I moved out of home at 18 and halfway around the world at 22, from the US to Australia, where I’ve been ever since. I’m now 33, which means I’ve had 15 years of living out of home and over a decade of that, in a foreign country. And while it’s all been by choice and I’m definitely not complaining, it hasn’t always been easy — particularly navigating life when my family is, physically, so far away.
But my point with all that is that I’m clearly an adult. And one who’s had to handle a lot on my own. So, why do I still care so much what my dad thinks? Why am I still so thrilled to share with him about my accomplishments? And why do I still get such a sense of satisfaction from a text from him that says, “I’m proud” or “well done”?
According to Tara Hurster, a psychologist and founder of The TARA Clinic, the reason we, as kids, care what our parents think is an evolutionary thing. “If we weren’t accepted or deemed worthy in primitive times then children would become very vulnerable to threats and risks, such as not having food, safety or shelter,” she explains.
As adults, we still care because we’re social animals, and more like sheep than we give sheep credit for, Hurster says. “Again, if I have to fend for myself on my own then I would need more energy and resources than if I was part of a group,” she says. “Plus, we are wired to desire approval and acceptance from our primary caregivers, which is usually our parents.”
It makes sense. But is it a problem? Can caring too much what a parent thinks have a negative effect? Hurster says the question is tricky as there are a lot of different aspects to it.
“When we care so much about what someone else thinks or believes about us or what we should or shouldn’t do, then we miss out on the lessons we can learn by thinking for ourselves,” she says. “Sometimes, this can come from a particular parenting style from our upbringing, such as if we were taught what to think rather than how to think. Then we grow up with little confidence in our own abilities.”
While I’d have to do some deep thinking about whether that was the case with my own upbringing — that I was taught what to think, rather than how to think — and, to be honest, there are a few more layers to the story I’d have to unpack, if you do find yourself resonating with having had that style of parenting, Hurster suggests some ways you can break free of that need for your parents’ approval, as an adult.
“Take small steps to set goals, make decisions and do your own learning are great ways to break away from feeling dictated from others,” she says. “Each time you experience an opportunity to make a decision and you’re concerned you might make the wrong one, go to a colleague or a friend with a clear option of what you think you’d like to do and then ask for their feedback no that — rather than simply saying ‘I don’t know what to do’ or ‘what would you do?’.”
The other potential problem with caring too much about what your parents think is that they might not have the best thoughts. Their opinion may not even be the best one you need to hear.
To that, Hurst says to remember that not every person in your life is going to believe in the same things as you and you’re not always going to hear what you want to hear — and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Being challenged is super helpful,” she says. “However, if you’re noticing that the nature of the relationship isn’t helpful and you’d like to redefine it, using the following three-part sentence is a great way to communicate your needs clearly: ‘I feel… when you… I’d prefer…’. By clearly identifying your feelings as a result of a specific situation and then outlining what your needs are, you have the opportunity to redefine communication in general.”
As for if you’re a parent yourself and are noticing your focus and energy on your child is to the detriment of yourself, Hurster suggests setting some boundaries on your time and energy and engaging in some self-care activities for you.
“That models to your child what healthy adults do to care for their needs and offers them a skill for life,” she says. “In the same way, you can do this with adult children and vice versa. Focusing on self-care and boundaries is a great step to take. Speaking with a professional is also really helpful to identify any underlying unhelpful beliefs or behaviour patterns, too.”