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A path to harmony for parents and their adult children

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“How to build a lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks about meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to build a happy life.


Yyoung people “are haughty, for they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of necessity,” wrote Aristotle rhetoric. “They think they know everything and they say they do it confidently.” When people my age complain about “kids today,” they often indirectly lash out at their own young adult children. I can imagine how Aristotle’s son Nicomachus must have felt in return: Dad was probably giving unwelcome advice (“Nobody’s ever going to hire you if you’re walking around with yours Chlamys hang out like a common criminal”), Nicomachus pleaded guilty (“Would it kill You visit a poor man proxenos every now and then?”), treated him like he didn’t know (“I wrote the Nicomachean Ethics– Maybe take a look”), and he touched on subjects he didn’t want to talk about (“Would you like me to reserve a spot for you at the Lyceum this year?”).

I hear both sides of this story in my work. My research focuses on happiness in the second half of life and I teach happiness to young adults. What I hear from them aligns with the broader teachings of research on parent-child relationships: they are one of the most important contributors to the well-being of both generations. When they’re good, they’re great—young adults and their parents who perceive their relationship as good are associated with low levels of psychological distress and high levels of life satisfaction. But they can also be one of the most stressed bonds in a parent’s or child’s life.

Whether you are a parent, an adult child, or both, you have the power to make things more harmonious and reap all the benefits of a strong bond. To do that, you need to do something counterintuitive but simple: lower your expectations. Neither parents nor adult children need to be perfect for the relationship to be satisfying and healthy. With lower expectations, you can break out of the childhood dynamic (yours and theirs) and as an adult build a bond based on mutual respect.


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Even in the At best, tensions between adult generations in a family are normal. In the words of one pair of researchers, many parent-child bonds are frayed by “the give and take between autonomy and dependency, and the tension between worry and disappointment.”

A common source of tension arises from the different ways that adult children and their parents view their relationship and the roles they play—in other words, mismatched expectations. Parents may think the relationship is more harmonious and comfortable than their adult children think, while adult children might see the benefit of attachment in terms of sharing support. In Aristotelian terms, one could say that parents see the relationship as more intrinsic; The children see it more instrumentally. Meanwhile, kids tend to think they’re doing more to help than their aging parents realize. And fathers report greater involvement in the relationship than their adult children perceive. All of this can breed resentment, which is only natural when people you love don’t live up to your expectations. It’s even worse when the other party doesn’t even seem to notice.

Other areas of unfulfilled expectations are also common: adult children can seem ambitious to parents who struggled to make ends meet early on; They might renounce marriage or children to the disappointment or disapproval of their parents. Parents may withdraw financial support in ways that seem selfish to adult children, or may care more about their own lives than their children’s and grandchildren’s.

The most extreme form of unfulfilled expectation is a breach of values, in which the adult child rejects something of the parent’s core beliefs. This can completely destroy the relationship and is remarkably common. Researchers write in the Marriage and Family Magazine found in 2015 that about 11 percent of mothers ages 65 to 75 with at least two adult children were totally alienated from at least one of them. They found that a conflict of values ​​(e.g. hanging out with the “wrong” group) was at the root of many of these alienations, while violating social norms (e.g. dropping out of high school) usually was not. For grown children, this means that your mother (or father) is likely to care more about what you believe and how you express it than how you live.

Waiting for your Bringing parent or child together is probably not a recipe for success in your relationship. Research shows that many parent-child relationships remain strained as everyone involved ages—a phenomenon partially explained by a theory known as the “developmental gap hypothesis.” Action is important. I recommend using the following three strategies, which limit three common malicious patterns.

1. Don’t try to read minds.

Over the years, many families have tended to assume that communication doesn’t have to be spoken – that everyone understands the other without saying anything. This is an invitation to misunderstanding. Evidence shows that having a clear family policy, speaking up for yourself and listening to others is best. One way to do this is through regular family gatherings, where each of you can address issues that are on your mind before they become a bigger problem or misunderstanding. The key is not asking anyone to change their reaction to your actions or feelings; It’s designed to give them a chance to hear your point of view and respond before assuming you know what their response will be.

2. Live your Live, but don’t ask them to change her Values.

Alienation within the family is a tragedy – perhaps inevitable in cases of abuse, but avoidable in so many clashes of pride. You must decide for yourself whether a schism is warranted, but as the study above shows, aging parents are more likely to accept lifestyle choices they disagree with than their children who tell them their values ​​are wrong, which they consider wrong could feel personal rejection.

This may sound morally inconsistent or even hypocritical, but it is not. I have many values ​​that I don’t share with loved ones. I can still live with these disagreements consistently without feeling hurt or angry precisely because I don’t expect anyone else to change their mind. And because I don’t insist on an agreement, there’s no need to fight.

3. Don’t treat your family like emotional ATMs.

Ironically, when people treat their family as a one-way outlet for help and advice—usually the parents give and the children receive—the resentment tends to go both ways: visits and phone calls become tiresome, repetitive interviews instead of conversations. I believe this is due to stunted development in the relationship. For example, mom and dad might still treat you like a teenager; In the meantime, you rarely if ever ask about her life or really care about her.

Rather than expecting your family members to be endless sources of help and wisdom — or learning not to constantly give you unsolicited advice — take the lead by treating your family the way you treat your friends, by both give emotional support generously as well as accept gratefully. Research shows that relationships can be greatly improved when adult children and their parents treat each other as individuals with past histories and limitations; in other words, as peers.

Ifor your relationship It’s especially difficult with your parents or grown children, working to improve it could feel like a lost cause. But giving up would almost certainly be a mistake, because “these people” are either your past or future self. According to behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin, as we age, our cognitive abilities, interests, and personality traits become more like those of our parents. As a young man I thought I was very different from my father; Now I hear his voice almost every time I open my mouth.

Your children offer a rare glimpse into your own past; your parents, your future. Giving up means losing self-awareness, which is a missed opportunity to gain self-knowledge and advance as a person. Lowering your expectations and loving them despite their flaws could be the best investment you’ve ever made.

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2022/05/parents-adult-children-lower-your-expectations/629830/?utm_source=feed A path to harmony for parents and their adult children

Jessica MacLeish

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