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September/October  1998
Long-haul parenting
When our children grow up, and our parents need our help
by Barbra Cohn

haul.JPG (20004 bytes)During the first year of a child’s life, most parents are overwhelmed by the physical demands and the sheer beauty of watching an infant develop day-by-day. By the time the terrible twos roll around, many parents develop a confidence which continues to build and even carry them through the emotional storms of their child’s adolescence. And all throughout these years, parents rely on friends, family, professionals, books and magazines to help them sort things out, to become the best parents they can be.

No one ever says it's easy. But parents at least have resources to guide them—until the time their child becomes an adult, that is.

Learning to let go

Mary, a 47-year-old Aurora woman who is about to send 18-year-old Sarah off to college, wistfully says, "It’s so easy with my 8-year-old. She asks me what color scrunchy to wear and I know exactly what to do. I pick the one that matches her outfit. But the other day when Sarah asked me for advice in dealing with a love triangle, I didn’t have any answers. "

That’s uncomfortable and unfamiliar to a mother who has guided her daughter day and night for 18 years. It's certainly normal to have some difficulty in letting an adult child go. According to Nancy Brody, Ph.D., a psychologist in Scottsdale, AZ, who has started a discussion group for parents of adult children, many parents of adult children could use some help.

"Parents of adult children are pretty much left on their own, and years of raising younger children make the transition to relating to adult offspring difficult to make. We do not stop being parents as soon as our children reach adulthood, but how we parent should change," says Brody.

She adds that, "One of the main deterrents to good parent-adult children relationships is the ‘Father (or Mother) knows best’ syndrome: parents insisting they have all the answers. All adults, including our own adult children, are entitled to make their own decisions, even if they are contrary to those we parents might wish them to make. We must learn, as with other adult-adult relationships, not to offer unsolicited advice. Even when we are asked, we are frequently better off saying something such as, ‘I’m sure you’ll make the right decision,’ rather than sharing our own opinions. Stepping back and not being too invested in each of your adult children’s decisions will go a long way in solidifying good relationships with them."

Distancing himself from his 20-year-old son has paid off for Robert, 44. "My relationship with Steven is much better now that he’s not living at home. I’m not in the position of imposing my rules on him and I’m more accepting of who he is. Consequently, he’s less rebellious. And since he’s out of the house, he appreciates our family more. He’s more conscious of what it takes to have food on the table, and what it takes to run a home," Robert says.

Steven agrees. "We do get along better since I moved out," he says. "You get to know what pushes a person’s buttons when you’re living with them, but you can see the whole picture from a distance. I have a different attitude about maintaining a home, since I’m on my own and am responsible for myself. Now I know why Mom always wanted the house clean and why she was always after me to do chores," Steven says. "Now when I go home we can all talk without hassling about everyday problems."

Anna, a 69-year-old former Denver school psychologist, raised two sons—now both in their 30s—alone. She says the hardest lesson she’s had to learn as a parent is to let go. "I began to learn that when my boys were in their teens," she says. "Allowing them to take responsibility for their own actions and still wanting to help and guide them was very hard. I always felt like I was walking a fine line."

She has these words of advice for parents: "Sometimes we try so hard to be useful when what is needed is to let the child be independent, make mistakes and allow them to develop a sense of good judgment. Being too helpful isn’t helpful. A wise friend once told me, ‘Let them make mistakes in high school. Those mistakes can be remedied more easily than later when they have bigger problems. And it’s much easier for them to learn early on how to solve problems independently, while a parent is there to give their support," Anna says.

Jeff, her 32-year-old son, says that Anna was a good parent who "made

things easy for me." And both Anna and Jeff agree that the key to a good parent/adult child relationship is communication. Jeff laughs when describing a recent conflict. "Two years ago when my brother and I were visiting Mother, Martin said to me, ‘How can you stand the way she’s always asking detailed questions like, ‘What are you doing today? How do you feel?’ Those kinds of things have always gotten on his nerves, but they’ve never bothered me. But the last time I visited I got really annoyed when she kept asking me what I wanted for breakfast. I was just in a finicky mood, but it really bugged me and was interfering with my ability to relate.

"I think those are just little pet peeves from childhood. The source of the conflict is trivial, but it represents a deeper conflict," continues Jeff. "If there’s a history of conflict you have to break through the past to get to the present. So we sat down and had an open discussion about it and Mother said, ‘I’m so glad you told me about it. I used to hate it when my mother would do that."

Jeff ends by saying that open communication is the key to having a good relationship with your parents, no matter how old you are or what stage of life you’re in. "After all, we’re all in this together and we might as well make it work by supporting each other and talking things out."

