Parallel Lives: Adult Children and Parents as Peers
As we get older, we relate to the world around us in ever-changing ways. Time and age reveal new perspectives on even the most familiar things in our lives. Consider the ways we relate and communicate with our parents/parent figures as we become adults- this relationship is one of the most significant and changing dynamics throughout our lives. Everyone has a different relationship with the people who raised them, but no matter how close you are, everyone experiences some difficulty navigating the socio-familial landscape when both parties are adults.
In this article, we’ll be exploring these unique family growing pains, and looking at ways both parents and adult children can strengthen their relationship and relate to one another.
Most people can recall the first time they realized their parents were getting older. For me, it wasn’t so much a moment of seeing them as “old people” but seeing them as people first, and parents second. One day when I was in my early twenties, I was in the car with my parents and listening to them chatting, I was struck by the fact that my parents are just normal people. They had had their own lives, in fact, most of their lives had been spent not as parents, but as two individuals. Obviously, we know our parents’ lives don’t completely center around ours but it can be odd to think about all the aspects of their lives that have absolutely nothing to do with us, their children.
When we’re kids, we don’t think of these things. Sure, we know our parents weren’t always “mom” or “dad”, but we don’t really stop to ask ourselves who they were before that, or who they will be once we’ve flown the nest. The feeling of seeing your parents as peers is a bit like when you’re a kid and you see your teacher at the grocery store- suddenly you’re seeing a version of them that doesn’t revolve around you. There’s plenty of research examining the parent/child relationship between middle-aged children and their elderly parents, and how to help aging parents. But what about those in-between years, when the adult children no longer qualify for the student discount, nor the parents the seniors discount?
How Much Should We Share our Lives?
When you’re a kid, your life is inextricably intertwined with the lives of your parents. While we will probably never live completely separate lives from the people who raised us, we transition into a relationship more akin to parallel lives. As both generations get older, the ways in which we communicate are key to smoothly transition into this more peer-like relationship. A study conducted at the University of Texas, Austin found that of nearly 250 parents with children aged 18+, 96% spoke with, texted or saw them in person over the course of a week, which is statistically much more than these parents spoke to their parents.
I asked around within my peer group to see if this number seemed high or low. I found that how often adult children communicate with their parents really seems to vary- some friends reported speaking to their parents once a month, while others manage to have Sunday dinner with mom and dad every week.
AARP Magazine’s Generation Study examined how adults ages 21-26 get along with their parents and compared these findings to how baby boomers said they got along with their parents when they were in their early 20s.
- 31% of today’s young adults communicated with one of their parents more than once a day vs 13% of boomers when young
- 60% of today’s young adults get together at least once a week with their parents vs 42% of boomers when young
- 79% of today’s young adults are comfortable talking about emotional life events with their parents vs 62% of boomers when young
- 81% of today’s young adults feel comfortable discussing finances with their parents vs 71% of boomers when young
No matter how frequently we communicate, one thing is clear- the way we talk and relate to each other definitely changes as everyone gets older.
What We Choose to Share
While researching their novel When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? authors Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Jensen Arnett found that 75% of parents said their relationships with their adult children was better than when their kids were 15. It’s not surprising, considering how emotionally volatile and moody most of us were as teenagers. I mean, would you really want to have cared for and lived with your 15-year-old self? Not only that but as we get older, it can be easier to find more common ground with older generations, over simple things like doing your own taxes or buying your first car. But that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. Newfound friendships that blossom between parents and children in adulthood don’t necessarily override the parent/child dynamic, and that goes for both parties.
As adult offspring, we may find ourselves expecting our parents to miraculously have the answers to all our questions as if they are Google personified, while simultaneously being frustrated by their unsolicited opinions. Parents can find themselves fighting an equally tumultuous internal debate between giving advice and letting kids navigate the pitfalls of adulthood independently- allowing them to learn from experience. This dynamic is particularly challenging for people who are/have been in their 20’s in recent years, who generally experience greater personal freedoms regarding sexuality and marriage expectations but a more complicated job landscape than their Boomer parents did.
How to Communicate With One Another
While the current social and economic issues facing 20-somethings may leave our parents at a loss for how to provide support, it also means that words of wisdom from a trusted parent figure can be invaluable. In exchanges about important topics, it’s important for both adult-children and parents to:
- Recognize that some topics may be uncharted territory for one or both parties, which might mean changing your expectations of the other person
- Respect each other’s boundaries and limitations – no matter how close you are, there may always be those hot topic issues that you just can’t seem to see eye to eye on, it’s important to know when to just agree to disagree
- Listen to each other – to facilitate the parents as peers dynamic, it may be easier to abandon any preconceived notions about what you think the other person will say/ think/ feel
- Spend time doing things you love – whether it’s something entirely new, or revisiting a nostalgic hobby, participating in an activity that you both love is a great way for generations to bond
These peer-like relationships with older generations don’t need to be reserved for your parents. If you’re close with your parents through adulthood, it is definitely something to cherish and nourish. Older generations have lived through personal and world events that we will never know about first-hand. Being able to communicate across generations of family as peers allows everyone to share knowledge and experience on a personal level.
(2016). Claire Berman. “What Aging Parents Want From Their Kids” Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/when-youre-the-aging-parent/472290/
Elizabeth Fishel, Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “Parenting Adult Children: Are You a Good Friend to Your Grown-Up Kid?” Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-04-2013/parenting-adult-children-family-relationships.html
(2012). Robert Huber. “Are You Too Close to Your Kids” retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-12-2012/how-to-parent-adult-children.html
(2015). Marjorie S. Miller. “Communication is Key When Dealing with Aging Parents”. http://news.psu.edu/story/342263/2015/01/27/research/communication-key-when-dealing-aging-parents