It’s something that a lot of young- to middle-aged adults deal with ~ relationships with parents. A few years ago, I wrote an article addressing ‘helicopter’ parents, teenage children, and the ‘rite of passage.’ As I’ve grown and matured over the years, I’ve come to realize that oppressive parents are not always the problem in parent-child relationships, especially when the children have grown to adulthood and parents are elderly. In this article, I’d like to share with my readers a few things that I’ve learned, both from my relationship with my own parents and the relationships of others I’ve witnessed.
As in the original article, I wish to specify that I’m discussing parent-child relationships in a more generalized sense. I do acknowledge that there are instances of abnormal hostility or even abuse between children and parents, and for those situations, I’m not qualified to give advice. For those instances, seeking the advice of a counselor would be best.
Parents are people, too!
It’s sad when I hear most of my middle-aged friends talk about their relationships with their parents. Most of the time, words like ‘crazy,’ ‘senile,’ and ‘old fools’ come up, and every time I hear something like that, I feel sorry for the parents.
I have a good relationship with my elderly parents. It isn’t because they’re great parents or because I’m a great child because neither is the case. My parents have a history of being somewhat controlling worrywarts, and I’ve been rebellious against pretty much any authority figure for as long as I can remember. I went through a phase where I rebelled against my parents, and it damaged my relationship to them in ways that have since healed but remain scarred. Largely due to my obedience to God and to my deep love that I always have had for my parents, albeit under my rebellious shell, I have spent the past many years cultivating my relationship with my parents, and as an analyst, I’ve thought a lot about how and why that relationship has worked.
Parents are human, and as humans, they make mistakes. It’s surprising how easy it is for children to forget this. For some reason, children sort of idolize their parents, placing them on unattainable pedestals, and whenever the parents make a mistake, children tend to view it as a catastrophic ‘falling from grace’ rather than just an honest mistake. The parents may actually be responsible for children viewing them this way because most parents will go to extreme measures to keep their children from seeing them mess up. I’ve even seen situations when children will catch their parents in error, and the parents will lie to hide their mistake. That shouldn’t be. Children need to grow up realizing that their parents are just as prone to error as any other human. And even if they were not raised that way, adult children need to come to this realization about their parents.
Parents need their adult children’s approval. How’s that for sounding backward to social theory? It has taken me many years to realize this, but they do. I’ve learned from my elderly parents that one of the greatest comforts late in life isn’t whether or not children are successful, though that’s certainly important. What’s more important is knowing that whatever children do or accomplish in life, they’re genuinely proud to be their parents’ children and are proud to carry with them their parents, whether in thought or memory. Adult children are usually too good at pointing out their parents’ mistakes and weaknesses, emphasizing these things to their friends and contemporaries as justification for embarrassment or neglect of their parents. But it’s very important, especially for elderly parents, to point out their strengths and the accomplishments they’ve made. I’ve known far too many elderly folk who pass on thinking they were a failure as a parent simply because their children focused on the few pebbles of bad and neglected to mention the mountain of good.
Twenty years of feelings, habits, and attachments are hard to break. One of the biggest issues young people have with their parents is getting their parents to realize that they’ve grown up, and honestly, this is a career-sized topic just in itself. But once children have left the nest and become independent adults, why do parents still do stupid little things that make adult children feel like helpless infants? I believe it has to do with the care-taking pattern and the investment that parents make in their children. Many parents don’t want their ‘babies’ to grow up because of the fondness of infancy. But grow up they do, leaving parents with a couple of decades of precious memories and feelings that they don’t want to lose. It inevitably flows over into relationships with their adult children in ways that usually embarrass or annoy the children. For example, my parents are habitual worriers, and they worry over me even though I’m in my upper 30’s. They live 1.5 hours from me, and after visiting with them, they always want me to call when I get home so they know I arrived safely. I’ve had some peers sneer at me for calling home, but after spending some time in thought, I realized that my parents are asking very little of me that will save them hours of worry. Honestly, I should be (and am) glad that they care about me, and I have no insecurities about what peers think (part of my rebellious nature haha). My parents have invested a great deal in me, and while I wish they wouldn’t worry so much, a 2 minute phone call isn’t an unreasonable accommodation of their concerns.
’Unreasonable’ parents usually means there’s something the child doesn’t know or understand. Very few people have thoughts, feelings, or expectations that are not reasonable from their own perspective. But other people often fail or neglect to see that perspective, dismissing those thoughts as just unreasonable foolishness. I’ve learned that this is a huge problem in any personal relationship, and parent-child relationships are no exception. Sometimes, parents can seem to interfere too much in the life of their adult child in ways that seem unreasonable or just plain nosey to the child. Sometimes, that’s the case. But I’m a huge fan of open communication, so when I’m faced with a situation that seems unreasonable, I usually ask some questions. Some good ones to start with are, ‘Why do you feel the need to do this?’ or ‘What is making you feel this way?’ Most often, the answers reveal some very surprising reasons that I was totally unaware of. Then it makes perfect sense, and I’m able to work through a mutually acceptable solution. But most often, the breakdown occurs when people fail to communicate. If something a parent says or does doesn’t make sense, respectfully ask them about it before dismissing it as unreasonable foolishness.
But some parents really are unreasonable. It’s inevitable – there will be an issue that trickles through the filters I’ve described above and still collects at the bottom of the ‘hopelessly unreasonable’ flask. This may be a growing problem as elderly parents age and lose their sharpness of mind. Seniors have a tendency to revert to childlike responses, and some of what they say, think, and do may be unreasonable. If it’s a simple matter of an illogical thought process, being patient with them and taking the time to walk them through it is usually enough. At this point in life, their minds are much like their bodies – slow and fragile. Offering them a stable ‘arm’ usually goes a long way. If not, it’s imperative to not become discouraged, intolerant, or abusive. As with a child, be only as firm as necessary in as respectful a manner as possible. By the time most parents reach this point, they won’t have much time left. Remaining true to their upbringing and true to good character will save a child many years of regret.
One Final Thought
Growing up as an independent introvert, relationships have always been difficult for me, which is why I study ways of perfecting them. I’ve learned that a relationship is like a garden. Not only does it take time and effort to prosper, but it also changes depending upon what manner of things are planted in it. This may never be truer than in the case of a parent-adult child relationship. The parent-young child relationship has a very different set of plants than an adult child relationship, and unfortunately, those plants simply die out when the child becomes and adult, causing the garden to become a forgotten memory and the relationship to become distant or dead. Furthermore, it’s inevitable that these youthful plants will die because youth itself dies. So why not plant some new plants?
Relating this metaphor to real life, these ‘plants’ are connections we have with our parents. In youth, our connections are things like our first word, first step, learning to ride a bike, and graduating high school. Those connections will inevitably die and fade into precious memories for our parents, and almost always, that’s why our parents are sad and afraid. They don’t want to lose us. Rather than seeing adulthood as freedom to break away from our parents, we simply need to remember to fill the vacancies with new connections. So we’re not children anymore. But have we stopped growing and developing? Do we not have new interests? new passions? new ideas? If only we would remember to share those new things with our parents, if only we would welcome our parents into our adulthood as honored guests, if only we would make these new connections with them, maybe they would have more of us to hold on to than just distant memories of our childhood. Maybe they would realize that they’re not really losing us after all. Maybe they would realize that the garden doesn’t have to be forgotten, but that it’s best days may be yet to come.
Personally, I don’t know of any parent who wouldn’t love the opportunity to be such a part of their adult child’s life. And as adult children, it’s now up to us to give them that opportunity.