Communication leads to healing

Even though it may be painful, most therapists agree that parents and their adult children gain tremendously when they’re willing to discuss what’s working and what’s not in their relationship. Roberta Galler, a psychoanalyst and therapist in New York City says, "It takes courage to speak one’s mind and heart, but it’s worth the effort, especially if you approach your parents with love, respect and empathy. Making peace doesn’t have to mean silencing your voice. Entering into conflict often enables real intimacy and connection. If you bury serious conflict, you may achieve a safe but false harmony."

But sometimes there is so much pain and conflict that no one is willing to talk about it, and members within the family may stop communicating altogether. Quite often problems arise between parents and their adult children when the child marries. A parent may not get along with the child’s spouse or vice versa.

According to Barbara Miller, a Boulder licensed clinical social worker, there’s always a strain when a child is moving away from home, marrying or expanding his or her own family by having a baby. When there’s tension between a parent and daughter-in-law or son-in-law, it may be because the parent does not want to let go of their child. Or, the daughter-in-law or son-in-law might be competing with the parents for their spouse’s time and attention. To complicate matters even more, the child may relish being the center of attention and conflict, and so contribute to it.

"Shifting to a larger system with variations on the original family is very complicated," says Miller. "It’s a matter of the child shifting his role to adult, and having the parent relating to him as another adult with his own set of desires and needs. Part of the parent’s developmental task is to let go and expand the system.

"It’s actually a paradox, because as a parent, you’re letting go and gaining more and creating more. But you have to acknowledge that it’s a change and that everyone must adapt to it. Then it can be a healthy resolution for the entire family," she says.

"It’s almost always in the best interest of the family to sit down and look at the issues at hand," says Miller. "If the child has a distorted view or has misinterpreted what has happened, then everyone needs to work through the problem and clear up the distortions with the goal of forgiveness. But if the parents are shut down, inflexible, and are unable to hear their child, then you get a recreation of the frustrating cycle," she says.

Miller suggests that in this case, it might be helpful for the person with the grievance to write a non-threatening letter or to send an e-mail—and not even demand or expect a reply. At the very least, it will help the person with the grievance unload his or her frustrations.

"It’s important to try to communicate whatever you’re struggling with," says Miller. "If the person you write to is too rigid to hear the message, at least the letter is a beginning. What’s important is that you say what you’re concerned about without attacking the other person. Start out by saying, ‘I’m trying to understand’ or ‘I can’t communicate my feelings.’ The other person may or may not respond in the way you would like, but there’s always some hope that it will ameliorate the situation—unless there’s total denial in a case like sexual abuse."

A strategy

Psychologists David and Rebecca Grudermeyer, authors of the Mental Health Book of the Year, Sensible Self-Help, say it’s important for adult children and their parents to have detailed talks about how to upgrade their relationship. Their audiotape set, "Outgrowing Parent-Child Roles: Relating to Each Other As Respectful Adults," outlines a strategy for redesigning parent/adult child relationships through a series of gentle-yet-honest discussions around three themes: Release, cleansing and rebirth.

Grudermeyer explains the three themes and how to engage in discussion. "The goal of release is to establish an interest and willingness to say good-bye to your old relationship and make a commitment to redesigning the relationship in light of the present circumstances whether the child is going off to college, getting married, having a baby, etc. Each of these milestones necessitates a revisiting and revisioning of the relationship," says Grudermeyer.

Historically, we didn’t need to redesign the parent/child relationship because our parents died much earlier, and we lived near them. The transitions were more natural and gradual. Now we live apart and the transitions are more dramatic, he says.

"Cleansing involves discussing your appreciation of and learning from one another, and also clearing unfinished business and fears concerning the future. That doesn’t happen enough," says Grudermeyer.

He suggests clearing up the past in a way so that World War III doesn’t break out. The child can bring gripes to the parents and the parents, instead of getting defensive, may say, ‘I hated having to learn this but I’m better off, thanks. Or the child might say, ‘I’m rebellious now but I appreciate you for... "

One way to do it is:

• Have each person list their top three appreciations of and three learnings from the other person.

• List the top three self-regrets, what you wish you had or hadn’t done. Base them on the criterion that each is causing you to be walled off from that person.

• Write the three most important changes you offer from those regrets.

• Last, write down the three fears that you have about your future relationship with the person, fears that hold back the relationship from evolving. For example, is your fear of having your mother live with you sometime in the future blocking your relationship with her? Grudermeyer says that it’s possible to have nothing on the list. In this case you say to the person, ‘I’m not aware of any fears. I’m thrilled to tell you this.’ He adds that if you really have to think about it, the issues are probably not a concern that you need to discuss at the moment.

