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Senior parents and children – How to navigate toxic relationships

A toxic relationship of a senior parent with their adult son or daughter has been around since evolution, writes Vinita Alvares Fernandes

We all know that there are no rules for parenting, you have to just listen to your gut instinct and hope everything turns out well. Every parent looks at their children through the eyes of pure unconditional love. Books, blogs, coaches and bystanders provide guidelines, but every single parent-child relationship is unique and can never be compared with another.

How we expect to bring up our children and how they eventually turn out can be chalk and cheese. It is no secret that as parents age and children grow into adults, their points of view, opinions on various topics or even the meaning of life can differ and cause friction on multiple levels.

Let’s first understand how, where and why all this contempt and toxicity arises in these relationships? 

Very often elderly parents are at the mercy of their children to take care of them, their finances, and their emotional balance, this may cost them their peace of mind, souring relationships and acceptance of bad behaviour by their child or vice versa.

Could it be mental health issues that have gone undiagnosed?

One in five adults live with mental illnesses that haven’t been diagnosed and just written off as old age. 20% of children are misdiagnosed or go diagnosed right up to adulthood. Especially here in India, addressing mental health is still a taboo topic. When in reality it can actually be rectified quite simply with the right dose of medication and therapy to adjust the chemical imbalance in your body and to set you right on track, back to leading a normal and healthy life.

Could it be your parenting style? 

Being hands off parents isn’t the best parenting approach as it can lead children astray. Children do need boundaries and discipline while growing up. On the other hand, helicopter parenting isn’t the ideal approach either. Constant parental intervention, nagging and hovering can lead to future resentment and rebel behaviour. This struggle between which parenting approach to adopt and being unable to find the right balance can lead to souring relationships between parent and child.

Another scenario is where a child is brought up a certain way and they marry into a family where the parenting approach is the stark opposite. This can lead to a frictional relationship to say the least. For example- an independent girl marries into a family where she is told what to wear, what to eat, how to behave and has to report her every move to her in-laws. This alien situation is bound to cause chafing of the parent and in law relationship.

Could it be blurred lines? the fine line between friendship and parenting?

Gone are the days of when a parent told a child the sky was pink and the child agreed obediently. Todays’ parenting is based on striking the right balance between being friends, wanting an open relationship with your child, discussing life over a cup of tea and still being able to command the respect and obedience a parent deserves. More often than not these lines get blurred and boundaries are crossed which can lead to a bitter relationship. Setting boundaries of mutual respect is vital. You don’t need to be your child’s best friend, giving them the entitlement to do or say what they please and you don’t need to be a stickler parent either. Learn to establish boundaries right from the start.

Could it be parents neglecting their children?

Parenting is a serious and lifelong responsibility you sign up for. Age-old expectations of boy meets girl, boy marries girl, girl produces children and that’s the story of life are long gone. Today, every parent strives for a better lifestyle, so dual income is a must. Children are educated so they look for careers over marriages. With this dynamic change can come parental neglect. With the pressure of your job, you might not have enough time for your child. Unfortunately or fortunately there is no substitute for a mother or father’s love and guidance. Another situation of neglect could occur when a parent in law doesn’t treat their son or daughter in law with the same love they have for their own child. This neglect of love can leave a scarred relationship.

All these “could it be?” pointers are speculations to create self awareness and points of discussion that fuel toxic relationships, blood or otherwise, between parents and children, 

