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Parent-Adult Child Relationships: Playing Fair

Recall the times when children grumbled, “That’s not fair!” Often our flip response was, “Life’s not fair.” We hope our adult children have forgiven us for life’s inequities,  large and small. Still, they sometimes harbor resentment over our shortcomings as parents. The resentments can deepen into an emotional gulf that both parents and children don’t acknowledge yet alone discuss.

Those resentments or “childhood injuries,” as family therapist B. Janet Hibbs calls them, can fester and impact our relationship for years. Dr. Hibbs, a psychologist who practices in Philadelphia, often treats adult children who have become emotionally estranged from their parents; they maintain contact but on a limited basis.

She empathizes with her patients because she experienced a strained relationship with her mother. Only while in training did Dr. Hibbs come to understand that she was not alone. Her mentor told her, “It’s in the nature of parent-child relationships for parents to hurt their children.” Dr. Hibbs recalls her reaction, writing on her blog:

I thought her statement was breathtaking, distressing and yet liberating.

So I was normal. I was a normal former child who’d been injured, and was soon to be a normal parent who despite my very best efforts, sometimes truly failed to imagine my children’s reality. I couldn’t take comfort in how much better a job I would do.

Instead, I had to make peace with my parents, their limitations and my own limitations as well…We talked about how we each had both loved yet hurt or disappointed each other. From all this, I became wiser, lighter and more loved simultaneously.

Her blog post lead me to her book, “Try to See it My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage.” In a chapter, “The Baggage You Bring to Relationships,” Dr. Hibbs explains how our parent-child history deeply influences the next generation with our own children.  Dr. Hibbs believes that fairness—at least our concept of what’s fair—plays a critical role in shaping that relationship. She writes:

Most of us have unevaluated, yet governing assumptions about fairness that we learn in our families growing up. Then we automatically import these “truths” into all of our relationships, often without recognizing it.

Not only are we struggling with this concept of fairness but we doing so as the ground under us keeps shifting. Children grow up, go off to college, boomerang home for awhile, leave the nest, move thousands of miles away or nearby, get married, become parents. We change from fast-track careerists, to slowing the pace, becoming grandparents,  to retirement and growing old and needing their help (yes, it happens!).  As a result of the shifting landscape, the parent-child relationship is constantly renegotiated, although often without either side acknowledging it.

We chatted with Dr. Hibbs on the phone earlier this month and she made so many relevant points that we’ve split the interview into two parts, this week and next. We’ll end here with her comment on the enduring influence of the three generations—you, your parents, and your children. Her words lead us to consider how our present-day interactions are based on what was expected of us as children and whether, in the scheme of things, those expectations were fair.

“It’s really important for people to understand that we all operate within a three- generational context of give and take. Some of our expectations on what we expect from our children are based on what was expected of us. We always have to be very careful to evaluate whether what we gave to our parents–and what we got from them–as reasonable or not. Otherwise, you pass that along to your own children.”

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