He adds, "We tell our clients to go rent a cabin together. Take a vacation and give yourselves the time to talk in between playing, over a period of time. Talking about these things scares people. Sometimes there’s a blow-up, followed by a period of contriteness and evaluation."

If one person doesn’t want to participate, Grudermeyer says that’s okay. "The person who is willing will achieve resolution by acknowledging their own truth. But they’ll have to come to grips with the fact that they’re just not going to get what they want from the other person. The relationship will change because it will bring about a shift in the person’s self-acceptance and they’ll stop locking horns with the other person."

Once you’ve cleared away the "dirt," you can enter into the rebirth to create a shared vision of the kind of relationship you want to grow into together. Says Grudermeyer, "You can say, ‘How do I love you as an adult that feels like love to you?’ If the person answers in a way that doesn’t seem possible, or is uncomfortable, it’s okay to say, ‘I may not be the right person to do that. I may not be able to do it to the extent you want me to.’ In the end, most parents and their adult children are able to express their love differently.

Role reversal in the later years

In the later years, adult children and their parents often go through a role reversal, says Sara Shuchter, a Boulder licensed clinical social worker. "It’s an opportunity for some healing of old wounds, especially if the child is taking care of the parents," says Shuchter. ""A child may remember a parent not taking care of them, which can lead them into a new stage."

Shuchter continues, "Once the parents begin losing their capacities, there’s a shift that takes place, forcing the adult child to take on the role of the elder, which may bring up mortality issues. But the potential is there to bring everyone into the present moment and let go of old hurts, angers and appreciate each other, which can lead to more positive interactions."

On the other hand, says Shuchter, "If there’s been a long history of conflict, there’s a possibility that negative feelings will stay unresolved, keeping the schism going and ending in a downward spiral."

Many adult children go through an enormous shift when one parent dies, and they are left to recreate their relationship with the surviving parent. When Marsha’s mother died 10 years ago, she was forced to come to grips with the relationship she had with her father. "Mom was the go-between in our relationship, and her death forced Dad to become more intimate with us," the Arvada resident says.

Grace, who was 41 when her mother died in Denver, had a somewhat similar experience with her father. "I’m much more interactive with Dad now. Before, we would talk briefly on the phone. Now we have frequent long talks about what I’m doing and what he’s doing. I guess I’m getting to know him as a person rather than just as my father. He’s also not so much the fatherly figure anymore. I give him more advice now about his own physical ailments. And recently when he was planning a trip, I advised him to fly instead of drive because he’s getting too old to handle the stress of driving a long distance. That’s the kind of advice a parent would give a child," says Grace.

Grace began noticing a reversal in their roles during her mother’s illness. "When Mom was dying I was frustrated with Dad a lot. I felt he was not very competent to make the decisions that needed to be made. He did his best, but he was so emotional and upset, and he was showing signs of dementia. He just fell apart. I found myself feeling angry that he couldn’t be stronger, and I had to get directly involved with the doctors. Now, of course, I realize his forgetfulness was due to grief," says Grace. "Since he’s remarried and gotten heavily involved in volunteer work, our relationship is better than it’s ever been. I’m very impressed by what he’s accomplished. I admire him tremendously."

The power of unconditional love

Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and an important contributor to our understanding of human development, believed that the human life span consists of several stages, and talked about a "cog wheeling of the life cycles."

He believes that during each stage, the individual faces a psychosocial task or conflict, the resolution of which leads to a strengthening of self and an ability to confront the next task. Society presents opportunities for these issues to be resolved at each stage. Whether it’s facing your child leaving home, or the child’s marriage, the important thing is to lend support and unconditional love to the child.

"The most important thing is to love your child unconditionally, regardless of the troubles they get into. No matter how much they rebel, they have absorbed the values you inculcated in them when they were young. Even if they reject them, they’ll come back to them. Even in a state of intense rebellion, they’re just in conflict with those values," says Anna, the mother of two grown sons.

Barbara Miller adds that loving a child unconditionally is the most important feature of parenting. "You may not like your child, or their choices such as a job or spouse, but love is the foundation of what we’re all about. It’s the basis from which a child grows, develops and experiences. It’s important for parents to support their children’s decisions and to not remove their love as a means to change or manipulate them.

"It’s fine to say, ‘I don’t agree with you, but you have our love and support. And it’s important to carry that out through life," says Miller. "Most of the people I see in therapy are longing for love and acceptance."

 

 

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