Conversations between Adult Children & Parents

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by Devora Krasnianski, founder of Adai Ad Institute

Your adult daughter or son is coming home for Pesach. Some might feel it is an opportune time to have some important conversations in person during that time and bombard with comments such as: “So when are you getting married?”, “Get a real job.”, “Why are you throwing your life away?”, “A life of Torah and Chasidus is the only way to live.”

What might seem innocent, playful or even important to you might feel like nails on a chalkboard to them. No matter our intention, it is always the other person who interprets and decides what we said. From the tone, the timing, personal sensitivities, relationship with the speaker and other context.

A simple remark “I bought you a new pair of pants” can be interpreted in so many ways. He hears or decides  if it is criticism (“you always look messy, so I had to buy you a pair of pants”), if he should behave differently (“I ought to take care of my own shopping from hereon, so my mother doesn’t have to”),  or if he feels treated like a child (“Mommy is still shopping for me cuz she thinks I can’t do it”). There can be so many other possible interpretations, usually very different from your intention.  According to the selected meaning, the reaction of the receiver will be different. In the case when the selected meaning doesn’t match the sender’s intention (which is more rule than exception) conflicts are bound to happen.

Does that mean that as parents of adult children we should bite our tongue? No. Although, there may be some topics better left unsaid.

Should we just say what is on our mind, because, after all as parents, we want and know what is best for them? That depends. The ‘how’ is probably more important than whatever it is that you wish to bring up.

Most important is your relationship. Is bringing up that topic more important than the relationship? Keeping this thought in the fore might help you decide if and how to discuss that particular issue.

Some other pointers to having pleasant conversations with your adult child.

  1. Your adult child is an adult (and mature). What you want to do now is move from monologue to dialogue and you want to interface with them as an adult. Don’t revert back to old ‘parent-child’ communication strategies. No more “Because I’m the father.”
  2. Have a meta conversation about how you will communicate, not so much what you will talk about. The word ‘meta’ originally comes from Greek language meaning ‘higher’ or ‘above’; like an onlooker, ‘the situation is observed from above’.  Meta-conversations mainly deal with the way people communicate with each other, so to say with their relation.  (Of course, you can also discuss which topics are out of bounds for this visit.)
    – “Let’s talk about how we will relate. For the sake of our relationship.”
    – Avoid talking about examples of previous communication mishaps. Instead of “You always tell me what to do and treat me like a child”, you might say “Let’s look forward to how we can best communicate, regardless of the way we did things in the past.”
    – When having this meta conversation, try to see it as a third party might. “When one of us starts talking over the other, it makes the first one feel unheard.” This helps to create an adequate distance from what might have happened in previous conversations and prevents remarks about the participants.
    – You might discuss how to handle the typical communication pain points: checking texts during conversation, interruptions, misunderstandings, ‘monologue-ing’, when conversation is getting uncomfortable, feeling unheard, eye rolling. Or whatever communication challenges you feel might come up.  ‘Rules’ can be mutually agreed upon.   When one is feeling that the conversation is unraveling, they might say ‘let’s take a water break here and then work to get back on track’. When one feels that the other is not understanding the intent, they might say, ‘I’d like the opportunity to rephrase so you can understand what it is that I am trying to convey.’
  3. Sometimes our mouths move faster than our minds and we just blurt. Plan alternatives and apologies.
  4. Make connecting an overarching objective.   Listen for the intent, not necessarily the choice of words or tone. Sometimes, the words spoken are not the best way to have said it or the words you would have chosen. Don’t harp on the words or let the words become a distraction.  Your child just wants to connect with you. If you huff, “We didn’t have time to talk today? Well what do you think with all the guests and davening and meals?”,  your child, or anyone, will likely just say or think “forget it”, and the opportunity is lost.
  5. Put aside defensiveness.  Reactions such as “What? That’s not what I meant!” “I interrupt? That’s not true. When do I do that? I never do that!” shut down conversations. A better response might be, “I’m sorry. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll try to be more sensitive in the future.” And mean it!
    When accused of not understanding, admit that it’s probably true. Ask for help in understanding. “Please help me get your intent; can you give me another example or express it from another angle?”
  6. Slow your conversation down. When people don’t understand each other, they tend to get anxious and speed up and get louder. Instead, take a deep breath and ask the other to say back what he or she thinks you meant. “This is nuanced, I’m not sure I explained it as well as I could have; please tell me what you understood so I can clarify anything.” If they got it wrong, calmly and patiently clarify. “That is not what I intended, I’m glad to have the opportunity to clarify a point there.”
  7. Don’t assume that you both mean the same thing by the same words and phrases, gestures, or tone of voice.  Your contexts might be very different. ‘Fine’ can be meant in several different ways.
  8. Be curious and interested in who your child is. Empty your mind of your dreams, judgments and social mores and be genuinely willing to find out more your child’s passions, values, struggles, goals, and challenges.
  9. Be accepting of who they are. Don’t be critical. You taught them for 18+ years. They know what you want for them. They know what you believe. They know what you think. They know all that now. They’ve got that. You don’t have to keep harping on that.
  10. When you have some wise parental insight, provide perspective, not advice. “Can I share my perspective here?”, “From my vantage point, I see it differently. Would you like to hear?” Explain yourself with caring and compassion.
  11. What not to discuss or say:
    – Appearance, religiosity, weight, whatever it was that made them slam down the phone, frequency of their phone calls to you and the family.
    – “There’s no way you’ll understand until you have kids of your own.”
    – “You should be doing XYZ.”  [Note: There is almost never a good time to use the word ‘should’.]
  12. So what to discuss:
    Divrei Torah, life lessons from Pesach, current events, politics, hobbies, areas of extra curricular interest (travel, lectures, sports), friends and co-workers, passions, work, school, opportunities, challenges, upcoming family events, memories.

Enjoy your adult child’s company. No matter your shared interests or differences of life choices, you are family and it’s Yom Tov. Create  happy and emotionally healthy memories and they’ll always come back home.

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