As parents age and require more help with day-to-day activities, adult children may take on the caregiver role. Often, children step in to address a perceived safety issue which can threaten a parent’s feeling of independence. A parent may understandably be uncomfortable with having to ask for help or becoming dependent.
This role reversal can cause conflict in the parent-child relationship. These clashes of opinions can turn into serious fights, with one side prevailing in the argument and the other relenting until the next conflict arises. A clearer understanding of where the discord stems from can benefit parents and children alike, protecting the evolving parent-child relationship as the needs of each change.
Mismatched goals – the polite term for disagreements
In a recent study exploring the struggles between aging parents and middle-aged adult children, social scientists coined the term “mismatched goals.” The term describes the impasses and arguments families face when a parent’s abilities decline due to age or incapacity. The study explored perceived stubbornness in aging parents and found that the parents identified stubbornness as a personality trait and the children described their parent’s behavior as stubborn.
However, researchers found that in the majority of the cases the perceived stubbornness stemmed from unshared goals. When parents and children had separate goals, each had their own view on what was best and how to accomplish it.
Protecting autonomy and safety
Issues of autonomy and independence can be highly emotional for everyone involved. To protect a parent against a fall or other accident, a child may error on the side of safety rather than autonomy whereas the parent may value feelings of autonomy more.
Approaching a safety or independence issue with sensitivity and rationale from all sides can invite a more open exchange of views. Incremental steps toward shared goals can protect the important bond between parents and children as they enter a new stage in their relationship.