What’s Up With These Middle-Aged Children?

Back in the mid-1980s when I worked as an admissions counselor in a retirement home, I noticed the differing ways that middle-aged “children” behaved with their elderly parents. While some seemed to have a respectful parent/child relationship, many others (and I do mean MANY) could barely have a civil conversation where they actually listened to each other as they spoke with me about the parent possibly moving into the retirement home. I portrayed some of these relationships in my first novel¬†The Death Called Change.

OldLadyProfile007Now that I, myself am, what some people might call elderly, I’m hearing the woes of my friends here at the retirement home, where I happily live, regarding their middle-aged (roughly 45- to 65-year-old offspring).

More than a few fellow residents have children who don’t speak to them, either from time-to-time, or permanently. When a man and wife recently died here at the home within weeks of one another, no memorial service was held for either one; they hadn’t spoken with their children in years. Another resident told me that her daughter regularly blows up at her for reasons that the mother can’t determine and then doesn’t call or visit her mother. The relationship resumes only when the mother reaches out to the daughter in a way that the daughter finds acceptable.

There comes a time when the parent/child role may reverse, when the child, out of OldManProfile008necessity, becomes the dominant player in the relationship. For some, this role reversal is accepted, may come suddenly or may be gradual over time as the parent acknowledges a need for help, and the child is willing to step up to the task even though there might not have been been emotional closeness over the years.

Generally, the elderly parents have done the best they are capable of doing in raising their young children through teens and into adulthood considering the problems in other areas of life that they have faced, but the kids don’t always turn out as the parents hoped. Serious mental illness in a grown child devastates parents, as they try hard to help, spending money needed for their own retirement years, always asking themselves, “What did I do wrong?” Grown children may become substance abusers or inattentive workaholics or too intellectual to relate to their less educated parents. The rift between middle-aged offspring and their elderly parents can take many forms and may happen for a whole variety of reasons.

But let’s not blame the adult children for all of this. I’ve met elderly folks who are perpetually cranky, bossy, and downright mean. I try to avoid those who are cleverly manipulative and passive-aggressive who always strive to get what they want no matter what it costs those around them. If I’d had parents such as this, I would have fled too.

So what is one to think about all of this? I believe, and you the reader may disagree, that grown children will help themselves by coming to terms with a dysfunctional relationship with their parents BEFORE the parent dies, because when the parent is no longer on this earth, forgiveness, understanding, and peace-of-mind is so much harder to achieve. However, if the parent is entrenched in their narrowness, in their selfishness, in their meanness, confrontation won’t help; there is not the likely possibility of insight into themselves with change in behavior. In this case, the children might try to emotionally distance themselves enough to say, “This is how my mother or my father is, but I am not my parent. I am myself, and I am now free to make my own choices and to make my own achievements and mistakes without the judgment of my parents.” Having now found their true independent selves, the children are also free to be loyal to their parents through their old age, doing what is needed to see that the parents are properly cared for without themselves falling back into the emotional traps that had been set for them in the past when they were vulnerable youngsters. They’ll be doing the right thing and can continue into their own old age free of guilt regarding their parents.

For the elderly who are angry or sorrowful regarding the behavior of their middle-aged offspring, it’s very hard to endure the disappointment that they feel. All around them they hear others bragging about the achievements of their children and grandchildren, and it would be easy to sink into a silent morass of personal shame. ¬†Here’s a tip: Although we never stop actually BEING parents to the people to whom we gave birth, we CAN let go of feeling responsible for them. If we truly did the best that we knew how to do in raising them, however imperfect, its up to them now to figure out how to live their lives in the world in which they find themselves. We don’t really ‘get’ that world anyway.

Then just relax and watch the soap opera unfold. It might not be one you would have chosen to watch, but it’s better than getting enmeshed in a story over which you no longer have any control. Work at not feeling guilty or even disappointed. Move on, and create a life of your own. You’ll feel better, and be more fun to be around.


About R. Z. Halleson

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15 Responses to What’s Up With These Middle-Aged Children?

  1. Margaret Hemond says:

    great helpful piece.


  2. Phyllis Laubacher says:

    Your words helped me to see so much more clearly. We have suffered in our relationship with our daughter her whole life. She has always been difficult, inappropriate, nasty, angry, and unforgiving. At 33 years old she has made nothing but bad decisions for which I inevitably paid for through worry, grief, and cold hard cash. She constantly tries to divide and conquer my husband and me after 39 years of marriage. My husband says he is done with her because he has given up the dream of peaceful coexistence. She has expressed her hatred of him often. I have reached my saturation point and I let go of the tether. I’m sick of feeling sad and co-dependent. I will plan my retirement to be full of adventure and she will resent it because she feels entitled to our savings. I’m tired of ingratiating myself to get her love.


    • Family relationships are often complicated, and it’s so easy to become entrenched in unhealthy ways of relating without realizing what is happening until one feels stuck. My best wishes for you and your husband as you move forward. One of my own guidelines of life has been: I may help those that have trouble overcoming something that blocks their way, but I don’t stick around for how they move forward after that.


