Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Healing Relationships with Your Adult Children

Many Baby Boomers grew up in constant conflict with our parents.  We talked about the Generation Gap and changing lifestyles.  We demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and the values of the 1950's.  We insisted that "the times they were a changin'." However, as the years went by, most of us were able to heal our family misunderstandings and eventually maintain some kind of a relationship with our parents.

Some Baby Boomers are Now Estranged from their Children

Sadly, now it is our generation's turn to be on the receiving end of resentment felt by our children.  Surveys indicate that a significant number of Baby Boomers have grown up to become parents who are estranged from their own grown children.  In an article entitled "The Stranger in Your Family," in the April/May 2012 issue of AARP Magazine, the author discussed the increasing number of Baby Boomers who feel estranged from their grown children. 

Causes of Family Estrangements

Several experts in the AARP article mention that they have seen increasing numbers of parents whose adult children have cut communications with them.  In these families, children rarely, if ever, contact their parents and they sometimes do not accept the parents' attempts to contact them.  There can be several reasons for this. It could have started with conflict during the teenage years or a sense that the parents disapprove of their adult children.

However it began, one reason the article gave for the estrangements is that society and therapists now encourage people to only stay in relationships that feel good to them.  Therefore, if being around their parents causes these young adults to feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or guilty, they simply choose to stay away.  If they believe their parents are controlling or critical, the young person feels justified in avoiding these negative relationships, often with the support of their therapist.

Reading this AARP article made me feel sad, despite the fact that I have been able to maintain strong relationships with my own adult daughters and step-daughters.  I know how painful these estrangements can be, because I have several friends who are going through this.

How to Heal a Broken Relationship with Your Adult Children

In reading the article's suggestions for healing estrangements, I realized that I have already incorporated some of them into the way I have dealt with our own daughters.  Because this is such a difficult topic for many parents, I thought I would reiterate some of the things that experts believe can help:

Do not criticize your adult kids.  They are more sensitive than you realize.  If you don't like something you are hearing, simply say things like, "Hmmm," "You could be right," "That's interesting," "It will be interesting to see how that turns out," and "I hope everything works out for you."

Do not compare your children.  Appreciate their uniqueness.  Your children could have careers ranging from actor to scientist.  Never point out how much better off one is than the other.  Every career has its advantages and disadvantages.  Give them the dignity to figure out their own paths.

If you have a suggestion, make it once.  If they seem to misunderstand it, clarify it once.  Then drop it and never bring it up again, unless they ask you to repeat it or explain it.  Don't give unsolicited advice, especially about how to raise their kids.

If you accidentally offend them in any way, apologize.  Don't just tell them that you are sorry.  Tell them that their decisions only affect them, not you, so you shouldn't have said anything.  (OK, you may have to swallow your pride on that one.  That's why saying "Hmmm" a lot will keep you out of trouble!)

Accept your children.  Accept that they can have different ideas, different religions, different political beliefs, different sexual orientations, and different attitudes about money and life ... and that is OK.  You don't have to live like they do.  Enjoy watching their lives from the sidelines, much as you would a scandalous soap opera!

Celebrate their successes.  Don't mention their failures.

The Benefits of Accepting Your Adult Children and Their Choices

It isn't always easy to live by this creed and sometimes you have to bite your tongue a lot, but it is worthwhile.  Like most parents, I have watched our adult children go through stages that left me shaking my head.  However, today I love being invited to spend time with them as they help their own kids choose their colleges, and pick out prom dresses.  I love being included in trips with our adult children.  I think they have finally reached the point where they feel comfortable that I will not criticize them if things go wrong or if they make mistakes.  I can shrug things off and admit that things don't always work out for me, either.  They feel like equals in our relationship, and that's all adult children really want.

What to Do If You Are Estranged From Your Children

If you have been estranged from your children, be patient.  You will have to work hard to let them know that you no longer feel critical of them and that you accept them just as they are.  They may test you by flaunting behaviors that annoy you, just to see if you can avoid commenting.  You will have to be very careful, especially at first.

Meanwhile, send them birthday and Christmas cards, but don't lay a guilt trip on them if they seem to ignore the cards and not reciprocate.  Invite them to family occasions, but don't get upset if they don't always show up.  Send an apology, if necessary, for your past actions or hurtful words.  Take it slowly, and things will usually improve, although it could take years.

If you are interested in more information for Baby Boomers about improving family relationships, where to retire, financial planning, potential medical issues and more, use the tabs or pull down menu at the top of the page to find links to hundreds of additional articles.

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  1. I was estranged from my own parents for 15 years. I am glad I made the effort to get in touch, even though we live in different countries and only visit a couple of times a year. They are now in their 80s and I am nearly 60.
    I think when we are younger we do see parents as all-knowing, so feel threatened (at least my ex-wife did). As we mature we realise that they were ,making it all up as they went along, the same as we did.

    1. Thank you, Phil, for sharing. My relationship with my own mother was strained for many years. Finally, I just began calling her every week and saying "Hmmm" and "Yes, you could be right," to everything she said. She is in her 80's, and I knew she wasn't going to change her opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are. It has really smoothed over our relationship. However, we also live on opposite sides of the US, and rarely see each other. Family relations are certainly complicated, aren't they? I always swore I would have a better relationship with my own kids, and I do! I hope to help other people with this blog post, too.

  2. You have to be proud of yourself for investing so much thought and effort in protecting your relationship with your children. Kudos to you for that and for a terrific article.

    1. Thank you, Domestic Diva. We are actually going to be spending time this weekend with two of our daughters and their families. I am so glad that they actually want us in their lives!

  3. I think accepting their child’s difference is where most parent fail in this regard. Estrangement typically begins when they criticize their choices. Of course, the usual reason for that is overprotectiveness on the end of the parents, whereas it may appear as lack of trust and confidence for the children. You’re right that it’s equality in the relationship that they want. So I guess the key here is open communication between the two, with both parties acting as adults in their relationship.

    Brandi Kennedy @ Restoration Counseling

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree that critical parents doe cause a lot of the problems between generations.


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