Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part I

There are two prevailing models of relationships between parents and children that I have seen first in my own culture and then in North America.

The model of my culture is that of complete enmeshment. The North American model is that of extreme distancing. Here is what these models are like in practice:

A. Enmeshment. In this model, adult children’s only true partners in life are their parents. As a psychotherapist I know told me, “It is shocking how often Russian-speaking clients mention their mothers. It’s like they have no other issue, problem, or topic of conversation. You ask them about the weather, and they manage to find a way to bring the discussion back to their mothers.” These enmeshed relationships are always very intense. Parents and adult children engage in passionate fights, scenes of jealousy, constant bickering, endless criticism of each other, unceasing attempts to control each other’s lives. No other relationship can compete in importance and intensity.

The results of all this are quite sad. Here are some stories (completely real one, like all stories in this series of posts) illustrating where such enmeshed relationships lead in their more egregious manifestations.

Story 1. A 37-year-old man lives with his mother. Neither of them has any personal life or has had any romantic attachments for at least a decade. The man never managed to make more than a minimal kind of living. His mother pays the bills, cleans, cooks, and takes him out for walks. The man is in no way disabled, in case you are wondering. He spends all his time playing on a computer and fantasizing about a family he will one day build and a great career he will most certainly have.

Story 2. A 35-year-old woman lives with her parents. She has never in her life been on a date, even though she is strikingly beautiful. Her parents accompany her wherever she goes, so she never finds herself alone outside of the house. Hence, the absence of dates. These are not religious people, in case you are wondering. They have a shared budget, go on vacations together. The woman has no friends. She makes a decent salary and could easily afford to live alone. But it never even occurs to her because she would feel too unsafe and too lonely.

B. Distancing. The North American model (and please understand that I’m talking about broad trends. There are exceptions and overlaps in both cases) is the opposite extreme of the Russian-speaking enmeshment model. In it, adult children and their parents behave like complete strangers. They meet two or three times a year and speak on the phone maybe once a month out of the sense of obligation. There is no real closeness or communion between them. The happy feeling of “I just had this brilliant idea for an article let me call my mother” or “I’m not sure about this new hair-cut I got, I need to discuss it with my father” is unknown to them. Here are some stories illustrating this model:

Story 1. “I need to call my father,” a 40-year-old woman sighs. “I haven’t spoken to him in 6 months. And I haven’t seen him in. . . let me see. . . was it 18 months? Or more like two years? I’m not even sure.” This father didn’t abuse her or abandon her in childhood,  in case you are wondering. In fact, she doesn’t have a single complaint to make of him. He is a good, decent man who raised her, took good care of her, was always present, always attentive to her needs. But still, there is no relationship between them today and the lonely old man just sits there alone, away from his daughter.

Story 2. “My mother was an exceptional woman!” a man of about my age tells me. “She was a true intellectual and a phenomenal mother, too. I was very lucky to have her raise me.” “When did she pass away?” I ask with compassion. “Oh no, she’s alive,” the man explains. “But she lives on the West Coast, so we never get to see each other any more.”

You have to agree that something is deeply wrong with both models. In Model A, adult children are adults only in name. They never manage to grow up completely and form identities of their own. In Model B, this is not an issue but the absence of a profound relationship between parents and children is hardly something to celebrate. People in this model are emotionally and intellectually orphaned while their parents are still alive.

I have thought about all this long and hard, folks, and I have figured out what causes these two models to develop and, more importantly, how they can both be avoided in order to create a healthy, mutually enriching relationship between parents and their adult children.

[To be continued. . .]

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14 comments on “Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part I

  1. // I have thought about all this long and hard, folks, and I have figured out what causes these two models to develop and, more importantly, how they can both be avoided in order to create a healthy, mutually enriching relationship between parents and their adult children.

    That’s wonderful and very helpful to those of us, who hope to become parents in the future. Love the series.

    Re parents and children, I have another question. You said that if parents only rest at home in front of computer or TV, don’t work on themselves, their children don’t want to work on their homework f.e. either. But not all parents are profs, who do research at home. If somebody works 9-5 or 8-5 every day at a bank and returns tired to take care of home, why can’t the tired, hard working parent rest afterwards? Which activities must the wanting to be a good example parent find? What if s/he only wants to take a walk and rest with a book or a computer, is it “bad” and children will be lazy?

