How understanding helps to build better relationships between adult children and their parents

As our parents age, it can become easy to fall into the trap of seeing them as less capable versions of their younger selves. We may mistakenly accept old age as a time of decline, rather than a new chapter of development and growth. That narrow lens can affect our relationship with our parents; we might even feel like we’re reversing roles, transitioning from child to caregiver.

But psycho-social developmental research on the stages of life shows that seniors, just like adolescents and adults, also face distinct developmental challenges or “crises” in their later years. As adult children, by understanding these challenges, we can better communicate and empathize with our parents—and maybe even improve our relationships, too.

David Solie, an expert in geriatric issues and author of How to Say it to Seniors, explains that the natural transition of aging can create a struggle between control and legacy. As our parents face health issues, the loss of a spouse or friends, as well as potential compromises regarding their independence, it’s clear why they value having control over the parts of their lives they can manage and why we need to respect their perspective as a critical part of improving communication

When it comes to communicating well with our parents, it’s important to listen, empathize and bring about any concerns in a caring and respectful way. For example, an adult child may perceive the refusal of a parent to give up driving as resisting change, but after listening and discussing why they feel that way, understand how their parent perceives giving up their keys as a loss of independence. After a parent feels heard and understood, and you express how you’re feeling in a respectful way, you’ll more likely to come to a plan of action together. Solie reiterates this, suggesting that interactions with older parents will be more satisfying and productive if adult children spend more time with parents, actively listen, and work towards building a partnership, rather than engaging in power struggles.

As seniors try to maintain their independence and a sense of control, they are also coming to terms with shaping and understanding their legacy—what their life means and what others will remember about them. This is a crucial job that many older adults may not even be aware of experiencing.

As adult children, we have a unique opportunity to help our parents recognize or create their legacy, Solie says. By asking questions about their history, adult children can help their parent reflect and review a life and legacy. The bonus will often be not only a greater understanding of a life lived, but a deeper and more profound relationship.