Your relationship with your parents as adults is complex, filled with paradoxical feelings that run the spectrum from deep love, gratitude and recognition to deep hurt, anger, resentment and everything in between. It is common to have a “love/hate” relationship with one’s parents, especially when there was conflict, uncertainty or crisis in one’s upbringing.
Adults who have successfully separated and individuated into their own lives, eventually see their parents as people who have or had both strengths and weaknesses, who both loved as they could, but may have also been caught up in their own fears and limitations. Coming to terms with this is an essential stage of development and a part of adult maturation. Unfortunately, many adult children, because of the devastating effects of family or parental crisis, are either unable to fully separate and individuate from the parental orbit, or, on the other hand, have rationally cut off all contact and engagement with their family of origin.
For the majority of adults, their communication with their parents is positive, for the most part, with a strong “regard complex.” However, relationships can be somewhat conflicted, particularly when adult children continue to seek approval from the parents in ways that put them back into a child role. Many adult children avoid confronting their parents. Some fear being treated like a child, while others fear the pain that family conflict can bring. But working together to manage and resolve conflict will result in improved communication and a better, more enjoyable relationship.
Barriers to Resolving Parental Conflict
Growing up, your parents played an important role in teaching you how to get along with others. Emotional and relationship issues, however, can impede your ability to resolve conflict with your parents. Keep these barriers in mind:
• Not communicating. Do not assume that you know your parents so well that making an effort to talk and listen to each other are no longer necessary. Similarly, do not assume that your parents can read your mind and know your feelings.
• Stereotyping. Remember, your dad and mom are also a man and a woman with individual feelings that matter to them. Also, adult children frequently define their parents by their negative habits and tendencies. Instead, focus on your parents’ positive qualities. For example, your mother may be stubborn and hold a grudge, but she also is a great listener.
• Pushing buttons. When communication breaks down, avoid making the conflict worse by focusing on issues you know will escalate the problem.
• Routine. Time and again, you and your folks probably argue and resolve conflict the same way. Identify and avoid patterns and tendencies that weaken your ability to resolve conflict.
• History. How you treated each other in the past can affect your desire to work together to solve a problem. Agree to respect each other and work through the problem rationally. Also, do not assume that you will not be able to come to consensus because you have not been able to resolve similar issues in the past.
Resolving Conflict Step-By-Step
No issue is too big or small to bring up if you feel angry, hurt or unfairly treated. Follow these steps:
• Cool off/ Take a Time Out. Emotions can keep you from identifying the real issue.
• Identify the problem. Often, small incidents are symptoms of a larger, central issue. Identify your needs: Are they being met?
• Change your perspective. How might your parents feel? Are there underlying issues or needs that are not being met? Did you say or do something that could have been misunderstood or misinterpreted?
• Communicate. Make sure your parents have your full attention and understand your meaning. Telling your parents enough about the way you feel will help them see you as an independent adult, like them, and improve their ability to empathize with you. Be aware of your body movement, voice inflection, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.
• Avoid involving or asking other family members to take sides.
• Listen. Do not interrupt or make assumptions. Avoid being critical or defensive. Listen for what is behind the words, the feelings and ideas.
• Be willing to apologize and forgive.
• Solve the problem. Be flexible to work out a compromise that meets both your and your parents’ personal and relationship needs. Focusing on such needs will help you deal with the issue at hand as well as your overall relationship.
Resolving Conflict: How to Turn Conflict into Cooperation by Wendy Grant. Element, 1997.
Resolving Conflict with Others and Within Yourself by Gini Graham Scott, PhD. New Harbinger Publications, 1990.
Handling Verbal Confrontation: Take the Fear Out of Facing Others by Robert V. Gerald, PhD. Oughten House Foundation, 1999.
The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen: Getting Through to Family, Friends and Business Associates by Paul W. Swets. Simon & Schuster, 1983.
The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution by Dudley Weeks, PhD. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992.
Lifeskills: Eight Simple Ways to Build Stronger Relationships, Communicate More Clearly and Improve Your Health by Virginia Williams, PhD, and Redford Williams, MD. Times Books, 1997.
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