How To Improve Your Relationship With Your Parents: A Delicate Guide

This is the last part of a 4-part series on how to improve your relationship with your parents.

Family running on a field

As you look at your relationship with your parents today, how would you describe it?

Is it a state you are happy with? Would you rate it 10/10? Is it one where you’ll say “this is the best, most ideal state I can ever be with my parents”?

Many of you shared in the comments about your strained relationship with your parents. Some of you have tried multiple times to mend things, but with little success. Some of you are frustrated with where the relationship is heading. Some of you face difficulty communicating with your parents, even though theoretically it shouldn’t be the case since you speak the same language.

I’d like to thank all of you for sharing your stories so openly. Whatever the difficulty you’re facing with your parents today, I’d like to let you know that you’re not alone in the problem. I struggled in my relationship with my parents for one and a half decade. During this period, I faced multiple challenges before I was finally able to achieve resolution in this area.

Challenges in Improving Parent-Child Relationships

Relationships are always the hardest goals to work on, because they involve another party. This adds a whole new dynamic, compared to goals like earn $X income or lose X weight, which are more static and linear.

Especially parent-child relationships – they are even more challenging due to the following reasons:

  1. Years of baggage. Unlike other relationships where you start from a clean slate, with parent-child relationships, you have baggage built up from young. This weighs down the relationship. Rather than work towards the vision, sometimes you may need to work through the baggage first, which makes the goal bigger than it already is. Also this baggage may house subconscious triggers which make you behave out of character around your parents, making it even harder to work on the goal objectively.
  2. Non-reciprocation. While deep down you may want to improve your relationship with your parents, your parents may not have that intention. They may well be okay with how the relationship is today. This makes it near impossible to improve the situation, since effort is required both ways to make things work.
  3. Differences in vision. What is your ideal for your relationship with your parents? For them to be stronger mentor figures? To be more open in communication? To be more emotionally expressive? To be good friends with each other? Whatever it is, they may not share the same ideal. If that’s the case, if expectations are already different at the on-start, conflict is inevitable.
  4. Generation gap. Being brought up in different generations create deep-seated implications, from differences in communication style, mindset, world views, philosophy on life, way of expressing love, and so on. With my parents, our generation gap created a very deep chasm that made it near impossible us to communicate, until after I came to my revelations.
  5. Different personality types. Your parents may have personalities which make it impossible for you to relate to. With my mom, she can be very stubborn, opinionated, and difficult. With my dad, he’s very quiet and inexpressive. Our personalities don’t gel at all, and this made it very difficult for me when I was trying to work through the relationship at the beginning.

How to Improve Your Relationship with Parents

See it as a journey

The first thing I want to point out is that improving your relationship with your parents isn’t a “follow X-step and Y-step, then you can see results right away” goal. In fact, you may not even see any changes for a while for that matter. To improve your relationship with your parents is an ongoing, work-in-process goal — an end point does not exist.

While I was working on my relationship with my parents in the past, one of my biggest challenges was that my efforts often seemed futile. For example, when I tried to strike up a conversation with my parents, they were not receptive. There was a period two years ago when I went all out to draw us closer, making big steps (in my opinion) like hugging them and writing cards to tell them how much I loved them and appreciated them for bringing me up.

The response ranged from weak to negative. With the hugging, my mom violently pushed me away as I mentioned in Part-2: A Pervasive, Widening Gap, much to my shock and horror. My dad didn’t return the hug. With the cards, there was no direct response from my dad or mom. With the conversation attempts, my mom would snap back and ask me why I was asking so many questions, while my dad would give his usual mono-syllabic responses.

There was even a point when I wanted to rearrange the layout in the kitchen because we had an awkward dining room layout that prevented the family from having meals together. We would always be dining separately – my brother and me in our rooms, my mom in the kitchen, and my dad in the living room. However when I suggested the idea, my mom would vehemently rejected it (as she hated change); and when I went ahead and did it anyway, she lost her temper and shifted everything back.

That was when I realized my relationship with my parents wasn’t one that could be mended overnight. We’re not talking about mending a one-time conflict. We’re talking about mending a lifetime of arguments, miscommunication, conflicts, and misunderstandings.

To think that I could resolve all past grievances with just a few “nice” actions was incredibly naive on my part. Even though I did muster a lot of strength to initiate the hugs and write/give them the cards, these actions alone were not enough to mend the gap. Clearly, *a lot* more work had to be done. (I continued to work on the relationship for years after that, even to this day.)

If I switched to their perspective, their (lack of) reaction at that time was completely understandable. Imagine — Up till that point, all our interactions had been abrasive, usually from me to them. Hence for me to suddenly be warm and fuzzy towards them – it was no wonder they were unsure of how to act. They had probably formed a hard shell all these years to protect themselves from further hurt. They probably thought my niceness was a fluke; a randomity; that things would go back to the way they were the next day, and I would be abrasive towards them again.

