I know a woman and her adult daughter who have always been close and who say they love each other deeply, but who can’t seem to get along. The mom is in her eighties and has moved into an independent living facility. For the most part, she functions well, but needs some assistance. The daughter works and has kids of her own, but still finds time to come by about once a week to help with tasks such as running errands, cleaning, and helping with paperwork. Mom is glad for the help, but says “Karen [not her real name] always wants to be in control.” She adds, “Karen doesn’t understand what it’s like to give up your home and lose so much of your independence.” The mom wants more say in her own affairs. The daughter says she is glad to help her mother, but she wants some appreciation. “Why can’t mom get where I’m coming from?” Each feels misunderstood. Each has tried to explain her feelings to the other, only to wind up more frustrated. Each says that their relationship used to be better than it is now.
I’ve heard similar stories from many other adult children or elderly parents. Why do such relationships often become more difficult? Why in particular are misunderstandings and conflicts common between older parents in need and the adult children who try to address that need? There are several factors that probably contribute. For one thing, when a parent needs help the normal pattern of giving and receiving is flipped on its head, and this is hard for both parties to handle. For another, in such situations there is often a need to work together more closely than has been the case for decades, and not all relationships thrive when both parties have to communicate and cooperate more than they are accustomed to. I’d like to focus for the rest of this post on a third reason for such difficulties: a mutual inability to understand the other person’s perspective.
Perspective-taking is crucial for healthy relationships Most of us have the capacity to put ourselves in another person’s situation, imagining what we would think or feel if we were them. When someone does something, more often than not we have some understanding of the thoughts and intentions behind the person’s behavior. As described in this interview, neuroscientists have suggested that this capacity is based on the activity of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when we perform some action and when we see someone else perform that same action.
This perspective-taking system sometimes fails us, though. For example, several lines of research have found that those in a position of power have more difficulty than do the powerless in understanding what someone else might be feeling. In the situation I described earlier, there was a clear power differential–the woman was dependent on her daughter’s help, but the daughter didn’t have any corresponding need for assistance. I wonder whether that power differential may play a role in the daughter’s difficulty in understanding her mom’s perspective. This factor is probably exacerbated by another. The daughter had never before seen her mom struggling so to accomplish basic tasks or being so frustrated by her limitations. The daughter’s understanding of who the mom used to be seems to have interfered with her understanding of who her mom had become.
How about the mother? Why does she have such a hard time understanding and appreciating her daughter’s perspective? Though her daughter is middle-aged, I think she never fully saw her daughter as an equal. I suspect that’s common among those of us with adult children. Somehow, though we know full well that our daughter or son has been living successfully in the world of adults, we still see them as our little girl or boy, somehow not quite mature, to be indulged or guided or worried over just like we always did. We can maintain that illusion for decades, but it is no longer sustainable when that child starts taking care of us. I think Karen’s mom still can’t see her as she is: not power-hungry so much as seeking her mom’s welfare, no longer a dutiful child but a caring adult who, like all of us, wants to be appreciated when of our own free will we extend ourselves to help.
So both the parent and the child in this situation may well have difficulty understanding the other’s perspective. Ironically, those we think we know the best have become the hardest for us to understand. If you’re a parent in need of help or an adult child offering help, don’t be discouraged when there are conflicts and misunderstandings. Try your best to imagine what your loved one is thinking or feeling. Listen to your child or parent, trying to hear what is being said rather than hearing only what we expect him or her to say. Keep on trying.