By Wilma Bedford
The transition to adulthood reconfigures what it means to be attached to the people who raised you − especially when you’re no longer living under their roof, says family therapist Judye Hess.
The evolving shift in how dependent you are on mom and dad, how much you’d like them to be involved in your adult life, and how great a burden their needs become as they age can pave the way for unanticipated tensions, Hess says.
See if you recognise one (or more) of the following four common sources of conflict that might be featuring in your life (as an adult child or as a parent) and how to deal with them.
- We’re very close
The adult child
Your calls to your dad are always the most “recently called”. You visit your parents multiple times per week. Your mom is your confidante about all aspects of your private life.
Psychologist Karen L Fingerman does not consider this as necessarily being a negative factor. Millennials who rely on their parents for emotional support and advice tend to be better off than those who don’t do it as much.
“Parents have 25 or more years of experience to bring to bear on these problems,” Fingerman says. “Young adults are wise to turn to them for advice and emotional support.”
As long as you feel OK with how things are, don’t worry about being close and sharing what you wish to share with your folks.
If, on the other hand, a parent’s support becomes unwanted or over-the-top, communicate your needs for autonomy, Hess says. Put it to them in an open and honest fashion that you appreciate their interest and advice but that they are over-solicitous and make you feel incompetent, not empowered.
If you feel the need, enlist the help of a family therapist to help ensure your message gets across. Leaning on a parent well into your 20s may not be such a bad thing. But just because you have an over-close relationship with a parent doesn’t mean you’re fated to be incapable your whole life.
No matter what your living arrangements are − adult children living at home, adult children living overseas, and everything in between − you still need boundaries. There may be times when you’re the first person they call in a crisis, and other times when they’ll want to figure it out with a friend first. Likewise, just because your children are adults doesn’t mean you should tell them all the intimate decisions and discussions you may be having at home with a spouse or partner – and vice versa. Set ground rules for how to disagree. Setting boundaries with adult children may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it and stick to it, the easier it will get.
- We’re like strangers
The adult child
At the opposite end of the scale it could be that you come from a distant family and can’t relate to the closeness you see or hear about between some parents and their adult kids.
According to psychologist Joshua Coleman because we don’t have as many institutional and communal forces tethering families together in our modern era as in the past, “the primary thing that binds today’s adult children to their parents is whether the child wants the relationship,” he says.
If you’re really unhappy about the distance between you and a parent, there are measures you can take to reconnect.
Be clear about what you’d like your relationship with them to entail. For example, less criticism, fewer guilt trips, or a greater recognition on their part for how their behaviour is or was hurtful.
It could also include attempting to find empathy for whatever their situation might be that caused them to pull away, like a divorce, a mental or physical health issue, or a geographic relocation.
If you can’t reestablish a connection with an estranged parent, perhaps due to their own unwillingness or insurmountable differences between you both, try finding what you want and feel you need from them elsewhere.
Close friends, significant others, and support groups, or sometimes even your work buddies, are good places to start.
Maybe this is a time to discover new things you both love. Whatever traditions, hobbies, or activities appeal to you and your adult child, commit to enjoying them together regularly.
Accept the significant others in their lives. Find ways to get to know them without being too pushy or critical.
Create an atmosphere in which your children always feel that they can talk to you, says Cynthia White, a Canadian-based freelance writer. “Adult children will not always be asking for advice, but rather just asking for a sounding board,” White says.
Make family meetings a regular occurrence. In large families, keeping everyone on the same page can be tricky. Regular family meetings allow a safe space for siblings and parents to share issues of concern, and to process hard things together.
- I’m still mad at them
The adult child
For many families, the unhealed wounds and scars of childhood (for both the parent and child) may need to be confronted in order to develop a healthy, grounded relationship.
You may have grown up in a dysfunctional family and experienced events that caused you a lot of pain. Now, as an adult, you feel resentful about the idyllic childhood you missed out on.
Even if circumstances were not so extreme, holding a grudge against your parents for something they did in your childhood is not unusual, says Fred Luskin.
This happens, in part, because we often lack the understanding that parenting is an unbelievably difficult job as well as the insight that parents are bound to screw you up to a certain degree.
But harbouring resentment toward those who raised us only hurts ourselves the most in the long run.
The first step in the process is forgiveness. No matter how bad your situation was growing up, Luskin believes that in order to lead a happy, healthy life, you need to expend less energy pointing the finger.
Instead, expend more energy mastering coping skills for dealing with emotional triggers and relationship issues. Therapy is always a great option, but so too are strategies like yoga, meditation, and martial arts − anything that quietens and calms the mind and body, he says.
Not every parent and child have a happy relationship, and adulthood can widen that gap. Look for opportunities to foster a healthier relationship than you had in the past, now that the dynamics of authority may have shifted. Try to find common interests − if your daughter loves sports, plan to go to an event together. If your son loves art history, invite him to meet you at a museum on a Saturday.
If the wounds of your painful relationship run deep, you may want to seek out a therapist who can help you understand the roots of the hurt, and work toward healing. There may be an opportunity to bring your son or daughter to a session with you so that the therapist can mediate an open conversation about these past hurts.
No matter what the situation, be persistent in pursuing a relationship with your adult children, recognising that you may be closer to some of them than others. If your child is completely ignoring you and you’ve already attempted to ask why you may need to give them time and space. Don’t take it personally, and consistently express your desire for a relationship when they’re ready.
- We don’t see eye to eye
The adult child
If you disagree with your mom or dad over money, lifestyle, household standards, or work habits, you’re not alone. Tension between parents and adult children are pretty standard.
Disagreements are more common when the adult child depends on the parent for a great deal for support.
Disagreements can also arise when a parent overdoes the unsolicited advice or when either the parent or child feels ambivalent about being a significant part of the other’s life.
The good news is this tension tends to decrease with age as we learn to pick our own battles and accept our parents for who they are.
Parents and adult kids who can find the humour in their frustrations, tend to have an easier time in their relations with one another, Fingerman adds.
So, if opportunities to laugh arise − like taking a step back to giggle at how similar you sound to your mother when you’re griping or how absurd your embarrassment about dad’s wardrobe is − seize them.
Share your wisdom and insight (without being critical). Because your child may have a very different temperament than yours, they may not always respond well to your suggestions − helpful as you think they may be. If they sense criticism, they may even shut down completely. If you’re sharing wisdom, do so with grace and sensitivity. This is one of the many challenges in parenting adult children, but it is also a strong way to build a bond of understanding and empathy with them as well. Learn how they communicate.
Set ground rules for how to disagree. Setting boundaries with adult children may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it and stick to it, the easier it will get.
Connecting without conflict
The adult child
So long as inevitable woes aren’t getting in the way of focusing on your own needs and goals, you as the adult child are probably in the clear.
There’s no time like the present to accept − and celebrate − the uniqueness of your child. You may not always agree with their life choices, but as their independence grows, find joy in connecting without conflict.
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