NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Mom, Dad, Can We Talk?

Mom, Dad, Can We Talk?


After years spent together, dozens of holidays and family gatherings, experiences of depending on and loving each other – why is that adult children and their senior citizen parents can have such a difficult time communicating?

As an adult in middle age, adult children can move quickly and efficiently through the world, completing tasks and taking care of many responsibilities, looking ahead to the next mountain to climb. Elderly parents, in contrast, are letting go of duties and responsibilities as they settle into retirement.

As their physical health and independence fail, they may try to hold fast to the areas of life they still control. At the same time, they're looking back and trying to understand the significance of their experience and what they'll leave behind.

It's these different perspectives that can lead to breakdowns in communication between adult children and their parents.

To help improve communication between you, consider:

  • Time and timing: One of the greatest challenges people in midlife face in their dealings with the elderly is to slow down and find the time to be fully present. It's a mistake to discuss important issues on the fly, when you're rushed and preoccupied. If you need to talk about something crucial with your parents, make a conscious effort to put your personal agenda aside -- along with your cell phone. And remember, such issues will take time to resolve -- and probably require more than one discussion.
  • Listening: Be sure to pay attention to your parent’s ideas and to fears she/he may be expressing indirectly. Listen to the messages that may be concealed in the remarks they make, and try to find solutions that work for all of you. If your parent has too much pride to turn the bills over to you, for example, or is reluctant to share his/her financial information, they may agree to see an accountant instead.
  • Being respectful: When you express your opinion on what you think she/he should do, do so respectfully. Try to avoid a bossy or dismissive tone. As long as your parent is a fully functioning adult, you can't force him to follow your advice -- no matter how "right" you think it is. Try to empathize.
  • Participating in a legacy project: Help record memories of the house they lived in for 50 years, of family times together, etc. by creating a photo album or by interviewing her/him for an oral history. Your interest and involvement will not only make the process more meaningful, it will make a life transition less lonely and frightening.
  • Speak up about your concerns. Although it is uncomfortable talk to some you trust. Involve family members - one at a time or better yet, as a group discuss your concerns. Sometimes it helps to set up a specific time to talk to loved ones, perhaps over lunch or in a family meeting.
  • Keep your expectations realistic. Some family members might want to avoid discussing death. Don’t be frustrated. Ask when they feel the topic should be discussed or if necessary, bring in a trusted third party.
  • Take care of yourself: If you find that you're frequently stressed out and angry, make sure that you're not neglecting your own needs. Try to make time for yourself and for your other relationships. Take regular breaks and vacations, even if it means hiring someone to stay with your parents. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be there for your parents and your family.

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