Resolving Senior Citizen-Adult Children Conflicts

Why adult children distance themselves from their parents
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A lot of people think that “bad” or “ungrateful” children are the ones who grow up and distance themselves from their parents. While this perception may or may not hold true, there is much room for other important factors to think about. An adult child would not just sever their relationship from their parents for “no reason whatsoever”. For there is a high chance that children who have always felt loved, respected, and treated as an equal — give love, respect, and affection in return. Behind most detachments – whether full or partial – is a child who feels unseen and unheard by their parents, especially when they needed them the most. Toxic parenting during childhood remains deep etched in the minds of children. Parental rejection during childhood has a deep impact on the adult behavior.

I shall present the case of a neglected  adult, Suhail ( name changed) who had spent most of his childhood in his maternal home away from parents. After the death of his maternal parents he had to shift to his parental home against his wishes. He could not forge chemistry with his abusive parents and his other siblings. His father was very abusive and subjected him to physical and mental assault. Fortunately books became his best companions. During his career mobility he did home tuitions and was later appointed as a Government employee. As is well said old habits die hard. His father forged Suhail’s signatures on a cheque and withdrew significant amount from the bank without the knowledge of his son. When the son came to know of the fraud he did not lodge a police complaint. After the marriage of Suhail things turned worst. There were frequent quarrels. Suhail’s parents were not ready to adapt and were always in a complaining mode. They were never grateful or happy with the selfless service of their son. Due to frequent quarrels in home Suhail could not concentrate on his job and was served frequent explanations for his non-serious behavior. Finally he moved to the rented accommodation but at the same time paid a significant amount to both parents at the end of the month. During his visit to his parental home he was treated as an uninvited guest and ignored by other family members. He was left unattended. One day he suggested his father that the big hall lying vacant in his ancestral house will be used as a coaching center by his wife as she was MA MEd and still unemployed. Suhail’s intention was to reconnect the family. But his pessimistic parents thought that Suhail wants to grab the property. The father manipulated the situation and created a drama and got Suhail evacuated through the intervention of neighbors. He also threatened him that he will file an FIR against him. That was the last nail in the coffin. Still Suhail did not stop the monthly maintenance of  his parents.

One day there was a function in the family. Next day father visited the office of the Suhail to receive the 'monthly honorarium'. Suhail expected that his father would have brought some leftover from the function for him to eat as a token of love. But his father came empty handed. While his father was in the office an orderly dropped with a lunch coupon. Suhail was invited for a lunch in the guest house. He asked the father to stay  for a while, went to the guest house packed the lunch and served it to his father in the office while himself bore hunger pangs with a smile on his face. Still these actions were not cared for by his father. 

Here are some key reasons why an individual would choose to sever the relationship with their parents. Senior Citizens who have high levels of tension with their adult children experience a sense of frustration. When I interacted with these struggling children of abusive parents, they raised a very pertinent question: Why do they treat us badly? During a recent interaction with a senior citizen Abdul Aziz, he shared his emotional pain after a rift occurred with his only son Rafiq, who he had not seen in several months. The tension in their relationship escalated after Hajra, Abdul Aziz’s wife, had a heated argument with the wife of Rafiq. Hajra cursed the dead father of  Shafia, the situation took a ugly turn and the mohalla committee had to intervene.  Abdul Aziz reflects: “The hardest thing for us is that we love Rafiq and our grandson, Mohsin, but feel ignored. We helped Rafiq and his wife, Shafia, with the down payment for starting a business but do not feel they are  grateful. It feels stressful when we are all together. Shafia grew up in a dysfunctional family, is not close with her parents, and discourages Rafiq from seeing us. She also uses black magic to destroy us. It hurts us deeply that we haven’t seen our three-year-old grandson for almost a year. The Rafiq’s  version is that whenever he visits his parents, they treat him as an uninvited guest. During this brief stay they hunt for some excuse to pick a quarrel and call the neighbors to intervene. In his own home he was looked with an eye of suspiciousness.

Once Rafiq went there with his wife to see some possibility of reconciliation. The mother parroted  the old stories and was very harsh with Shafia. Rafiq counseled both his mother and wife that if we go on re-reading the last chapter of our life we will never start the new one. Shafia's version of the story is that since her childhood she craved for parental love. She expected her mother-in-law will treat her as her own daughter. But from day one her every action was criticized and she was a victim of sustained emotional pinching .Due to this abusive reciprocation Shafia experienced frequent emotional out-bursts. Rafiq’s parents acted in corrosive ways that hurt his feelings and made it hard to communicate. The mother saw Rafiq not as an individual, but as an extension of herself.  The estrangement of Rafiq from his parents is actually a journey, a process wherein more often than not, Rafiq made multiple attempts to communicate their parent’s flaws, or explain their view point, hoping to fix their toxic or dysfunctional behavior. But, most of the time, at such attempts, Aziz and his wife stood far from understanding anything. What’s more, they reacted with a rage and used their manipulative tactics which shocked Rafiq.  It is after these multiple attempts that Rafiq came to the painful realization that he probably can never have a stable and functional relationship with his parents.

