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How to Communicate with Your Parents about Stressful Issues
Jerry Cahn, Ph.D., J.D. --  Age Brilliantly Jerry Cahn, Ph.D., J.D. -- Age Brilliantly
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: New York, NY
Thursday, May 7, 2020


Communication – making sure that the recipient of your message heard what you intended to say – can be very challenging.  Getting it right can be critical especially in stressful situations like the 2020 pandemic (e.g., where we’re dealing with life and death as well as new norms for social distancing, lockdown, etc.).

Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist, observed miscommunications between people talking to their parents. In his article, Why It’s So Hard to Talk to Your Parents About the Coronavirus (and vice versa), he shares conversations with children and parents at different ages which he calls 40ish, 60ish and 80ish, and shows how even “simple language” can be misinterpreted.

For instance, when a 40ish speaker says: “Why would you go to the grocery store?”, the speaker really means “I’m worried about your safety; I care about you and want you to live. I don’t understand why you would risk leaving the house.”. What the 60ish listener hears is “You’re much older and vulnerable than you think and this is an irresponsible act.” In other words, the goal of expressing caring-concern is interpreted as a negative comment to which he responds defensively.  Similarly, when the 80ish speaker says “I’m going to see some friends from my card group”, he really means “I need to enjoy the years that are left to me.” What a 60ish listener hears is “I’m oblivious to the dangers of this virus”.

His first point is the understanding that at different ages, we have different personal and contextual concerns, and we need to recognize that and address them. We need to better communicate our fears, needs and strengths to one another in a way that they will understand your real intention. Put aside your agenda, commit yourself to learning your parents’ mindsets by asking questions. 

Boomers, the model of the 60ish person, prides itself on its vitality, energy and independence and is used to taking care of their parents and kids.  The pandemic has undercut that role and may have created dependence on others for things as simple as shopping and human contact. When they think of health concerns, they’re focused on their parents; yet the coronavirus’s dangers can affect them as well. Thus they are sensitive to vulnerability.

Seniors, the 80ish person, sees the world differently:  probably retired and thinking about end-of-life. Social distance and quarantines may be seen as limits on freedom. Watching Netflix, texting and using Facebook daily are not common activities. Many thrive on social routines that are simple yet critical; coffee at a diner, playing cards one night a week; meeting weekly at a church to socialize with friends. Why stop all this for another possible danger?;  today it’s coronavirus, tomorrow a stroke or cancer? Life is risky, but it’s also short. Moreover, Dr. Agronin notes, the stereotype of older people as depressed and disabled and likely to crumble in the face of stress is wrong; the healthy 80ish person is hopeful and surprisingly resilient, drawing upon a lifetime of experience, knowledge and social connections.”

Millennials and GenXers, people 30-50 years of age, may see themselves as safe even if infected. They didn’t necessarily feel responsible for their parents, but now they are their protectors. So they may go frantic trying to communicate their desire for parents’ safety. Under their screams that parents are being foolish,  is the true meaning of care and love , and helplessness in trying to protect them. Not unexpectedly, they are often misunderstood and even resented by the parents who are not used to being protected by their children,

What kinds of miscommunications are you having with your children and parents? What other stressors are triggering them in your life? How do you resolve the dilemma and make peace?  Share your experiences!

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Name: Jerry Cahn, Ph.D., J.D.
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Group: Age Brilliantly
Dateline: New York, NY United States
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