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Changing Adult Relationships With Your Aging Parents

Attachment theory can help you change relationships dynamics with your parents.

So, its time again to visit with your family of origin... and your parents.

For about half of you (those with secure attachment styles), this will be a wonderful and pleasant experience. For the other half of you, who knows; maybe this year will be different. Maybe Dad will pull you aside and tell you how much he loves and approves of you, even if you didn’t get that promotion at work. Maybe when you tell Mom about events in your life, she will stay focused on you and not turn the conversation into something about her. Maybe you won’t be the invisible person at the party. Maybe you won’t be accused of being angry. Maybe you won’t hear how much people have done for you and how unappreciative you are.

For many people, these patterns have been going on for a lifetime. You thought that when you grew up and left home, you would escape those feelings and get to have a different relationship with your parents. You might be in your 20’s, 30s, 40s or beyond. It really doesn’t matter how old you are. And, don’t beat yourself up for being in your 50s and feeling like a hurt or angry little kid. Your emotional system really doesn’t care about your biological age.

Your attachment style, which dictates the way you process social information, think, feel, and behave across your lifetime, was written (just like a software program) specifically for you to function with your parents and family of origin. For those of you who are not familiar with attachment styles, I will refer you to several of my prior posts on how attachment styles form and the basics of preoccupied, dismissing, and fearful attachment patterns.

Many of you reading this post will be adults who have built your own families and circles of friends. And these new families and friendships may be secure and different from how it was when you were a kid. But when you go home for a visit, that old program (which never went away—it just went dormant) will come back online just like a software program, and you will start perceiving events and processing information through that old filter. This will lead to thoughts, and by extension, feelings and behaviors, that will be very similar to those old ones you knew all too well when you were younger.

You might lament the idea that even after all these years, your parents still won’t change. But, the truth might just be that the person who hasn’t changed is you.

The thing that people resist the most is talking to their parents as adults, and telling those parents how they affect them (in the present and past) and how they feel as a result of those interactions.

At this point, some of you will be saying that your parents aren’t responsible for your feelings as an adult. That is true, but you can say your truth and tell someone else how they impact you without blaming or being cruel.

I often tell people, “How about starting a new pattern in your relationship by telling your parents how they affect you?”

I like to think of myself as an effective psychologist, but I have to admit, that I seem to bat about 10 percent on this suggestion. I find my adult clients to be amazingly resistant to telling their aging parents how they feel about their relationships and what they would like to change.

I hear things like, “My mom will be so upset if I did that,” “My dad would never listen to me,” “That would be the last time we ever speak,” “My mom is so old, I would never do that to her.” I could go on and on, but you get the point.

The common theme is that many adults, irrespective of their ages, are convinced that speaking their truth to their older parents will result in abandonment and being cut off.

So, there you have it. The threat of parental abandonment and being cut off is just as fear-inducing in adulthood as it was in childhood. As adults, we just have more developed minds, which are better able to explain away and justify our not taking action to change the pattern. The truth is that most adults would rather settle for the old painful pattern for the rest of their lives rather than risk rejection.

But, it does not have to be this way. Let’s talk about the attachment system and how it changes as people move into old age.

Everyone needs a secure base of support and acceptance. In childhood, you got this from your parents (or, you should have). In adolescence, you got it from your friends and romantic partners. In adulthood, many people get it from a more permanent partner or spouse.

But when you get older and the social worlds starts to shrink, who will you need approval from? Who will you want to know is there for you if you get sick or something happens? Your adult children, that’s who.

You may now find your parent starting to turn to you for comfort and support. And this could be a source of frustration: "She has never been there for me and now, suddenly, I’m supposed to be there for her?” We approach this relationship the same way we always have — from the perspective of the wounded child.

But the sad fact is (and I mean this warmly) that the idealized parent you always wanted is probably not going to show up. But here is this person: your parent with all of his or her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The difference between childhood and now is that in the present you are in every way this person’s equal. You are not dependent anymore. If your parent were to turn their back on you and cut you off, it would hurt, and hurt badly. But, you would be okay. You are an adult now. And this older parent that you have may need something from you. Your aging parent may need you to be a secure base as they grow into old age.

But, if you have an insecure attachment style, you can’t be a secure base for your parents using that style. (You could only if your style was “secure.")

In order to get away from using your childhood pattern, you need to bring it into the open and name it for what it is. I call this “calling the pattern.” This means having the discussion that you have so tried to avoid. Saying it out loud for you and your parent to hear will bring the pattern into conscious awareness for the both of you.

Once a pattern is seen clearly in conscious awareness, it can be worked on and altered. In truth, it can also be maintained if your parent pushes you away and rejects you. That is a risk you will have to choose if you want things to change. If you don’t want things to change, then maybe you can come to some kind of acceptance of the way things are.

If you can verbalize the pattern for your parent and there is some acknowledgment and willingness to change, you could choose to be a healthy secure base for him/her (consistent, available, warm, and responsive). Now that the secure base roles are reversed, you can choose to have your personal secure base reside in someone else (e.g., your spouse or friends, as opposed to your parents). This will remind you that you are not dependent on your parents for emotional support. If you can do this, then you can decide how you want your relationship to be and have more rewarding relationships for both you and your mom or dad.

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