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Family Dynamics

How Parents and Adult Children Can Stop Fighting

Families can use meta-conversations to break the cycles they get stuck in.

Key points

  • Adult children and parents can get caught up in cycles of arguments that leave both feeling frustrated.
  • Most families try to address issues by solving the content that comes up in the arguments.
  • Meta-conversations allow families to see where they get stuck over and over and approach issues in new ways.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

When I work with adult children or their parents (or both), they typically report a variation of this scenario:

  • My daughter calls me to complain about her job, and I try to give her advice, but she never takes it. She sometimes calls me three or four times a day to talk through scenarios, and after every conversation, I’m completely stressed out.
  • When I call dad upset, he gets so overwhelmed and then tells me how anxious my problems make him and it becomes all about his anxiety. Now, not only am I overwhelmed, I’m taking care of somebody else.
  • My son keeps making really dumb decisions and I try to warn him because somebody has to, right? He needs to know that his actions aren’t OK and will backfire. But it always leads to a blow-up between us. I’m just trying to look out for him.”

When families get caught in one of these cycles, they try to solve it by addressing the issue they're discussing. Mom tries to help her daughter solve work issues so that she'll stop calling to discuss it and then getting into fights. If the son solved his issues, Dad wouldn’t get overwhelmed by them, and his son wouldn’t end up supporting him instead. If the son stopped making certain decisions, Mom wouldn't feel the need to scold him and make sure he's on the right path.

But solving the particular problem won't fix things. Why? The dynamics these adult parents and children experience will re-emerge the next time. Mom will keep giving advice that never gets followed. The overwhelmed dad will continue to feel anxious when their child tries to lean on them. And the mom telling her son how he screwed up will keep landing in blow-out fights.

What can families do instead?

Instead of focusing on the subject of the arguments, families can track and discuss how they speak about these sorts of issues. It sounds something like this:

I noticed that when we talk about my work, _____ happens. Then I do _______. That leads you to feel _______, so you say _______. It escalates, and I shut down.

This is a meta-conversation. Meta-conversations focus on the process of the fight instead of the subject being argued about. Meta-conversations look at things like how arguments begin, who starts them, who raises their voice, who gets set off by what subject, how things escalate, and how things end. It is all about pattern recognition so that parents and adult children can try talking about things in a new way.

What does a meta-conversation sound like in action?

  • Mom, I’ve been thinking about our fights lately. I call hoping to vent about work, and you immediately jump in with advice. I get frustrated. You get annoyed that I'm not listening...Can we try something new? When I call, I’ll tell you I want to vent and just need somebody to listen. That I need to hear “Wow, that really sucks.” And if I’m ready to brainstorm solutions, I’ll let you know. Does that feel like something we can try?
  • Hey Alice, I noticed that our conversations have been strained lately. You’ve been having a hard time at work and we talk several times a day about it. I get frustrated and feel helpless. I don’t know what to say. I so want to fix it for you, so I jump in with solutions. Then you get mad. So I wanted to check in. What do you need from me when you call? How would you like those conversations to go? On my end, I think I can do one of those conversations a day. Three or four makes it hard to do anything else during the day.
  • Dad, I’ve been thinking about something and I wanted to share. Sometimes I’ll tell you about something stressful and it seems like it’s really hard for you to hear. You get really anxious and start telling me how worried you are about me. Then I feel like I have to make you feel better when I originally called because I need support. Have you noticed that, too? Can we find a new way to approach this?
  • Mom, I know you don't like the direction my life is going lately, and you're upset about it. When I call you and my choices come up, you start telling me how to live my life. I resent it and snap back. Then you defend yourself. This isn't working. We need to set some new parameters about how we have these conversations.

Notice the way these conversations track what happens? What's beautiful about meta-conversations is that they pinpoint the things that do not work and invite both parties to try something different. They also put the parent and child on the same side and say, “Hey, look. We’re stuck doing this thing over and over, and this isn’t working. How can we do this differently, together?” And that is how things begin to change.

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