Parents love their children, children love their parents, and siblings sometimes even love each other. As we age, our relationships change. Nothing about any familial relationship is written in stone, except the love for one another.
Feelings in the ‘adult child<>aging parent’ relationship go back many years and run deep. Simultaneous feelings of closeness and conflict may complicate matters. When facing the decline of a parent’s health, death of one parent or financial pressures often mean an aging parent will need increased social and emotional support or services from family—such as help with meals, cleaning, transportation or financial matters.
Of course, having quality relationships make for best decision-making and ease the burdens of care giving. Those adult children and parents who have positive feelings about each other involving mutual assistance and affection are better prepared to deal with the changes and decision of aging.
Conversely, for other adult children, life-long conflicts and unresolved issues from childhood and adolescence can mean continuing conflicts in later life or reactivation of earlier conflicts and negative feelings. Being called upon to provide support to an aging parent can be particularly difficult.
Are you interested in assessing the degree of closeness you have in your relationships? These questions will assist you.
Ask yourself these helpful questions:
• How satisfying is my relationship with my children? How close do I feel toward each child? How well do I relate to my children?
• To what extent do my children and I enjoy spending time with each other? Is how comfortable I feel being with my child time-related? For example, some children find only a few hours or days can be spent visiting a parent without tension or old conflicts erupting.
• What interests do my children and I share with each other? How much do we talk with each other about our concerns? About the future? Sensitive subjects, such as death.
Identify areas of conflicts:
• To what extent do you now have conflicts with your children?
• What are the areas of conflicts? To what degree are the conflicts “carry-overs” from their childhood or early adulthood?
• Are conflicts caused by your child’s temperaments or your personality?
• How would you say you have contributed to each conflict? We cannot change another person, but often there are things we can do—for example, improve the way we communicate or change the situation—that may reduce conflict.
Answering these questions may not be easy. Old or new feelings may emerge. However, look for new insights. Write down your feelings, impressions and insights. This may help you to determine actions that will enhance your relationship. What is one step that would be realistic and constructive in giving direction to your new relationship or reducing a conflict?
When an adult child wishes to reconcile differences, there are several suggestions for attempting to resolve the conflict.
Try these steps to resolve conflict:
• Work through feelings, being as honest and open as you can. Things that hurt you in the past may be explained or acknowledged. Often feelings can change and relationships improve through this process. However, it takes a willingness to share feelings and insights. This can be a painful process sometimes.
• You may wish to ask a minister or counselor to assist you in the process of reconciliation to help you move the process constructively along.
• Sometimes, by giving yourselves a chance to know each other as you are today, appreciation for the other person grows, feelings and situations of yesterday are put in perspective and acceptance comes more easily.
How a parent responds to circumstances may also affect the child’s relationship with him. For example, if the parent complains excessively about losses and how little she sees her adult children, the adult child may feel overwhelmed or helpless to remedy the situation. He may stay away from the parent rather than listen to the complaints. Consequently, the parent may feel cut off from the adult child—thus adding another loss to the list of losses and further straining the relationship.
Very aged parents may withdraw from painful reality to pleasant memories of the past—especially when denial has been the lifetime pattern for dealing with losses. In this case, this withdrawal affects the extent the adult child is able to relate to the parent. On the other hand, the parent may need and want help but not permit the adult child to provide any help because he wishes to remain independent regardless of the cost. Such independence may suggest that the older person desires detachment from family members, not permitting the closeness preferred by the adult children.
What do elderly parents owe their children? What can we do to improve relationships with adult children as our health declines and we need more assistance?
If you are an aging parent:
• Learn about the developmental changes of middle age and the problems that adult children face today.
• Cooperate with adult children when help is needed.
• Make it as easy as possible for adult children to help. It may mean being more flexible to prevent frustration of adult children. For example, the fragile 95-year-old can permit people other than her exhausted 75-year-old daughter to do the household tasks—even if she prefers her daughter to do them rather than hire someone else.
• Accept help graciously. Rely on others and let them rely on you. This opens the way for the adult child to help with the elderly parent. This way the aging parent permits the adult child to grow to fullest maturity.
• Communicate openly. Build a climate where feelings can be shared and solutions can be reached together.
• Share with adult children what it means to age. You may even help your adult children to accept their own aging.
Families that view dependence needs as normal and varying across the life span—from infancy through old age—create a climate for strong personal relationships and the necessary need for interdependence. The end result is an inter-generational strength that fosters supportive-ness that grows as generations are added. Parents will no longer try to manipulate or control the behavior of the young nor will the younger generation attempt to take control or treat their parents as helpless. With mutual dependency, the aging parent and the adult child can each maintain self-esteem.