A few home truths as senior parents —

  • We think that by the time our child is 21 they are adults. The truth is that at 18 they are lawful adults and as the clock strikes midnight on their 21st birthday, it does not magically turn them into adults. Trust me, I know. As a 50 year old I still seek my mothers advice and as mother to a 26 year old I dish out advice on the daily. Your children will need you now more than ever before to guide them in handling finances, life skills, career path choices and how to be parents themselves. How much you reach out can impact every corner of your child’s life. Parenting is for life, it’s a journey that has no destination.
  • Every once in a while, be prepared for a comparison on how their friends’ parents are so cool, often forgetting that you made them fresh hot meals for twenty years or forgetting you sat up with them night after night when they were ill. Instead, they want you to show up in front of their friends looking stylish and trendy or not speak in broken English so as to embarrass them.  Where does the sensitivity lie? You often ponder!
  • We raise our children to be the best versions of themselves, to have strong voices, to stand up for what you believe in, to stay ahead of the game. An added bonus is if they find a life partner with these same qualities. If not, all hell can break loose and the “outsider” will never be an insider. Then you wonder why your child or child in law doesnt want a relationship with you? Trust that you have raised well rounded humans, humans who can make the right choice for themselves and in turn respect their choice. Once your children find their significant other, it is time to realise, you are no longer the core of their being and graciously let go.
  • No two women have ever been able to run a home amicably, one kitchen, one woman is the rule. If you have your daughter-in-law living with you, set the boundaries immediately and openly. This will allow no space for manipulative techniques of playing one against the other.
  • I remember my mother sobbing the day I left her home for my married home. For me, it was an exciting new life ahead, for my mum it was a dismissal of motherhood, lack of empathy and hurt. Parents, prepare yourself for this time, your children will be busier than ever before. It is a new and overwhelming change for them too, so stop being self-absorbed in your own feelings. Transition gracefully.
  • When your child takes the side of their significant other over you, your first reaction will naturally be — Oh how they have changed, they are obsessed with their partner, constantly putting them on a pedestal and slamming their parents. Save the melodrama for your soap operas. Its a tough spot for your child, try to understand that. Don’t forget you were once a daughter in law/ son in law as well.

Dear Parents, 

Here are some to dos and advice from one parent to another.

  1. Do refrain from being over critical of your children and their significant other,
  2. Do refrain from spoiling them rotten, keep the fine line between being generous and overkill. It leads to lack of gratitude.
  3. Do refrain from being overly attached to your children. Have your own life and let them miss you too.
  4. Lastly, be affectionate. Always be affectionate no matter how you feel and don’t be afraid to show it. It puts relationships back on track.

How can you build a better relationship and move forward by addressing bad behaviour and trigger points with your children and their significant other —

– As I mentioned earlier, setting boundaries is imperative for stable relationships. Once the boundaries are set, sticking to them is even more important, don’t get swayed. These boundaries must be a two-way conversation, in a polite respectful tone and when it comes to finances, remember you are not your child’s financer, you are a thoughtful parent first. Set the limit.

– Dealing with your adult children, especially as you turn around the senior corner can be a daunting task, you are focused on using your hard earned money wisely, keeping much for your health and retirement so as to be self dependent as much as possible. Children change their priorities as they move ahead in their lives and there is nothing wrong with that. The sooner you accept this inevitable truth the better prepared you are to face life as a senior. Yes, the child you envisioned when you boasted “IT’S A GIRL/BOY” may not turn out the way you wanted. Acceptance is key.

All the years of turmoil when raising your child can often be buried in anger and this needs to be addressed in the most dignified way of communication possible. Admitting your parental mistakes and listening to your child/child in law’s buried anger will take many conversations and often, family counselling can bring healing to the relationship. Admit when you are wrong, hug and forgive.

Going back in time. I do that ever so often. “What did I feel towards my parents at that age?” Children of today have different problems from the days you were growing up, understand where they are coming from, put yourself in their shoes and most of all be supportive in a positive way, even if you disagree, ‘agree to disagree.’ Very often they are just venting and need a warm shoulder to cry on before they set foot on their path again and explore the world on their terms. Be sure to be supportive.

Sometimes silence is golden, your way, my way, his way will not cut it. After all, the bottom line of life is peaceful existence. Let each person work individually on their issues; come up with their own solutions to salvage the relationship, set new boundaries if needed. Make peace with life and living.

If you are in a situation of a stepparent or companionship, know that this can work to your advantage or disadvantage. You have someone to confide in who may see things from an entirely different perspective and provide timely, constructive advice. If there exists a happy relationship between your children and them, talking one-on-one can create an overall united front. If this exists, seize the deal, if not set the boundries again.

My final word to all of you —

A toxic relationship of a senior parent with their adult son or daughter has been around since evolution; the entrance of a daughter/son in law can make matters worse. This exists in all classes of society and across all cultures and borders. While times are evolving, the Indian middle class still sees a lot of conflict as parents demand to be looked after in their senior years.

  • Be sure to grow with the times, it will save you a lot of heartache.
  • Let go of your children
  • Have fewer expectations
  • Help from the sidelines
  • Make smart concerted attempts to salvage relationships
  • Let your children make their own mistakes and be supportive parents
Vinita Alvares Fernandes
Vinita Alvares Fernandes is an Economics graduate, a writer and a Trinity College certified public speaker and communicator

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