Just as some background: both of my parents are engineers, they pushed math on me throughout high school (I participated in math competitions, I liked it; I've also been really active on Math SE because of them), and I'm ending my freshman year of university. I came in as undeclared, and this is roughly the time many of my classmates are declaring their major.

My parents and I didn't fight very much when I was young - usually I was really submissive, did whatever they asked on the surface, and whenever I wanted to do something other than their wishes, I'd do the standard teenager thing and sneak out, lie, whatever. I'm not trying to defend my actions, but hopefully it gives some context.

They currently pay for my college tuition and my only real form of income is a part-time job I have at university. There's absolutely zero way I could pay for university on my own, and considering it's a private university for another three years, the total is about 150,000.

My parents were talking the other day about declaring my major, and they seemed to be set on my choosing engineering - after all, I never outwardly showed that I didn't like math or physics (I like both of those subjects). But I tried to explain to them that I actually wanted to major in psychology and cognitive science. I've met with a few graduate students in the psych program and I think it's a good fit for me, and this past semester I started taking some of the required classes in the major.

My parents weren't too happy about that - after two hours of yelling, I couldn't take it anymore and just hung up the call. They made threats of not paying for my degree. They're supposed to come to pick me up from university (I have to move out of the dorms) in a few days, but I've tried texting/calling them ever since the past phone call and they haven't replied.

Maybe I'm overreacting and maybe this is just them trying to cope with their daughter disobeying them for the first time, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do. What recourse do I have? I'm not entitled to a paid college tuition, but I feel like I should have the right to decide my own career path. Just because I never disliked math doesn't mean I want to major in it.

The immediate concern is that I'll have no one to pick me up from university, and the long-term concern is that I just caused a huge rift with my parents that might be unfixable. Since the semester is ending, the psychological services on campus are swamped with students, none of my friends know my parents personally, and I don't have a car to even try to see a therapist. I don't have anyone to turn to.


I just took a few finals today and they went okay - I'm trying to ignore the situation while my exams are ongoing. I texted my parents a few times and I still haven't gotten a reply.

  • 2
    Perhaps your question would be better suited for SE Academia, users could offer which options are open to you. You might also hear from others with similar experiences to yours. The fact your parents are refusing to return your calls indicates the level of their maturity: they are acting like adolescents who sulk and slam the bedroom door because they are not getting their own way.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 6:15
  • Reminded me of xkcd.com/1052
    – user7953
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 12:36
  • I disagree. This isn't a question about Academia, but rather a question about how to handle parents.
    – Jeff.Clark
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 18:38
  • Well, they are engineers. Write up a report detailing pros and cons and send it off to them. Even if it fails, it might lighten up the mood..
    – Swati
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 18:03

6 Answers 6


MakorDal has already given some good advice. I'd also add: when you are able to talk to your parents again, start by emphasising the things you agree on.

  • You both want you to be a happy, healthy prosperous adult.

  • You agree a good education is key to making this happen.

  • You agree that it is very good of your parents to fund your education, and that you are very fortunate they are in a position to do so.

Make a list of points like this. Hopefully you can add some more, as you know them better than we do.

Then when you talk, start by going over these points. Get them nodding in agreement. Then once you have them agreeing you can use those points of agreement as a basis for your argument. For example:

  • You wouldn't be happy as an engineer.

  • Being engaged with your studies means that you will get better grades.

  • Your chosen field has plenty of opportunities to make money.

The trick is, once you start disagreeing with someone it takes an effort to stop, and people don't want to make that effort. But it works the other way too: once people start nodding they tend to carry on.

Another conflict resolution strategy that can work well is to summarize their point of view back to them as well as you can. It needs to be so good that they wish they could have put it that way themselves. Then say "So how do you think that looks from my point of view?".

  • Thank you for your reply. Regarding your third point, I don't know if "money" is necessarily a driving factor for them. I haven't asked them directly, but I don't know if they'd be satisfied with "stockbroker" or "doctor" as career paths, either. But I really appreciate your overall point: a body nodding stays nodding.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:14

We know a bit about your situation, we weren't there for your ill fated phone call, so I'll give you barely an answer.

First :
Do you have someone in your family that can act as an intermediary, like a sibling, aunt/uncle or a grand parent ?

