(Updated from 08/14/2019)
When I was asked by NBC News’ Nicole Spector how parents can mend broken relationships with their grown children, I was still grieving the loss of my mother. Yet I continued working. It gave me something to focus on beyond the pain of her death and the crumbling of several relationships she had held together. I did my best to look like I had it all together, even when I felt like I might soon crumble, too.
I had a lot to work through, and some of it surprised me when it showed up again in new forms. I re-processed my father’s abandonment of me and my sisters. I reminded myself my mother did her best with what she had. Yet I still had to repair some damage she unintentionally caused. No matter how hard they try, all parents leave us with something to work through. If we are willing, we can use it to make us stronger, wiser, and kinder–including in the workplace.
You probably know by now that I don’t fully embrace the idea of keeping personal experiences out of the workplace. It seems like a good idea, but it’s not how humans work, which is why I often talk about family conflicts with my employer clients at this time of year. Many of their employees have them, and I think it’s time we stop pretending they don’t show up at work in various forms. If nothing else, maybe you can just share this post and the resulting article with your employees to let them know that you understand they juggle a lot and still come to work to do their best. It’s not your role to play therapist. You don’t need to fix them (because that will only leave them feeling broken). But you can show them compassion and offer them tools when you have them.
Below are my responses to Nicole’s questions about resolving conflicts with adult children. I think you will see that these can apply in both directions and with workplace conflicts, too.
What can a parent do when a child resents and blames him or her for current circumstances?
The number one thing anyone can do when someone is hurting is: listen, without adding a defense, clarification, or fix. Usually, we’re still figuring things out when we share our thoughts. We’re looking for relief from the pain, and expressing it—even sloppily—is a good first step in the direction of healing. When we are given the space to express ourselves freely, without punishment or loss of love, we learn to give others that space, too.
Give your adult child some room to express himself or herself in the same way you might give a best friend, and trust that you will eventually get your time. It might not happen for days, weeks, or months, but unconditional love almost always provides a foundation for the relationship and freedom you want. Wait for it.
Things you can say:
- “I hate to see you hurting, and I don’t know what to say right now, except I love you.”
- “What can we do to make our future together better?”
Does a parent have to take ownership of his or her past actions, even when disagreeing about the characterizations of them?
No. No one ever has to take ownership of past actions, and it probably won’t help anything if you pretend to take ownership when you disagree. That’s faking ownership, not taking it. And people who know you well can tell it’s not genuine.
If you disagree about your child’s characterization of the past, take a step back. We all have different perceptions of experiences, and memories are faulty. Sometimes, we get details confused or forget them entirely. The facts don’t matter as much in these situations as your love for each other. You don’t have to agree in order to understand someone else’s point of view and how it was formed.
Things you can say:
- “I didn’t realize this is how you felt, and I want to consider your view completely. But I am confused now. I’d like to take a couple of days to work through this for myself. Can we talk again on [day]?”
- “I want to resolve this in some way, but I don’t feel like we can do that while we’re both so upset. I love you, and I definitely don’t want to hurt you anymore. Let’s continue this on [day]. Okay? I love you. No matter what, please know that.”
Things you can do:
- Pretend that it was not your child, but your most trusted friend, who told you about this incident and that it involved another person you love instead of you. Consider how you might respond then. How might you mediate the dispute between two people you love? Would you focus on the facts or the relationship? Appropriate punishment or forgiveness? Some sort of compensation or an apology?
- Forgive yourself for not being a perfect parent. There is no such thing. Every child has something from the past that he or she needs to work through. Your job here is to keep loving your child, make amends where needed, and guide the healing. That will require you to also get guidance through your own healing.
- Ask for help from a family therapist, conflict resolution coach, pastor, or other guide with experience resolving family disputes. Oh, and accept the guidance you’ve asked for, even if it’s not what you think you should do. Remember, you don’t have experience with this conflict, and if you knew how to resolve it, you would have already. It’s okay that you don’t have the perfect solution for something you have never been confronted with before.
- Forgive your child for not expressing his or her feelings perfectly. But don’t accept abuse. Sometimes we need to love each other from afar for awhile, and if that seems likely here, do what you feel is necessary for your emotional or physical safety.
How do you have the best relationship possible with your adult kid?
There are so many elements of great relationships that seem relevant here. Transparency, acceptance, and unconditional love seem to be the most relevant. Yet, it’s difficult to be transparent when we aren’t willing to explore our own actions, perceptions, and beliefs. It’s difficult to be accepting, when we don’t accept ourselves or feel accepted by our loved ones. It’s difficult to be unconditionally loving when we’ve been taught love is earned through time, gifts, acts of service, or never having to say you’re sorry. So, the short answer is to create the best relationship possible with your adult kid by first creating a great relationship with yourself.
Do what it takes to forgive yourself for all the poor choices and harmful actions you’ve made. Make amends wherever you feel you’ve left even the slightest infraction unrepaired. Give yourself time and space to free the emotions you have related to conflicts—before you attempt to resolve them. Keep working at the relationships you value, as they are always changing, and so are you.
For more tips on building healthier relationships, read the complete article.