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Playing Fair with Adult Children, part 2

Last week in “Playing Fair” we introduced family therapist Dr. B. Janet Hibbs whose academic and clinical work focuses on the role  fairness plays in our relationships. This week we continue our discussion of how her findings relate to parents and their adult children.

Q. Some young adults have what you call a “relationship of obligation” with their parents. What exactly does that mean?

A. That refers to when the adult child really doesn’t want to have a relationship with the parents but feel they must; otherwise it would break family rule of how a good son or daughter is supposed to behave. It’s not an authentic relationship that is made of people understanding other people’s needs. It’s more just, “Hey, I know what I am supposed to do, and I’ll do it!”

Q. Parents must be aware of this emotional gulf. Why don’t they address it?

A. The parents indeed may complain, “Why don’t you call more often” or “I don’t see you very much.” But they may not realize there’s an underlying injury because the adult child won’t talk about it; they don’t want to hurt a parent’s feelings. It’s a little crazy because obviously the adult child is ruining the relationship, but that’s the logic

Q. Often those strained relationships are a result of what you call “childhood injuries.” What does that mean?

A. Sometimes the adult child feels a sibling was favored more; sometimes parents live under they myth that they treated all children equally when in reality they didn’t. Perhaps one child was the family scapegoat and screamed at more; sometimes a child doesn’t turn as the parents expected in terms of accomplishments, and the adult child knows that.

Q. There might be an explanation of why a parent was hard on one child and easier on another, yet the child often refuses to bring the parent to therapy to discuss the issue. Why?

A. The adult child is terrified of losing the parent’s love, even if there’s a benign explanation for parent’s behavior. The adult child keeps trying harder to please but eventually keeps a distance, terrified that injured once they will be injured again. Our brains are wired not to keep us happy but to keep us out of danger.

Q. Suppose a parent senses that there is an emotional strain with an adult child. How do you try to mend it?

A. We often don’t know unless we ask, so ask but start slow. In a discussion tell the child how proud you are of him and ask questions about his life. Gently mention that perhaps you don’t see him as much as you’d like and ask him there’s anything you could do to make it better. Is there something that happened in past that he’d like to discuss? Sometimes adult children are often waiting for an invitation to open up.

Another approach is to talk about your relationship with your own parents, noting perhaps that “It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I got such and such straightened out with mom” or “I wish I had talked to my father about such and such.”

Q. For us to understand the other’s person perspective you say that we need a better grasp relational ethics? What is that?

A. Relational ethics is at the heart of my clinical training in family therapy. It’s really about trying to decide what’s fair between two people in a relationship. It could be parent and child or a husband and wife. It’s about what you owe that other person and what you deserve back from that person.

Q. Could you give an example of relational ethics from a parent’s perspective?

A. Let’s say you think your adult child in college is drinking too much. So when child is not acting in his own best interest, you have a right as a parent to request that the child change his behavior. You are making a claim for a child to take care of your concern by taking care of themselves.

Another example is when a daughter is in an emotionally abusive relationship and she constantly calls to complain about her boyfriend. The mom is put in double bind; she’s her daughter’s confidant but seemingly has no rights to offer advice, only to listen. I say that a mom does have the right to say, “I worried about you. Could you please go talk to someone like a therapist about this?” You also have the right to suggest she find another confidant, saying,  “This is very, very hard for me that you are turning to me and I am helpless. Who else can you talk too that you trust?”

Q. What else should we keep in mind in dealing with adult children?

A. Parent-child relationships are based not only on love but also on give-and-take. When the give-and-take is chronically out of whack either way that’s when people feel exploited and treated unfairly. They may address in very sideways manner but they won’t come out and say it.

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  • Ruth Nemzoff March 2, 2012, 11:18 am

    One of the problems is that the definition of fair is ambiguous. Fair can mean giving to each according to his or her need, and fair can mean being even Steven. That is, giving each child exactly the same amount of love or money or whatever. In either case, a child and a parent’s definition may be different. Thus, it behooves parents to discuss their intent with their children and apologize for any misinterpretations.

    Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D.
    Author and Speaker: Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
    Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Make In-Laws Into Family. Forthcoming. (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

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