Second :
About your major, if your parents are both engineers, I'd advise you to prepare what you want to say to them :

  • approach this from the scientific side.
  • have in mind a list of works/jobs you can have with those studies.

Your parents come probably from an educational background where human sciences are a bit ridiculed. On the other hand, I have often seen people studying those subjects with no idea what they would do afterwards, or even what they could do. In my country psychology, sociology and philosophy curriculum are considered as ways to get student scholarship while lazying around.
So If you combine all this, they see their kid getting into a path that will lead her back home with a blocked future. No parent wants that.

I'm not saying you should give in to their demands. But consider why they make those, and have answers ready. Also, accept to consider their arguments. Even if it's your life and your choices, your parents might be right.

Also, stop sneaking around, it's what brought you where you are now. Some friction is not a bad thing, without it, you risk getting a break. You will not be the only one responsible for it, of course !

  • I don't have any relatives that live near me, no. I could call an uncle/aunt about the situation, but it doesn't really help the short-term "I have no one to pick me up from university" problem. Also, it's not that I'm majoring in just psychology - it's a cognitive science program that incorporates computer science, natural language processing, statistics... I'm sure this is what I want to do, and I've explained the field to my parents, but they're unsatisfied. They seem to want engineering with no wiggle room, for a reason I can't fully explain or understand.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:12
  • For the short term, I can't really help you - hence the "barely answer". Maybe break the proverbial piggy bank and thus show your determination and willingness. But also your resourcefulness. I tried to write from a new parent and a former student point. But I never had to face your problems.
    – MakorDal
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 3:05
  • Thank you for your reply. It's hard to just suddenly not have financial backing, especially when I'm at an expensive university. I don't think I undervalue my parents' investment in me, but trying to pay for college myself will likely result in an education that takes much longer and is much more drawn out - not bad, but probably also not what my parents intended.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 23:08
  • Contact your university secretary and explain that you have to settle some problems with your parents. Then go home for a weekend when you can see them, face to face. Phone is better than text, but face is even better.
    – MakorDal
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 5:25

I've been on your side of the fence, in a similar situation and, looking back, I'm extremely grateful for how things turned out.

When I entered college, what I really wanted to be was a camp counselor, working with kids in a less formal setting. My grandmother, who funded my education (after my father flatly refused, saying "there's no point in throwing away money on college for women, since they just get married and quit working") said "I'm not going to pay all this money unless you get a useful major." I was upset, but she held the purse strings, so after one month as a PE major, I switched over to a business major, which was acceptable to her.

It was my intention to just barely fulfill the requirements for the school of business, while at the same time taking the classes that I wanted to. I took psychology, biology, language arts, history...slices out of lots of different departments. I took drama and acted in school plays. I took horseback riding and creative writing.

At the end of my first year, I took a class entitled "Computer Science for Business Students". It was required, not anything I had any interest in. By the end of the class I had realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Now, I am making a really fantastic income and loving what I do. Many of my friends, who were language, literature and music and psychology majors, are struggling to pay the rent for their one room apartments. Many of them haven't managed to pay off their student loans yet. This isn't meant as a slam on liberal arts, but nobody can deny that it is a lot harder to get a good paying job with a liberal arts major. It's a terrible shame, because I think most of the things we learn in liberal arts are more significant to our development as people and as a society than the sciences, but the money follows the sciences.

Here's what I think you should take away from all this. You can have it all. I had a double major in Intl Business and Marketing, with minors in Math, Psychology, Computer Science and Behavioral Science. I'm a computer programmer, and have been for thirty years. My business classes occasionally are useful, but it was my minor that I pursued as a career.

If you choose for your major a subject that has great earnings potential and is acceptable to your parents, that will reassure them that you won't end up unable to earn a living. Then you can take a minor in Psychology, or even a double major. When I went to college, it was a lot easier to take liberal arts classes on a science major than the reverse. Every class that you are interested in will be open to you. And once you graduate, you can pursue a career in whatever you wish.

