The Ties that Bind Adult Children and Parents

Nurturing Adult Parent-Child Connections

In the complex tapestry of human relationships, few bonds hold as much significance as the one between parents and their adult children. This intricate dance of love, history, and shared experiences can be both deeply fulfilling and profoundly challenging. Imago Relationship Therapy offers a transformative approach to unraveling the complexities of adult parent-child relationships, fostering understanding, healing, and renewed connection. By delving into the depths of each individual’s unique experiences, Imago Relationship Therapy provides a roadmap for navigating the complexities of this evolving bond, allowing both parent and child to embark on a journey of growth, empathy, and authentic connection.

Reparenting parts of you

We arrive in the world fundamentally relational beings with our unique sense of “self” wholly intact and simultaneously completely dependent. As we develop in the earliest stages of life, we adapt to the care of the people who raise us and the environment in which we grow. These adaptations, brilliantly devised, assure that we will belong and be loved. Whether or not we maintain consistent, warm, reliable connections with our parents and siblings, we are in myriad ways a product of the experience we shared in the earliest years of development.  

Speaking as an Imago Relationship Therapist, I expect, in adulthood, we re-parent the parts of our “self” that were not parented as we needed or longed for in childhood. Generally, I do this kind of relational work with couples. We are unconsciously attracted to the familiar in our partner. The tension between the desirable attraction and the unconscious familiar sets up the opportunity for reworking old childhood wounds, pains, and survival reactivity.  

Imago Dialogue

Imago therapists teach the basic Imago tool, dialoguing, to help clients establish and nurture safety in the space between them. Once there is a foundational experience of safety, we can look with curiosity at the ways that the present day experiences in their relationship can be pressing on the distant buttons of childhood needs and longings. The dialogue structure helps to build safety. Then, we layer on daily appreciations. Most importantly, we replace shame, blame, criticism and cynicism with curiosity, acceptance, wonder, delight, and awe. We practice looking for all that is good and safe and possible.

Generational Drift

Occasionally, I find myself working with individuals or a member of a couple who want repair in their existing adult parent-child relationship. Longing for healing of old ruptures, wanting a connection, resolving past dynamics and inviting new behaviors is part of healthy adulting. While we can not rewrite what happened to us in childhood, we can rewrite the emotional beliefs we carry about it. There are no perfect parents. And they did not have perfect parents. We are the product of generations of imperfection, layer upon layer.

How did we get here?

Adult children may find that they continue to sabotage their intimate relationships and can not get past blaming their parents. Or they may find themselves doing the very things their parents did that they swore they would never do to there own children. Parents of adult children may be cut off from their children or grandchildren due to unresolved disappointments or deeply held grudges and expectations that generational wounds pass on. No matter the path that brought you here, the result is deeply dissatisfying.

Whatever the origin of the rupture, there is a pathway to repair. It begins with willingness to sit before each other and listen for the sake of understanding, not agreement. To speak with the desire of being heard, known, and accepted. When an adult child and their parent is available, curious about themself, the other, and their relationship, the possibility of connection emerges. 

Connection, Choice, Context

Using Imago dialogue to connect with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers is not a new idea. Imago Relationship Therapy is effective in tending to the space between us regardless of the nature of the relationship. Living in a relational paradigm is a biological imperative. Our ability to thrive depends on us turning towards one another in our distress. Our survival default says turn on or against each other.  Survival is a solitary experience, that prizes the self over the other. And it IS effective! When we practice owning what we say and do and HOW we say and do it, we recognize that, while we are powerless over others’ words and actions, we have agency over our own contributions. Safety exists when we have a sense of connection, choices choose, and context. Understanding is at the heart of repairing ruptures. Curiosity is the bridge there.

Practice makes progress

We get better, at whatever we practice. When you notice you are having an objection to another person’s words or actions, insert a pause and see if you can slow down. Invite curiosity into the space between you. Replace judgement with, “I want to understand you, tell me more.” If you long for connection with your parent(s) but have a contentious or nonexistent relationship with one or both of them, practice building connection and safety  with other easier relationships first. Reach out to someone you have drifted away from. Turn towards a safe person to resolve a small disturbance between you. Start with strangers! Notice your irritation because the person before is driving badly, moving slowly, taking up too much space, whatever.

In this moment of noticing your irritability:

  • Name it
  • Feel it
  • Breathe into it
  • Offer yourself a small gesture or kind word
  • And now, mirror the person who is bothering you

You are responsible for what you say and do

Notice how what you put into the space between you in your relationships has an impact on the quality of the relationship. At the end of the day, what is really important to you? What is the legacy of family relationships that you carry? How would you like to pass that on to the next generation? What do you have to lose by  seeking to understand and be understood? 

Lean into your relationships with soft eyes and welcoming gestures. Beam out safety, curiosity, and awe. Look for the smallest thread of delight or shared traits that you can celebrate. Learn how to regulate your reactions and express your self in ways that can be heard. Listen for the purpose of understanding. I can understand without having to agree. Being understood is pretty accurately what it is like to be loved and belong.

Contact Hayley for more information on Adult Child-Parent therapy, events, and workshops.