  3. Peter says:

    I think you did a nice job of raising some issues in the parent generation and the middle-age child generation. I have also seen some examples of increased turbulence between parents and children during that time. I don’t know if I’ve seen enough to state a causation (plenty of twenty-somethings fight with their parents or distance from them) but I won’t rule it out either. According to Erikson, the age span of 40-65 is the developmental stage of “Generativity versus stagnation.” During this time, making a contribution to society, enjoying deeper, more mature intimacy with life partners, putting the finishing touches on child rearing and beginning to care for aging parents are central concerns. Failures in these areas result in stagnation, a feeling of ineffectiveness and dissatisfaction. Erikson doesn’t get as much attention these days as he used to but I still find his work useful in lifespan development conversations. As an adult of 51 years, I find myself asking new questions about my accomplishments, whether I’ve done enough/am doing enough. The price of failure at my age seems higher now because there’s not as much time to try again. I and my parents are fairly set in our ways; I’m grateful that we have strong relationships, but I can see how they would be easy targets if I were less satisfied with my life than I am and we didn’t get along as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Peter. This is very helpful. I never felt close to my parents at all, and when I left home, I remember questioning what my relationship to them should be going forward. Whenever I went back to visit them, I became depressed for no reason that I could determine as they were fine people and respected in their community and among the large extended family. I decided that as their only child, I had a duty to them to keep up the appearance of closeness for their sake within the extended family, and did so at the cost of emotional turmoil for me. I’m glad I did especially since, when cleaning out my mother’s apartment, my daughter told me that I had done so well in helping my mother while she was living. For me, hearing that was huge! Yet, it wasn’t until I was in my early 70s that I began to accept my parents and appreciate not just what they had done for me growing up but also who they were as people. We were so different from each other that I still sometimes wonder how someone like me could show up through someone like them. It’s okay now though, but it took a lot of years in getting to this point.


  4. jmudder says:

    I’m finding this article almost 2 years after it was written. Although my husband and I might technically be on the cusp of old age (65), and we may have some health issues, and even some other failings, our 36 year old son is treating us as if we are senile. The doctors we use are useless, our home is too large to manage properly, we have too many books, too many this and that.
    What he would like seems to be that we move out and sell the house, move into a nursing home, and quietly pass away. Since both of our families seem to live into their 90’s, I think he will be disappointed. He has become what one of our doctors (who has known him since he was 6) called an “obnoxious know-it-all”, and that is putting it mildly.
    I love my son dearly, as does his father. He use to be a bright, charming, and loving child, turned into a typical surly teen, and eventually became a strong responsible man. Now he seems like a toddler in a tantrum.
    So how does one deal with this type of reaction. We were a close family of 3, that is gone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if something has gone badly wrong for him in some way, such as at work or in a treasured relationship. He may be transferring some of his feelings about himself onto the parents that he knows will always be there for him. It might be wise to talk with a reputable psychologist/counselor (not a psychiatrist) for some insight into what is happening and then take it from there. Good luck, and don’t give up on him. Sounds like he needs you more than ever.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jmudder says:

        Thank you both for your comments (peter and rl). I lost both parents when I was fairly young, so concerns about their care and living arrangements were beyond me. In my Mother’s case my sister and husband moved in just to be “safe”, but my Mom always called the shots. My in-laws have not been a concern, my deceased MIL had my BIL living with her, and my FIL (after their divorce) later married a much younger woman, who has cared for him with love and dedication for the past 20+ years. At 93 he is active, and engaged in life, we wouldn’t have dared questioned his arrangements when he retired, or now, all we have done is offer his wife our support and love. He has always resented any questions concerning his health, so we find out about any problems after they occur. So perhaps I just don’t understand what is going on. I will look at this problem with new eyes, thanks to you both.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hola! I’ve been reading your site for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Texas!
    Just wanted to tell you keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I recall advice I received concerning parenting from a colleague who I admired in many respects: ‘Be sure they leave home at eighteen, get a new ‘phone number and change the locks’. It may be crass, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. The issue, I think, is the greater challenge for us, the older generation because we have watched the gradual deterioration of the extended family – something our progeny have never experienced. Life today is incredibly (to us) self-centred; but to some extent that is our fault, isn’t it? We created this monolith of a financial structure that teeters above their heads, the computer-centric home, the siege mentality of the pedophile menace, even the ever-more demanding academic achievement structure: we live, to some extent on the proceeds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I had friends once whose son kept moving back home into his basement bedroom whenever life didn’t seem to treat him right. So, on one of his attempts to live out on his own again, the parents decided to renovate the basement and left it all torn up for so long that the son finally found his independence and no longer wanted to move back in with his parents. Life may be complicated, but we need to find our own solutions.

      Liked by 2 people

    • As a parent whose kids left home in the late 80s and 90s, I felt we were on our own as far as guidebooks were concerned. Everything was different from the way it was when I was leaving home. We were expected to leave home, get jobs, start our own lives. I had similar expectations for my kids, but the work climate was different, making it on their own was much harder for them than it was for me in the 1960s.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “…grown children will help themselves by coming to terms with a dysfunctional relationship with their parents BEFORE the parent dies, because when the parent is no longer on this earth, forgiveness, understanding, and peace-of-mind is so much harder to achieve. ” I agree with you 100%. I was on good terms with both my parents and I STILL have regrets because I didn’t do more. Imagine if we had been on bad terms! I am trying hard to improve relations with my own children in every way I can now. Part of that is to do exactly what you said, and give up feeling responsible for what they do. I love them and try to show it, and try to live my own life, not theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

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