Dealing with parental disappointment over career choices is a rite of passage for many. And for some of us, it’s a continuing struggle.
In a Morning Consult survey of 1,136 parents of people ages 18 to 28, 14 percent of parents said they told their adult children what career to pursue.
Good parents want what is best for you, but conflict happens when their version of career success does not match yours. Author, teacher and lawyer Michelle Kuo experienced this with her Taiwanese immigrant parents when she taught in rural Arkansas and turned down a corporate offer to do legal aid.
She said that whenever she sought transcendental understanding with her parents, “which was most of my 20s and even my early 20s, I always had my heart broken … even by little, small things like my mom making a comment about some person I grew up with who owns a lot of property or always [making] a comment about doctors, who are very prized in Taiwan.”
Knowing how to listen to the inner voice telling you to keep going in spite of naysayers is a career lesson every person has to learn. This challenge can be harder when a critic is someone you love. Here’s how to manage your expectations with your parents and set up boundaries when they or other family members are bewildered by or vocally opposed to the career you want.
1. Show your enthusiasm
If you like and are committed to the work you are doing, celebrate this uncommon achievement with your family. According to a 2017 report from Gallup, only 1 in 3 Americans workers surveyed said they were engaged with their work.
Susan Newman, a social psychologist and the author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father, suggested you talk about what you do with your parents, projecting how happy you are in that particular job to help them get over disappointment.
“The bottom line with parents is that they want their kids to be happy,” she said. For people with parents in a completely different line of work, “it helps to explain what you do and explain the field to your parents, because they’re totally in the dark.“
2. Ask questions about their disapproval
“Getting to the core of why your parents feel as strongly as they do could also help ease your feelings about their disappointment,” Newman said. “Perhaps a parent wants you to be independent when she may not have been. Or a parent sees a field and says, ‘Ah, my child is so talented, he or she can be extremely successful in this field.’”
Your parents’ opposition to your career can feel less hostile when you know the reasons for their stance. Being curious about their responses can also make the conversation less of a battleground.
“Boundaries aren’t just about putting up walls with people. The best boundaries are flexible. They let people in, but they keep the wrong things out,” said Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and an executive coach. “With parents who disapprove of your career, it’s important to not just close them off, because a lot of times, they are coming from a good place.”
Your understanding of their position comes from inviting a conversation, asking questions and sharing stories. Wilding suggested asking, “What about this career path concerned you? What are you nervous will happen? What’s the worst-case scenario in your mind?”
Kuo said part of her journey involved asking her parents about where they grew up and asking them what dreams and careers they wanted when they were younger. “You strive to understand them rather than to be understood,” she said. “You really can’t unroot a person from years and years of historical and cultural background in which they learned which professions are the most successful.”
Try to have compassion for your parents and yourself. When you make value judgments about their responses, it can set you up for more disappointment.
“Saying ‘Why can’t you do this? Why can’t you do that?’ is an instant way to make people defensive and to up the emotional temperature in the conversation,” Wilding said.
3. Accept that they may never understand you
We all seek to be known, but part of growing up is learning that you will not always be understood and coming to terms with your parents’ disappointment about your choices.
“Accept that you are an entirely different person,” said Newman. “What you do in your career does not necessarily reflect on them.”
“Setting a boundary, too, is realizing that their concerns are more about them than they are a judgment of you,” Wilding said. “That is their own perception, their own beliefs that they are projecting onto you, a lot of times.“
To maintain this boundary, she suggested focusing the conversation back on your parents if they express disapproval. She said that conversation could look like you saying, “Having a creative career or working in technology — yes, it comes with a lot of risks, and I understand why that may be scary to you.”
Being comfortable with their discomfort also means realizing that approval and understanding may never come.
“If, at any moment, you feel yourself expecting understanding from them, stop. Ask yourself: Why do I need it?” Kuo wrote in a New York Times essay on disobeying her parents.
Wilding said that if you need your parents’ approval to feel career success, that is a red flag for co-dependency and you should ask yourself, “What is the deeper need that I’m trying to get my parents’ approval for?”
4. Put limits on talking about your career
You get to decide what kind of relationship you have with your parents as an adult. That includes negotiating what you do and do not want to discuss with them about your career.
Establish how open you want to be with your parents. You can ask them, “Can we agree that when we’re together to not talk about work?” Wilding suggested making an explicit request like, “Here’s what I need from you right now. I just need you to support me and not jump into solution mode or give advice.”
Having a conversation with your parents about unreconcilable differences can be uncomfortable, but it is better to set up this boundary sooner than later. Unchecked, some parents can even intrude on their children’s job searches, to the dismay of hiring managers. In a 2016 survey from staffing firm OfficeTeam, managers recalled instances of parents arriving with their adult child’s resume and calling to see why their offspring did not get hired.
5. Admit that you don’t have all the answers
Recognize that you can be certain about a career right now and then change your mind in the future. That does not invalidate your choice.
“You won’t have all the answers, because so much will depend on your mentors, your work colleagues, on the work,” Newman said. “That gives you the option to say, ‘Look, parents, maybe I am making a mistake. Things change. But for now, this is what I want to try.’”
6. Thank your parents
Even if they may never show you genuine understanding, you can thank your loved ones for helping you become the person you are.
“I think that helps relieves some of the tension and disappointment if you let them know you are appreciative of their input and support,” Newman said.
“Focus on the values they’ve instilled in you — not so much ‘Well, thanks for paying for my education,’” Wilding said. “Talking at the values level is much more motivating and influential. It resonates on a deeper level than just talking about money and logistical things alone.”
You could mention how your parents brought you up to stay true to yourself or value other people, for example.
The line between acknowledging the sacrifices your parents made without sacrificing your goals can be tricky and is different for each person.
“Staying true to one’s principles is so individualistic, and being filial is the opposite,” Kuo said. “It’s recognizing that one is tied to others. That’s the hardest part, is figuring out what the balance looks like. If you are indebted to your parents, then what do you owe them? That’s the question each person has to face on her own.”
7. Don’t internalize their disapproval as yours
If your parents make you feel inadequate because of the career you want, that does not mean you are inadequate. Wilding said that people can fall into the trap of emotional reasoning, in which they conflate feelings with facts.
Before you talk about your career with your family, you need to prove to yourself that this is what you want, Wilding said, adding, “If you assume that these people’s disapproval means you are not capable, then you’re never going to follow through with your dreams or find a career that’s fulfilling to you. It really comes down to knowing yourself.”