It happened again. You just got off the phone with your parents, and you can’t shake that annoyed and slightly exasperated feeling. Maybe they changed the subject when you tried to describe your work-related stress, or made a passive comment about your relationship status. For whatever reason, you feel misunderstood and slightly disconnected from your parents, but you can’t quite put your finger on why.
As we grow, so do our families, and changing roles can lead to friction. Children move away from home and become more independent. As we enter adulthood, we find new communities, evolve in our education and/or careers, and sometimes start our own families (perhaps even becoming parents ourselves). Our parents go through role changes as well—maybe they are empty nesting, adjusting to or preparing for retirement, or learning how to be grandparents. Theoretically, it seems like we should relate to our parents on a whole new adult level. So why is it sometimes challenging to talk with our parents as adults?
Though the parent-child relationship is the frequent subject of psychological studies, those studies tend to focus on young children or adolescents. It is only within the past decade that more studies have focused on the nature of the parent-child relationship in adulthood. That’s good news, because these relationships truly matter. Just like children or teenagers, adults are also significantly affected by relationships with their parents. So, how can we improve them?
Two of the most common themes in parent-adult child conflict are communication style—the method or frequency of communication—and lifestyle habits.
Communication style highlights differing expectations, such as becoming frustrated when the other person seldom initiates a phone call, or feeling guilty that you can’t constantly respond to texts. One way to confront this issue is to be direct: bring the issue up with your parent in a calm, nonjudgmental manner. “I’ve noticed that I’ve been the one reaching out more often, and it makes me feel a little rejected”; “I love talking to you, but it’s not possible to fit daily conversations into my schedule.” Work together to find a time and method of communication that you can realistically stick to. Maybe you can’t speak over the phone for 15 minutes every day, but you can have a longer conversation on Sunday afternoons. Maybe you can alternate who initiates your conversations, and if someone forgets when it’s their turn, they treat the other person to coffee. Through a bit of compromise, you and your parents can work together to find a situation that appeals to both of you.
Conflicts about our lifestyles can be a little trickier. During these conversations, it helps to be mindful of our own perspectives. Why might we feel frustrated when our parents don’t seem to understand or agree with our choices? Does it feel like they are rejecting a part of our personality? Do we feel pressure to live up to their expectations, even though those expectations aren’t what we want for ourselves?
Next, we can think about our parents’ perspective. Maybe their lack of understanding comes from a place of unfamiliarity rather than indifference. Our mom might be uncomfortable with our job at a nonprofit because she has only ever heard about the financial risks of such work, and has never experienced the emotional satisfaction. Our dad might not approve of our decision to adopt because he doesn’t understand how the process works. Knowing that your parents’ “disapproval” is actually a mask for their fear or confusion can make it easier to communicate with them about your choices.
If this is the case, combat your parents’ unease with education. Explain how the nonprofit field works, and describe all of its measurable benefits in terms of personal fulfilment. Describe the adoption process step-by-step, so your parent isn’t overwhelmed by its enormity. Then, explain to them exactly why you’ve made that choice, and how it will improve your life. This will show them how thoroughly you’ve thought things through, and that you’re not just leaping into a situation unprepared.
With both communication and lifestyle issues, there will be times when you need a supportive third party to get involved. Sometimes, this may be another family member with great communication skills and a deep understanding of both perspectives. At other times, it may be a family counselor, who has been trained to help out with exactly your type of situation. For more information on whether family counseling may be right for you, feel free to email the Viva Center’s practitioners at email@example.com, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
No matter how you go about it, the pursuit of a quality relationship with your parents is worthwhile for your emotional wellbeing, especially into adulthood. Be encouraged to seek autonomy and understanding, and consider how to preserve the parent-child relationship throughout changing adult roles. You may find that your relationship, though changed, becomes stronger than ever before.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.