Conversations You Want To Have, Part 1

Tom and our daughter, Kati, in Gruene, TX a couple years ago. Who knew we would all live in TX one day?! 

I remember the conversation that changed the direction of the friendship Tom and I were building. He had become my favorite person to talk to. I knew I wanted more but was afraid to hope he felt the same.

Then it happened. Instead of walking me to the door at the end of our date, Tom switched the car off and turned toward me to talk. His question was simple and straight-forward. "What are you looking for in someone you want to spend the rest of your life with?"

Six and a half months later we were married.

In the same way that conversation changed the course of my relationship with Tom, the discussions we have as a parent, and adult child often change the tenure of our relationship. Sometimes it takes one person to muster the courage to explore an uncomfortable or awkward topic before we begin to move beyond our familiar parent/child roles and engage in a more adult/adult manner.

Most of the content today comes from adult children. I learned so much from these discussions! Some of this has guided me as I've navigated new terrain in my relationship with Nick and Kati.

It's encouraged me to discover how many adult kids are following along and commenting on this blog. It tells me the desire for connection isn't just a parent thing. More than one adult child has asked me to finish writing a book so that they can read it with their parents and use it as a starting point for discussions.

If you are a parent, how do you hear that? Are you excited? I wonder if you feel fearful or accused when you read it. I actually found myself feeling a little defensive for the parents of those kids at first.

I've realized, however, that these adult kids long for a closer relationship with their parents and don't have a direction to get where they want to go. That's frustrating. So, no matter where you're at today in your relationship as parent and adult child, please hear the eager desire for closeness that sparked each of these conversations.

Maybe a story is the best way to begin...I'll start with Susan. (names have been changed)

"It happened while I was in college. After an awkward conversation with my grandfather, I was discouraged that my father had sat silent, listening to what I considered to be an attack on my character. During the entire discussion, my dad did not once support me or interject on my behalf."

"I was hurt and wanted to talk about it. I felt that my dad was wrong to not stick up for me. I was apprehensive about talking to (my dad) because I wanted to also make sure that he felt respected. I didn't really know how to have this talk."

"The conversation went well, though. My dad apologized and admitted he was wrong and should have spoken up."

"It was a turning point in my relationship with my dad."

She went on to tell me how much more comfortable all of the conversations she has with her dad have become. While every relationship matures and grows in different ways, for Susan, her father's response to this talk made all the difference in how their relationship progressed. In some profound way, their discussion helped Susan became more of an adult. It built her confidence. It validated her ability to discuss something as one adult to another adult.

Stories like this were familiar in my interviews. Successful conversations about hurt feelings, misunderstandings, or disagreements signaled a new found understanding of each other that went beyond parent and child. For whatever reason, a resolved conflict helped every adult child I spoke with feel that their parents accepted them on a new level.

You might find it interesting to note, however, that these corner-turning discussions were not just relegated to those in college or young working adults.

Jacob told me about a conversation he had with his mom six years ago that has transformed the relationship they enjoy now.

Jacob is 48.

While taking a class to help him become better at understanding friends going through grief and trauma, he recalled something that had happened when he was a child.  He had an adult understanding of the situation, but child-like hurts still remained.

"My parents worked a lot when I was young, trying to make ends meet for our family. I think they were still trying to figure out how to just be married. I was about seven years old. I needed a bunny costume for an activity at school. My mom had a friend who sewed, and she made sure I had the bunny suit."

"I just got up and dressed myself the day of the show and walked to school wearing my costume. Throughout the day, however, I realized something was wrong. My mom wasn't there. I needed a carrot, so I stopped at a vegetable stand on the way and picked up a wilted, dark carrot. I wore my costume to school, but the other kids had theirs brought to them at the "proper" time to dress just before the show.  The moms of my classmates brought their children bright orange carrots with pretty green leaves.  I looked out during the show and knew my mom wasn't there.  I knew there was something wrong about that, but I didn't understand it."

Jacob brushed off the incident and buried it deep inside. Going through the class years later, he was surprised at the strength of emotion the memory triggered. Jacob had to decide what to do.

He chose to share the memory with his mom.

Both of them ended up crying.

His mom apologized and hugged him. A wall broke down that day that neither knew had existed.

"I think it healed my mom as well," Jacob said. "I have heard her share the bunny story several times since we talked. I think parents often wish they could go back and change things they have regrets about."

For Susan and Jacob, taking the chance to have these conversations made a big difference. Neither of them felt like their parents had done a bad job or were bad parents. They expressed great love and gratitude for their parents. Jacob believes it took his relationship with his mom to a new level, even further away from parent/child and closer to mutual adults sharing life together.

For them and for others as well, the turning point, the direction changer in their relationship happened when the adult child felt comfortable sharing something vulnerable. Sharing alone, however, was only part of the equation. The response of their parent was vital in allowing the relationship to advance. Humility and a willingness to listen and take responsibility were also essential ingredients.

Some families find a way to encourage an open, honest relationship earlier and for some that made the transition toward an adult/adult relationship easier. One mom I spoke with told me about the first time her kids pointed out something wrong in her life. Although they were young, her children were right about what they saw and what they said. She used the opportunity to thank them for being honest with her and shared scriptures with them to teach them how to approach her in a respectful manner that would honor God.

(I wish I had known her earlier!)

While some kids and adults struggle with being rebellious or lashing out in anger and saying things disrespectfully, most of the adult kids I interviewed had a different struggle.

Like Susan, many of the adult kids I spoke to found it awkward to point out something "wrong" in their parents. Even adults from families that encouraged open dialogue while the kids lived at home had a tendency to experience this awkward phase, though it was usually easier and quicker to get through.

There are other conversations I will explore next time, but in the meantime let me leave you with this comment from another adult daughter.

"There is a lot of give and take in our relationships now. There is a friendship element to our relationships, a sense that the grown-up kids can give back to Mom and Dad on an emotional and spiritual level."

This daughter summed up a lot of what many adult kids told me they desired in their relationship with their parents. A feeling that they had something to offer, something to contribute to their parents' lives that went beyond merely being their child.

FamilyLori ZieglerComment