When we fail to Communicate

A recent article in ScienceDaily got me thinking about parent/adult child conversations. According to the article adult children often see their parents as stubborn. The writers go on to suggest that interventions can be developed to ease these interactions and improve communication.

I have seen many instances where adult children feel that their parents need to make life changes. Most often this comes from genuine concern for a parent’s well-being. An adult child may feel the parent’s house is too much for them to handle or that they need more assistance to be safe. And often—although not always—they are right. But conversation about these concerns can become very tense.

The question is why are these conversation so difficult? Of course there are many reasons ranging from the particulars of each family’s dynamics to role reversal adjustments and so on. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing—or the particular approach used. But it’s also the case that what may be one person’s ‘stubborn’ is another person’s independence. No one likes to have their suggestions dismissed–and no one likes to have their independence questioned.

Take the case of Mary and her mother, Irene. Irene is in her late 80’s and lives alone. She has always been an independent person. Recently Mary has started to worry about her mother. She wonders if her mother should still be driving. She would feel better if her mother wore an emergency response device in case of a fall. When Mary brings these issues up in conversation Irene either withdraws and becomes silent or says she’ll think about them but then does nothing. Irene doesn’t think she needs a monitoring device, although she says she will think about it just to pacify Mary. She says her balance is good, she walks and exercises and doesn’t think she is at any greater risk of falling than Mary. As for her driving she says she already limits where she goes, does not drive at night and feels she is very safe. Who is right? Is Mary seeing signs that Irene does not and is Irene being stubborn? Or is Mary expressing her personal anxiety about her mother’s aging and Irene feeling defensive because her judgment and independence are being questioned?

I think part of the problem is that there are few role models for good parent/adult child relationships. In a society such as ours where 4 and 5 generation families are becoming a reality we need to develop such models. What happens when the top down family authority structure is no longer appropriate? How are great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and adult children supposed to relate with one another?

I think that a lot of miscommunication could be avoided if family members entered into conversation with one another with appreciation for each person’s individuality, intelligence and independence. Just because we are family does not mean we should forget about boundaries, courtesy, respect for differences. In other words, maybe if we handled these conversations the way we would if we were talking to a friend or colleague we would do a better job of getting our concerns heard and our care appreciated.

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