it's physical and emotional distance to create some safety for ourselves. It's not a complete disconnection (unless it needs to be) - just some distance. And the great news is that someone can earn their way back into our boundaries. If they're healthy, safe and making positive choices in their life, they might be able to earn that back.

Be available for a loving relationship if you’re available for a loving relationship. Don't force it. You don't owe anything to them or anyone else. Stuck parents might use guilt, shame or blame to get you out of your healthy place. Trust yourself, enlist some support from someone else in their safety state. Trust in those danger cues your nervous system tells you about - check your gut, check your breathing, muscle tension and heart rate.

It's difficult to create boundaries, especially when it comes to parents. But we're supposed to do this in adolescence. We're supposed to be working toward independence. Not all parents allow this process to happen. But it's supposed to. That's what we're wired to do. So you might not have done so during this time, but it's not too late. You're just a little late to the game, but you've arrived!

You'll still love your parents. That doesn't have to change. But it might look different. You may love them so much that you're not willing to be a part of their defensive state anymore.

You may love them so much that you're willing to be infinitely patient, without putting your life and well-being on hold.


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