Strained emotions between Rafiq and his parents occurred  for many reasons, such as differences in values, hard talks  over past events, or struggles with letting go of old roles and dynamics. These strained emotions lead to depression for both the parties. I had the opportunity to interact with all the family members of Abdul Aziz. The epicenter of the problem was the inflated ego. I conducted several counseling sessions with the family members. I identified multiple reasons that account for fractured relationships between Abdul Aziz and his son.  The family had communication problems that cropped from unrealistic or differing expectations. As a result, parents were struggling to forge a close relationship with their adult children while respecting their independence. But the question was who will bell the cat. I told Hajra to show some adaptability in her behavior and display growth mindset so that she can learn from her mistakes and better connect with her adult children.

The cornerstone of improved connection with your adult child is empathy. There are neither sides, nor winners when family relationships suffer. I concluded my interaction with Aziz’s family with this optimistic note  that no matter what your adult child's age, having a growth mindset—the willingness to learn from setbacks and mistakes—is the best way to get to a better place in your relationship. First of all, stay committed and interested in improving your relationship with your adult child. Take responsibility for your actions when you speak to them. Definitely don’t get defensive when they complain. Try to show empathy by saying things like: “I recognize how my behavior may have been hard for you;” With that in mind, today's article provides strategies for parents who want to reconnect with their adult children. For those parents who do currently have some contact with their angry, distanced adult children, the following points are intended to help bridge the gap and hopefully get closer.

1. Unresolved Emotional Pressure

As adult children grow up and develop their own identities, they may develop values or beliefs that contradict with those of their parents, leading to disagreement and anxiety. Old conflicts or traumas that were never fully resolved can resurface later in life and cause rift between parents and adult children. Another big reason of unresolved emotional strain between parents and adult children is a configuration of poor communication, which can lead to misconstruction and spiteful arguments. To settle strained emotions with your adult child, give priority to positive communication, and understanding. Strive to communicate explicitly and honestly, listen keenly to your child's concerns, and make an effort to understand from their prism. Adult children need their parents to be cool, consistent, and non-invasive.

2. Not endorsing  Changes in Roles and Responsibilities

Some of the parents with whom I interacted feel a pathological urge to control their adult children's lives. Another challenge  that I often see get played out is parents having certain expectations from their children's lives, and struggle to adjust if there was any deviation  from those expectations.  Remind yourself that your child is now an adult even if you don't agree with some of their options. Encourage your adult child to show independence and responsibility in their behavior, communicate—listening first—about their goals and aspirations, and train them to set respectful boundaries with you whenever mandatory.

3. Expressing disapproval and Invalidation

Parents who are highly critical or dismissive of their adult child's feelings or accomplishments can emotionally hurt their children. This can make the adult child feel insignificant or like they can never meet their parental standards. Continuing to treat your adult child dismissively can make them feel powerless and incompetent. This can lead to feelings of insufficiency and a lack of confidence. If you have been emotionally distant or neglectful, this can further cause your child to feel useless or redundant. When adult children experience criticism and invalidation, they can develop feelings of desertion or dismissal. Using guilt, shame, or other manipulative tactics to control an adult child's behavior can cause emotional injury. This can make the child feel like they are not in control of their own life and lead to feelings of bitterness and irritation. Lastly, parents who do not respect their adult child's boundaries and independence can run the potential  risk of having their adult children estrange them.  Put yourself in your adult children's shoes and try to understand their viewpoint. This can help you be more compassionate toward them and less critical. Instead of figuring out what your adult children are doing wrong, focus on what they are doing right. Positive support can be a potent motivator. Recognize that your adult child is an independent individual capable of making their own assessment. Give them space to make rectify their own mistakes and learn from them.

4. Authenticate their feelings

Many parents experience anxiety over the welfare of their adult children, and with the result give unsolicited (and unwanted advice ) in an  authoritative  manner. Instead, show empathy and authenticate your child's emotions. Let them know that their way of thinking is important and that you comprehend why they might be angry. Authenticating their emotions doesn't mean you have to agree with their viewpoint, but it helps create a secure pace for communication.

5.  Take account of your behavior

Start by reflecting on your actions and behavior. Consider whether there have been any conflicts, misunderstandings, or mistakes on your part that might have contributed to your adult child's anger. Taking accountability for your actions can set the platform for open and honest communication. Rebuilding trust takes time and sincerity. Be patient and demonstrate your commitment to repair the relationship. 

Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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