It feels like my dad always underestimates me. How do I make him understand? | Leading questions

You can’t make people listen when they don’t want to, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but you can state your case as clearly as possible

I’m in my 20s now but it feels like my dad always underestimates me. He finds faults with whatever I do and gives me lessons all the time in order that “I can become a better person”, which makes me feel sad and pressured in my own home.

What should I do for him to understand me while he tends to refuse to listen?

Eleanor says: Here’s the basic rule for how to make someone understand you: you can’t.

This is a very hard lesson to learn. It’s so mind-meltingly frustrating to give someone your best reasoning and communication and to be met with blithe disregard – to be treated as though you haven’t spoken. It feels like standing inside a large fishbowl beating on the glass, unable to attract the attention of the person on the other side. Especially when that person is family, it’s acutely difficult to stop craving their acknowledgment. It is very difficult to learn that more beating on the glass doesn’t mean more chance of being heard.

But listen, it’s an unbreakable rule: you cannot make a person hear you if they do not want to listen.

The only thing that’s within your control is whether you’ve been as clear as possible. Often we credit ourselves with being clearer than we have in fact been. A remark here, a raised eyebrow there, and we’ll consider our protest lodged.

Routinely, though, that isn’t enough – it can take three or four or 12 separate conversations to get through, or we can become derailed from our point when we try to say it out loud. It can help to really invest in pre-conversation mental preparation: what’s the key message you want him to understand? What’s one concrete thing you’d like to be different? How does it make you feel when these things go unheard?

Being as explicit as possible secures two nice results: one, you give him the best chance possible at being kind to you – if he’s a basically good dad who can be a bit oblivious, he might welcome a noisy lesson in how he’s affecting you. Two, even if he’s not a basically nice dad you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to stick up for yourself. It’s a nice feeling, being your own best defender.

If after several attempts at explicit communication he still doesn’t listen, I think the only sanity-preserving move is to stop looking for the way of beating on the fishbowl that will finally work. You have to focus instead on what you can control.

Suppose he keeps underestimating you. That will sting, but it is not ultimately yours to fix. What you can try to alter is how you interpret that fact. So he thinks you’re not as good a person as you could be, or he sees flaws in whatever you do. He might as well think you should be a tuba player, or be wrong about what colour hair you have – he’s simply mistaken, and the fact that he’s mistaken doesn’t need to feel agitating.

People are wrong about stuff all the time. Many people will be mistaken about you over the course of your life. It is seldom worth the energy to prove them all wrong.

Parents should listen to their kids. But if they’re not going to, your best bet is to listen to yourself instead. I think you already told me what you needed to hear: you told me that your dad under-estimates you. You told me he’s getting it wrong.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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