  • Thank you for your reply. As I mentioned in another comment, it's not just a psych program - it incorporates aspects from computer science, natural language processing, artificial intelligence... and I've explained this to my parents, too. My prospective major has good job prospects (that's not at all why I'm choosing it, though). I fear that declaring an engineering major would make my classes too rigid, since the engineering department here doesn't leave a lot of room for electives (not to mention I'd be behind on the prerequisites).
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:16
  • While this is great advice, it doesn't really address how to work with one's parents at all :)
    – Acire
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:57
  • 1
    @Erica, it is how I worked with my "parents" (grandmother). I was able to satisfy both her requirements and my own. So it seemed that it might address her situation. If it doesn't work for her, then that's okay, but I thought she should be able to at least consider it. Commented May 13, 2016 at 17:10
  • @anonymouse, it wasn't clear to me whether your parents' main objections were to your not declaring as an engineer, or to the idea of a psychology major. What about declaring as an electrical engineer, specializing in artificial intelligence? Maybe as a minor? Would that have enough overlap with the cognitive science to allow more wiggle room? And, out of curiosity, is cognitive science classified as a BA or a BS? Commented May 13, 2016 at 17:17
  • -cont- If a BA, that may be where the "knee-jerk" is coming from. BA may be associated in their minds with "can't earn a living". One thing that students don't always think about is the competition factor. For example, a music major may look at the high paying orchestra jobs and say "yeah, I can make a good living at this" but the reality is that there will be a lot of competition for the higher paying jobs. At the lower end you are doing private lessons at $10 hr. Jobs in the computer industry will pay for your apartment and student loans even at the lower end of the pay spectrum. Commented May 13, 2016 at 17:31

I have been on the other side of this fence. I am a parent whose 'child' changed their major. There are some very good answers here; I'll add what I can.

First, this is recent and a shock. Give it some time; your parents are possibly grieving the loss of the future they envisioned for you (and themselves; futures tend to be intertwined in the mind), regardless of whether they do or don't have a right to have such a vision. Give them the benefit of the doubt - for now - that they have your best interests at heart: the ability to support yourself reasonably in the future. Try to avoid thinking of it as a lack of love or support. Talk to them calmly about their hopes for you; find out why they're so upset (even if their reasons are ridiculous in your mind.) Serious conversations work better if the parties involved understand one another.

Second, do some research to show them that you're approaching it as a mature decision. Find out whether you can make a living in your chosen major. For example, if you want to be a therapist or neuroscientist (or whatever else you might be thinking about), how much demand is there for the kind of career you want to have? How many additional years (beyond college) will you need to complete to do what you want to do? If you can show your parents that this is well thought out, they will be more likely to respect the decision.

Third, point out the grades you earned in the classes you took. Good grades never hurt.

Finally, this isn't the all-or-nothing end you might feel it to be right now. There are cheaper colleges you can attend, and you don't have to continue your education right now, uninterrupted. That's a kind of bifurcation, when in reality, there are many more options open to you. You just need time to explore them.

My parents could not pay for my college; I ended up taking a year off to earn some money (while living at home) and continued to work during college to pay my own way. Not the ideal student experience, but I did what I wanted to do. I appreciated the room and board while they provided it.

Regarding my son, he changed from a science major to Art. I didn't think it was a great idea at the time, but we loved him and wanted him to be happy, so we supported his decision. (He did not do the research I recommend for you, though, because his major wasn't a deal-breaker for us.) We continued to pay for his education - what wasn't covered by his academic scholarship - and he graduated happy and full of hope. It didn't work out for him, and after several years of not making a living working in his chosen field, he went back to school - on his own dollar - and now is happy, successful, and supporting himself well in a Biology-related field. Go figure.

  • Thank you for your reply. I understand the shock of it - hence the two-hour conversation of my trying to explain my logic (albeit almost in tears, so maybe the idea didn't get across that well). What I'm not understanding is what kind of defense mechanism it is to ignore contact from your daughter during finals week because of something like this. At least a, "Whatever, we'll talk about it later, good luck on finals" would have been nice... I don't want to resent them for this in the future.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 23:09
  • @anonymouse - It's not a good coping/defense mechanism, but I don't know your parents and how they've dealt with disappointments (or anything else) in the past. I can only hope this is transient, and will cause no real lasting harm. I can tell you that I feel for you, though. I know this is hard. If you've had a good and loving relationship with your parents, it will withstand this. Commented May 13, 2016 at 23:16

I would like to have a slightly different focus than the other answers. This will have a similar outcome as other answers (Talk to them in a neutral way. DO NOT start yelling), but I want to emphasize that YOU need to figure out what you want to do, because you have to live your life. Not them. If you end up not liking engineering, you have deal with hating your job, not them. Even if that means paying your own way through college.

