Most parents go through some tough times when their children move into young adulthood. The family system is put under pressure to accommodate shifts in responsibilities and authority – and such changes, although necessary, can be painful. Usually, a new equilibrium is found that everyone can live with. Sometimes, however, difficulties persist and the relationship between parent and adult child becomes strained and stuck. What can be done?
If the relationship between you and your adult daughter or son is characterised by angry outbursts, silences, arguments and distance – perhaps interspersed with periods of calm – there is a good chance that an issue that needs to be discussed is not being acknowledged. This might be regarding a particular incident (including unresolved trauma or difficulties from a previous generation), a longer time of upheaval and change in the family or to do with how an adult child felt treated in the past. The thought of talking about such an emotive issue might well raise a range of anxieties for all concerned. For example, adult children might fear not being believed, having their feelings dismissed as irrelevant or being shamed. Parents of adult children might fear being seen as a ‘bad mother / father’ or losing authority.
An extremely powerful way of generating new possibilities for being together can come about if we, as parents, are able to set aside our own issues for a short time and really listen and try to understand a situation from our adult child’s point of view. This can be a very difficult and unfamiliar thing to do. And, of course, being able to set aside our own emotional responses for a moment can work both ways; as adult children we, too, can ask questions (e.g. ‘what was it like for you, dad, after mum left?’) and show compassion. Essentially, we might begin to acknowledge that the other’s point of view – although not necessarily shared – is nevertheless valid.
As parents we might need to be prepared to look at our experience of reality from a completely new perspective. For example, if we have grown up in poverty and having enough money has always been of primary importance, we might dismiss our adult child’s grievances from the past since ‘they were given everything – unlike me – what have they got to complain about?’ What might be more difficult to take into consideration is a whole different set of circumstances for our children (e.g. a sense of not belonging in a community) which we might have taken for granted in our own lives.
As adult children we might need to come to see our parents as human beings with flaws and failings (that might be difficult for them to admit to or acknowledge) and compassion for their need to defend themselves may be a more productive way of approaching a resolution rather than anger and blame. We are not perfect and neither can they be – no matter how much we want them to be.
Usually, something has to get the ball rolling to allow the loosening of entrenched positions on both sides. That something can involve therapy – either as individuals or possibly together (see my post ‘Joint Therapy Or Individual Therapy?’, 2nd January 2015). A skilled and impartial therapist will be able to help with the kind of conversations that can bring about necessary change.
Please note that mental health problems can both complicate and exacerbate relationship difficulties and their resolution.
For more thoughts on this subject, see my post ‘How To Cope With A Difficult Mother’ (1st November 2014).
Postcript 1: Elizabeth Strout’s portrait of a woman in her Pulitzer prize-winning novel ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (also available on DVD in the UK) explores – amongst other themes – the nature of the difficult relationship between the protagonist and her son from his childhood to her old age.
Postscript 2: If you live outside of the Brighton area, see my page on Mother & Daughter Relationships for information regarding finding a therapist to help with difficulties between mothers & daughters.
If my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation.
Copyright: Caroline Clarke, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and Counsellor
Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net