    • ” If somebody works 9-5 or 8-5 every day at a bank and returns tired to take care of home, why can’t the tired, hard working parent rest afterwards?”

      – Being with the people you love is supposed to give you energy, not take it away.

      “What if s/he only wants to take a walk and rest with a book or a computer, is it “bad” and children will be lazy?”

      – And now imagine a mother and a daughter sitting on a sofa, each has a book of her own, they are both reading, and sharing funny or curious passages with each other. Or a father and a son are playing a video game together or watching Youtube videos. That can be quite restful.

      • Those are examples of spending time together for fun.
        I thought you meant parents must work after job somehow to motivate kids.

        • “I thought you meant parents must work after job somehow to motivate kids.”

          – No, no, that would be really too much. What am I some sort of a monster? :-)

          But see the example of my 3-year-old niece. Her mother tells her all the time about her job, what she does there and why the job makes her happy and gives her “coins” (the girl doesn’t understand money yet). So the girl is now saying that she will grow up and work in an office, too, and have a purple phone and a pink computer. :-) :-)

          In the meanwhile, people who only tell their kids how they hate their jobs and work is a drag will in 20 years wonder why the kids can’t get out of the basement and get employed.

  2. “If somebody works 9-5 or 8-5 every day at a bank and returns tired to take care of home, why can’t the tired, hard working parent rest afterwards?”

    As one who works full time and has two boys, all I can say is you have to impress the importance of doing homework on them and insist on decent results (which come from doing homework).

    You can’t always show by example, like by studying for something at the end of a hard day at work. Your example is the fact that you go out everyday to work and can bring home a salary which keeps the children fed, housed and clothed. They have to know where the money comes from that enables them to live decently.

    As it happens, I also write in my spare time, so I’m showing them that I too work at home, and bring in extra money which provides them with, for example nicer clothes/shoes from time to time.

    But parents also have to relax, they are only human, and that too is providing a good example, to show that it’s important to have balance in life – work and rest.

    • “Your example is the fact that you go out everyday to work and can bring home a salary which keeps the children fed, housed and clothed. They have to know where the money comes from that enables them to live decently.”

      – Exactly.

  3. It’s really quite frightening that I recognize myself in your models. Ding ding ding!

    Being with the people you love is supposed to give you energy, not take it away.
    Spoken like an extrovert. I had an ex boyfriend whose company I loved, (we could talk for hours on end until we fell asleep) but I still needed some alone time when we visited.

    I could easily share a room with someone while we were both reading or watch television or play video games.

    • No, of course, it is absolutely normal and healthy to need some time alone. I really fear people who need to be with other all the time. I actually need a lot of time alone, a lot. But the energy drain never comes from being with the people I really love (all two of them). :-) :-)

  4. Well, my family is Russian-American (“American” meaning WASP, and it’s really British and German models of child rearing and family relations you are citing here). It does both things at once, and has huge arguments over which mode is better at any given moment. Russians act more like the Americans in this description and the Americans more like the Russians, but this doesn’t matter — the main point is that everyone is simultaneously invaded and abandoned. I had a therapist who was convinced I had been raped and left for dead and was lying about it to protect the perpetrators; I was not able to convince him that it is possible to create the psychological effects of such an event without actually doing the event physically.

    • “it is possible to create the psychological effects of such an event without actually doing the event physically”

      – Very possible. And it is much more difficult to treat as a result. As my analyst once said, “It would be easier for me to work with you if she beat you.”

      • Because physical abuse is just the crudest form of it. Someone skilled does not need that, and the ultimate goal is to get you to do it to yourself.

        Actually this is a research insight coming up — the therapy type community is only beginning to understand abuse and accept that it is real, but I am about to shift a classic paradigm. Standard: it starts with verbal abuse and then escalates to physical abuse. Shift: it goes in the other direction.

        • “Someone skilled does not need that, and the ultimate goal is to get you to do it to yourself.”

          – Exactly. Also, it is easier to see physical abuse as abuse and recognize that it is wrong. It is less subtle, easier to counteract, easier to escape, easier to see through.

          “Standard: it starts with verbal abuse and then escalates to physical abuse. Shift: it goes in the other direction.”

          – Actually, I think you are on to something.

          • Yes. Also my ex, he actually *started* with a form of abuse I have just seen classifies as physical. Things like, let the oil out of his engine so as to cause inconvenience / an obstacle. Not that exactly, but that kind of thing.

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