You mention that you have no raised any objections throughout your years as to math/engineering and the like, so your parents may have had such a strong reaction because of their expectations. Parents are fallible, and they may have just gotten super angry about such a large change in direction so suddenly, out of the blue. That and they have paid one year into your education. They by no means should have entered a shouting match, but again, we are all fallible.

Thank your parents for the time and $$ they have put into your first year and assure them that no knowledge is a waste. Express that you need to find something you truly enjoy doing, or you will always perform lack-luster. We can never do well at something we do not like. Take some time to figure out what you want. Take a term with tons of different types of courses. Shadow some people in the field you like to see if it really is what you want.

I can tell you that I stumbled upon Software Engineering/Database stuff and fell in love with it. Engineering is HARD. If I didn't like doing it, I would never spend the time REQUIRED to get better at it and gain more knowledge.

  • Thanks for your reply. "Take a term with tons of different types of courses" is what I did this past year, more or less. I took math, art, physics, psych, journalism courses... and while I still love math, I don't know if engineering is the right path for me. Maybe my dream job is attainable through a CS degree or a cognitive science degree, but I think I'll have more fun and be more productive and enjoy university more not in a rigid engineering program.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:18
  • Mathematics is a great field to major or minor in because it opens up the door for SOOOOO many fields. Almost all fields use math, from engineering to psych to biology, etc...
    – Jeff.Clark
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:39
  • I was considering a minor in mathematics, too! But, I don't even think my parents would approve of a mathematics program - it seems like it was engineering or bust with them. I guess I'll bring up the math minor to them as a compromise when (if) we next talk.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 23:12

Your parents are buying you a very expensive education (relative to other avenues). Ignoring the significant possibility that they worked really hard to earn that money, remember it's theirs. They could have bought a yaght, a beach house, put a really nice edition on the house, took a romantic trip to New Zealand to rekindle their romance. But instead they sent you to a really awesome school. This is an amazing gift that you do not "deserve". Thank them, again and again.

And don't be so proud. It's a painful pill to swallow, but here's the truth: you (acting alone) can't afford an expensive university tuition out of pocket, so you're asking your parents for their money. You seem like a very articulate young man, so you should understand the notion that if you want to do it your way, don't ask for anyone's money. Do it on your own. Until then, they can do whatever the hell they want, including yanking out funding to pay for that trip to New Zealand, and it's 100% fair game. They must have forgotten to tell you this ;)

But seriously, you really don't sound like a spoiled kid. Take heart, be humble, do the work, and godspeed!

  • No middle ground between "do exactly what your parents want" and "give up on them and go your own way"?
    – Acire
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 17:34
  • Well, they're paying for it. If you want to ditch college on your own way, that's awesome! But don't take their money and act like you have rights over how it's used. Does that make sense?
    – priorww1
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 21:42
  • 2
    Thanks for your reply. I understand the logic here, but is it really fair that my parents are using money as a means to decide my life prospects? If I had known prior my tuition money was contingent on being an engineer, I would have chosen a cheaper school. But now I'm in a private school (a good one, at that - one I don't want to leave) with insane tuition costs that I can't afford to pay on my own. Maybe hindsight is 20/20, but I guess I wish I knew their intentions two years ago.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:20
  • Yeah that's fair. I think it's lame that they would pay your way into a really good situation and then threaten to pull the plug as a means of asserting control, but to me that's a side-note to the central issue: you're living a life and pursuing a dream that is inherently reliant on their money. If you want to go your own way but stay on the gravy train, it's going to really sour the relationship (and, IMO, reinforce a false belief that you need their money to succeed in life). For goodness sake, engage in dialogue and negotiate a compromise, but this is kind of the elephant in the room.
    – priorww1
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 23:40
  • 1
    she (: Again, I understand the "it's their money" argument, and I understand the, "We're not going to fund a 50k/year university where you just major in art," and I understand that I have a whole host of biases regarding this topic, but cognitive science is a real science major. It's a new field, it's growing fast, it's multi-disciplinary, and the salaries are real salaries. I'm not asking them to put money into me to throw my life away, I'm just asking them to not force me into a different major that might have a slightly better starting salary.
    – anonymouse
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 23:14

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