(Editor’s note: This essay is the latest in a series from author and speaker Ken Druck, based on work in his book Courageous Aging, which is about how all people can make peace with, and find joy in, every stage of life.)
Things don’t stay the same as we get older. We evolve into the older versions of ourselves.
The same happens with families. And sometimes growing older can cause great upheaval to the family dynamics — especially between adult children and aging parents — requiring additional patience and understanding if we want to age together in a way that is healthy.
As the holidays approach and families have the opportunity to gather and celebrate, the way we’ve all changed through the years is on display. In order to assure that different generations maintain peace and love, it’s important to take stock of our actions as we relate to our family members.
Overcome Corrosiveness with Understanding
The aging of our families presents as many opportunities as it does challenges.
For example, becoming the caregiver for an aging father or mother requires patience from both the adult child and the parent’s perspective. And, as older parents watch their sons or daughters balance demanding careers and demanding families, they may also need to summon more patience and understanding.
Realizing the limits on our finite time together on earth and the preciousness of family can us help to soften our hearts, become more forgiving and understanding and show greater affection. The loving, compassionate side of our nature is activated with this realization.
Watching our parents get older and struggle with challenges that aging can sometimes bring is not easy for anyone. People who claim they have not, at times, felt scared, helpless, frustrated, discouraged or sad in these situations are lying. Giving in to (or allowing) these kinds of feelings, and permitting the cold, hard side of our nature to prevail, is a formula for corrosive family conflicts, fragmentation and, ultimately, heartache.
4 Ways to Take Responsibility for Family Dynamics
It’s up to us to decide whether we will become impatient and intolerant, or patient and compassionate, sons or daughters. Similarly, it’s up to us as mothers or fathers of adult children to decide whether we’re going to feed and fuel the difficult, insensitive, non-communicative and unapproachable part of our inherent nature that sometimes arises in challenging moments in our families or foster the part that is loving, open and understanding.
Here are four ways to assure that you and your family get better as you get older:
1. Open the Channels of Family Communication (and Keep Them Open)
Nothing ensures positive aging as a family more than good communication. In almost any situation, being truthful, trustworthy, respectful, caring, empathetic and proactive (getting and staying ahead of the pain and conflict curves) successfully opens the lines of communication and love. Forthright communication and active listening affords family members the opportunity to talk through differences and reaffirm the common ground on which they stand.
2. Ask — Don’t Assume You Know
Since very few of us are mind readers, the best way to make sure that we and our family members will get better, smarter and easier to be with as we get older is to ask perceptive, open-ended questions. Listen. And learn. The human experience of feeling understood is the basis for so much peace, love and progress. By slowing things down and asking your family members what they want, how they feel and what they think should happen next, we build the kind of safe, strong relationship that makes anything possible.
3. Learn to Forgive
Since misunderstandings, misgivings, differences, betrayals, grudges and disputes are inevitable in every family, learning how to talk things out and forgive one another is a valuable asset. The power of a simple apology to heal a family, community, nation and the world cannot be underestimated.
4. Make Clear Agreements
As times change, we get more clarity about what works and what doesn’t work in our families. When it comes to the well-being of our loved ones, dealing with, rather than avoiding or enabling, family members who act inappropriate, say or do hurtful things or cause others to avoid meaningful interaction is sometimes necessary. The need for new understandings and agreements is critical. Sometimes we say something (bring it up and air it out), and sometimes we don’t (avoid it and hold it in). Bringing things up in a calm, respectful manner and using non-accusatory language increases the chance that a much-needed conversation will result in some practical new agreements that benefit all sides.
As we and our families age, let’s resist the seduction of fear, jealousy and anger that result only in wasted time, lost affection, estrangement and loneliness. Instead, let’s rededicate ourselves to harvesting the opportunities for closeness, support, gratitude and understanding. Becoming the better version of ourselves ensures years of joy, deep connection and a legacy of love across generations.
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