Relationship Tips

​​5 Telltale Signs You Grew Up With a Defensive Parent—And How to Handle Them This Holiday Season

Photo: Getty Images/ jeffbergen

Amid all the festivities, the holiday season can be quite challenging for some people, whether it's due to carrying the mental load of the holidays for your whole family, navigating food shaming, or having difficulty setting boundaries. Spending more time with family during this season can also bring up a lot of stuff, particularly if don't know how to deal with defensive parents. 

Licensed psychotherapist Divya Robin, LMHC, explains that a defensive parent or caretaker responds to a child's needs or emotions with defensiveness, whether the child in question is young or an adult. "This defensiveness is often a response to feeling threatened or uncomfortable with the emotions that arise for a parent when their child is expressing how the parent's behavior impacted that child's well-being," she says.

This defensive behavior, she adds, sends implicit messages to the child, for example, that it's not safe for them to have physical, emotional, or mental needs or that they must do everything on their own, which can negatively affect them psychologically even in adulthood. 

Below, Robin shares five signs you grew up with a defensive parent and tips on how to deal with them during the holidays. 

5 telltale signs you grew up with a defensive parent

1. They shift the blame to you

Robin notes that a defensive parent will often play the victim whenever you bring up memories with them, especially ones that brought you pain. Or, they may deny the experience altogether. She adds that this behavior sends the message that love is conditional, meaning your parent will love and support you only if you avoid bringing up anything negative they have done toward you. 

2. They justify their behaviors

If they don't shift the blame onto you or deny the experience, Robin says a defensive parent may also "justify" their behaviors by bringing up past experiences and explaining why they treated you the way they did rather than validating your feelings. For example, they may say something like, "Well, I did that because you were a problem child." 

3. They interrupt you when you share your feelings

Because defensive parents feel threatened or uncomfortable when their child expresses their emotions, Robin says they are quick to interrupt them when they share how they feel. Your parent may also exhibit cognitive distortions like making catastrophizing assumptions about your emotional experience. For instance, they may say, "Oh, I bet you were so miserable living here then and hated me, right?" As a result, you subconsciously learn that expressing your feelings in relationships is not safe because it will lead to conflict, which can impact how you communicate in adult relationships. 

4. They feel they know "best"

In addition to interrupting you when you share your feelings, Robin says a defensive parent may speak on your behalf because they claim to "know best." "This may be a conscious or unconscious defense mechanism to control you into not forming your own opinions because they may be opinions they don't like," she says. Again, this teaches you that there isn't space for your voice or that your voice doesn't matter. 

5. You walk on eggshells around them

A parent's defensive behavior may also make you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them, Robin says, meaning you’re extra careful about what you say and do around them to prevent them from “blowing up” and becoming defensive toward you. 

How to deal with defensive parents during the holiday season

When dealing with a defensive parent, Robin strongly emphasizes the importance of understanding that defensiveness is a behavior, not a character trait that is an inherent aspect of their personality. And because it is a behavior, that means one can change it if one chooses. Here's why it's essential to understand this distinction: "When we keep the focus on behavior versus the person, then it creates a greater understanding of the root of one's actions," she explains. "Though someone's behaviors can hurt us, we can not define a person's entire being on the behaviors they do." 

This brings us to Robin's next tip: Reflect on how willing you think your defensive parent is to change their behavior. Some may be open to it, but others may not. "This can be a hard realization for many that their caretaker's behavior of defensiveness is deeply rooted, and though it is possible to change, they may not be willing to," she says. From there, you can choose whether or not you want to communicate your feelings about how their defensive behavior affects you, knowing that there is a chance that they may respond in a defensive way. 

Whether you voice those feelings or not, Robin says the key is to set boundaries with your defensive parent. "This may be boundaries around how much time you spend with them, the conversations you have with them, and how involved you allow them to be in your life." Reflecting on how their defensive behaviors and tendencies negatively impact your well-being can help provide the motivation and courage to set those boundaries to protect yourself.

And lastly, Robin encourages surrounding yourself with the people in your life with whom you have a supportive and validating relationship, whether it's a romantic relationship or a friendship, especially during the holidays when you may need that additional support while navigating family gatherings.  

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