Cross-generational relationships are deeply dense and layered. How do you heal from parents who hurt you? How do you recover from unhealthy parenting? Whether it was trauma, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or invalidation of feelings, working through the emotions can feel intense, prolonged, and uncomfortable. However, there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
As a therapist, I have heard numerous stories of children – now adults – who felt ridiculed, demeaned, abused, or ignored by their parents/elders. They have grown up carrying complex emotions about who they are attempting to untangle and disconnect from, and what they experienced. In my work, mother-daughter relationships have presented an added layer of complexity.
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The intergenerational transmission of emotions gives us a window into what has been witnessed from a parent’s perspective as a child, and how that influenced their parenting. This intergenerational transmission is a passing down of emotions from one generation to the next, which can be a conscious or an unconscious exchange. Several studies show how a parent’s emotional regulation ability shapes their children’s emotional regulation functioning (Li et al., 2019; Baptist et al., 2012; Buckholdt, 2014). The parent’s reactions to their children’s emotions (both positive and negative) ultimately guides the child’s emotional regulation. Some parents may say what they want to avoid passing down to their children, but inevitably end up doing what they intended not to.
This generation is learning how to make processing these experiences a norm. Going to therapy is trendy and on the rise. Its’ where people are learning how to name and identify with their experiences. However, our parents/elders processed in totally different ways, and relied heavily on survival. Was it safe to express emotions at the expense of being ignored, rejected, or disowned? Only on occasion would parents openly name their emotional experiences, creating an emotional distance. While it may be hard for your mother/elder to name an emotion, it indeed was felt. The substance of their narrative holds weight, but sometimes it is too difficult to repeat what was felt. Perhaps your recalling of painful experiences can help your parent confront their painful past too.
Even in the absence of trauma or neglect, some still find it difficult engaging with their mothers. Their views, ideologies, and belief systems have shifted from what was taught causing strain and tension in the intergenerational relationship. Grappling to maintain relationship in the midst of conflicting ideas, individual agendas, existing frameworks, and underlying hostilities can prove challenging. This only worsens as these things remain unaddressed and unnamed.
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As an Attachment-based family therapist, I often ask my clients who are facing this tension: what tends to get in the way of discussing this together? Many variables are often presented, from not knowing how to have the conversation or having tried before unsuccessfully, to simply being uninterested. To address these, I would like to propose a few tips on engaging differences in cross-generational relationships:
- See each other as individuals, first. This can be difficult, but it is necessary to begin asking questions and exploring another individual perspective. Dismissing and minimizing their narrative will not be helpful, but only hurtful to the process towards growth.
- Be willing to listen to the hard things that you do not agree with. Be willing to ask questions with a disposition of curiosity vs. defensiveness. This can be done with the help of a therapist or mediator. The facilitator must be actively engaged and listen to understand and advocate for both sides to be heard.
- Be willing to collaborate in problem-solving. One of the biggest downfalls in dyadic work is failing to resolve issues together. Create the rules of your new relationship together. What will it look like for you to each feel validated? What works and what does not work should be defined by both parties to avoid any further ruptures.
If you have a parent or adult child with whom you cannot seem to see eye to eye, set the boundaries that are necessary by giving voice to your reality while also making space for theirs.