February 27, 2023

The parent gap

Lately I’ve been talking with several patients about their relationship with parents. Let me say that these are people well into adulthood, some with adult children of their own. They are asking me when, if ever, their parents—who are nearing retirement—will consider them to be grown up. These are professional folks, with good jobs and mortgages and all the trappings, but their parents still do not see them as capable of conducting their own lives.

To give a somewhat generalized example of what I mean: imagine a guy, late forties, divorced and successfully sharing custody of two middle school kids. He is confounded by the extent to which his 75-year-old mother will go to find out whether, when, and whom he is dating. Or think about the individual who finds notes all over her apartment–left while she’s at work by her well-meaning parents–giving instructions for laundering certain items, and for managing the cat’s litter box.

It’s hard to say whether this is something that has always happened between generations, but I don’t think it’s been quite like this. I’m at something of a loss to explain it, but I have my guesses: First, we’re all on sensory overload. There is more to pay attention to, and a whole lot of stimuli coming at us from all directions, all the time. When the human brain has a lot of new information to process, what happens? Anxiety goes up. Stress goes up. And, we know that when stress increases, humans will do what they can to manage that stress. We all seek some control over our environment, and in times of high anxiety, let’s just say we redouble our efforts. And we probably make mistakes.

So, I think stress and sensory overload are playing a part in the difficulties between adult generations, but there’s more to it than that. What does it mean to transition from being in a parent-child relationship, to a point where we are adults together? What would that look like? Hanging out at the local pub for beers together? Does it all come down to gathering for holiday meals without a squabble? Maybe that’s all it ever gets to be, but I’ve seen it blossom into something terrific, too. In those cases, the successful transition from a parent-child relationship to an adult-to-adult affiliation seems to have benefitted from a measure of wisdom on the part of all concerned.

I have to say that, for children, and even teenagers, it is hard to accurately imagine what the reality of being “grown up” will be like. But for parents, it should be somewhat easier because they have already traveled that terrain. The wise parent will recall feeling ready for more independence than the world is ready to grant, and will create opportunities for their children to take safe steps toward future adult choices. Whether that is in helping the 8-year-old establish (and manage) a passbook savings account, or the 12-year-old to plan and prepare meals for the family, offering chances to develop skills in a supportive environment lays groundwork for the eventual transition. Knowing that mistakes will happen the wise parent keeps in mind that, if handled skillfully, those mistakes will determine what is learned from them. In other words, is the child learning not to take on new responsibilities because the punishment for error is too harsh? Maybe mistakes teach the growing child that it’s safe to own up to insecurities, or that there’s no shame in asking for help.  Though it’s almost never spelled out explicitly, in all of our relationships, others are teaching us what is important to them, and we are teaching them how much we are willing to do to meet their needs and expectations.

I’ve described ways that parents can potentially help children build the skills of independence, and suggested that doing so might lead to more congenial adult interaction as time goes by, but what about those patients coming into my office at 40 years of age (or more) whose parent(s) continue to instruct, direct and command every detail of existence? The time for gradual increments of independence has come and gone. The parent who stubbornly remains in an attitude of parenting an adult “child” who has long since left the nest, is missing out on a great opportunity! My patients tell me that the over involved parents’ argument is: “I only bug you because if I don’t you’ll just keep messing up your life like you always have. What do you want me to do, let you ____ (fill in the blank)?

When I hear the hurt and frustration this causes, the best thing I can suggest is this: write a letter. As uncommon as letter-writing is today, it has great advantages over more rapid communications. For one thing, a letter writer has the option of tearing up the first tries at correspondence–you can start it over a dozen times until you get it right. I advise setting it aside to consider further before sending, too. Then, it can help to confer with a trusted friend to be sure every word is exactly what is meant, and then using the very nicest stationery to increase the importance of the message. For sure, the element of surprise is on the side of the letter writer–nobody writes letters any more, so there is an element of curiosity and interest as it comes through the door. On attractive paper, written with care—a mailed letter draws attention and clarity that almost guarantee it will be read more than once, and will be given serious consideration.

The letter I suggest is not to complain about past treatment or to demand something different. Why go to the trouble of re-starting arguments that have been held face-to-face over the years? No, this is a letter of assurance and affection. It is meant to explain what might develop under a different kind of circumstances. Writing something like, “I can imagine us enjoying some of the things I normally do with my friends: exercise class, or seeing a movie.” And it takes some of the responsibility for doing things differently. It conveys understanding about how all of us get into habits and  patterns of behavior that outlive their usefulness. Something like, “Because I have kids of my own, it’s easy to understand how reminding and correcting becomes a habit for parents, and because I want the best for my kids, I can see that’s what you want for me, too.” But, the letter needs to set a boundary as well. The specific topic or behavior the letter writer is hoping to address will need to be spelled out. A scatter-gun approach or laundry list of grievances is counterproductive. Choosing one item (or maybe two related) is most likely to get the point across. It might go something like this: “As much as I love you, the topic of _______ is closed for discussion. I will make many mistakes in life, and hope to learn from them when I do, but I need to figure some things out for myself without your help or intervention. I’m asking you to respect my choices even when you don’t understand or agree with them. When (behavior/topics) comes up, I’m going to remind you that this is an area I’m handling on my own. If that doesn’t end the discussion, I will leave. I don’t want to leave angry, or stay gone forever. I just want things to change for the better between us. If you’re in my home, I’ll remind you that we need to change the subject, or I’ll have to ask you to leave. Over time, I think setting a boundary on this tough topic will create a new habit for both of us, and we will settle into a more comfortable adult relationship.”

This kind of letter needs to emphasize the hope of a relationship that the parent(s) will enjoy more, with less tension or more contact, whatever has been missing from their point of view. 

In addition to the advantages for the letter-writer, the recipient also benefits: there is opportunity to read and re-read a letter, take time to really digest the meaning, to recognize the loving phrases of the letter, and to think about how to respond without the pressure of a face-to-face conversation. A snail mail letter means there’s no instant “hit reply” option as exists with text or email. Mistakes are less likely, any hurt or annoyance can dissipate before the next interaction. Often, though the recipient may experience some rejection, or feel scolded by receiving this kind of letter, it leaves time for reflection, and for adult wisdom to surface. Everyone benefits from having the space to reduce the immediacy of emotions, and decide what kind of future they want with people who are important to them.

We have to remember that times catches up to all of us eventually, and there may come a day when aging parents begin to feel that the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. They might begin to feel hemmed in by those same adult children who think it’s time to take away the car keys, or that Mom shouldn’t be living alone anymore. I’ll have to ponder that… Stay tuned.

Posted in: General @ 2:16 pm