It was then my responsibility to let them know that things were truly different, that I had grown into a different person, and that I was serious about improving our relationship. How? Not through saying it, but through consistent effort. Through consistent effort on my part, they slowly became more receptive to my actions.

Remember these things take time. The rebuilding of trust is a delicate process.

If you want to improve your relationship with your parents, be ready to commit to this as a journey, and not some X step, X thing you execute in one week or one month. Let them know you’re truly sincere in changing the situation. Let them know that you’re not just doing this as a one-off fluke. Anticipate negativity in their reactions at first, because your changed behavior is probably new to them and they’re trying to adjust. Consistent effort is the key.

Release the parent-child ideal in your mind

Happy family walking on a field

Many of us have a parent-child ideal etched in our mind – be it from when we were a child, or as a teenager. This ideal probably formed when we were watching TV, when we witnessed interactions between our friends and their parents, when we read about parent-child relationships in books, and the like.

Believe it or not, the best way to progress your relationship with your parents is to drop the ideal. Drop whatever ideal you have painted in your head for you and your parents. The sooner you release yourself of this self-limiting vision, the sooner the relationship will blossom and come into its own.

As you’ve read from my story, my past parent-child relationship ideal was for my parents to be my best friends. I yearned for us to communicate openly and share anything and everything with each other. I yearned for us to be able to express our care and concern for each other, without reservation. I yearned for us to discuss decisions about my life, to have intelligent conversations, to engage each other on a deep, meaningful level.

When I worked on our relationship with this ideal in mind, I faced resistance the whole time – from them to me, from me to them, and from me to myself. In all my efforts to create an open communication channel with my parents, I would be frustrated with them for not responding in kind.

Why are they not reciprocating my efforts? I thought. Why are they being so difficult? Can’t they see that I’m trying very hard to make things work out?

Ironically, it was when I dropped the ideal 3-4 months ago (in March ’11) that our relationship was finally able to grow (as I mentioned in Part-3: Revelations and Happiness). It was then that I realized, to my shock, that my parents had been trying so hard to improve our relationship (via their own way) the entire time. I was unfortunately unable to “see” that because I was so fixated on my one ideal.

When you approach your relationship with your parents with a fixed ideal, you suffocate the relationship. Firstly, you limit how the relationship can develop. It’s like creating a scaffolding over a seedling and insisting it grows to X shape and Y size – it doesn’t work that way. Not only that, it’s unfair for your parents because it’s not an ideal you’ve consulted them on. It may be an ideal to you, but not to them, not to the family. The only situation when having an ideal works is when it has been co-created and endorsed by both parties.

The seedling, i.e. your relationship with your parents, can blossom to a beautiful plant on its own, but first you need to give it space to grow. Doing that means removing the scaffolding and eliminating your ideal, i.e. the “fixations” you have for the relationship. Stop expecting them to be someone/something they are not. Instead, accept them as who they are today.

Appreciate what they can offer in their capacity

A lot of times we get frustrated with our parents at all the things they don’t do or can’t do. For example, we may be frustrated at how they are so traditional. We may be frustrated at how close-minded they are. We may be frustrated at their resistance to everything we want to try or do in life. We may be frustrated at how slow they are with things.

Rather than get hung up over how your parents aren’t doing X or Y, learn to appreciate what they can offer in their capacity instead.

For example, say you’re frustrated that you only meet your parents once a month. And that even though you arrange for more frequent meet-ups, they never seem to make themselves available. It’s easy to be annoyed with your parents because your ideal is to meet every week. But if you let go of the ideal (see previous point) and appreciate what they can offer you in their current capacity (which is to meet once a month only), you place much less tension on the relationship.

For me, I used to be frustrated at how my parents can’t fulfill my need to share and relate. I would ask them about themselves, and they would clam up. After I realized it was just not in their natural disposition to talk about themselves or their feelings, I realized I was being selfish by imposing my needs on them. With that, I learned to let go of this expectation, and instead have learned to appreciate what they can offer.

For example, my dad cooks, so when I’m at home, I will eat out less often so that he can cook for me. My mom is a meticulous housemaker and she prides herself at keeping herself up to speed with the needs of the household. Hence, I will let her know if I want any groceries/vegetables/fruits so she can get them. Doing so make them happy, because it is their way of making a difference in my life. I am perfectly fine with cooking for myself or getting my own groceries, but because I know they want to be a part of my life, I create the space for them to do so.

Understand what you are looking for underneath the ideal

The parent-child ideal we create in our mind is usually a projection of something. Our desire to achieve the ideal represents an underlying need that yearns to be fulfilled. The sooner you can identify what you’re looking underneath the ideal, the sooner you can tackle that, as opposed to using the ideal as a proxy of achieving the need, because one may not equate to another.

Let me give an example. A while back, I worked with a client who wanted her dad to be a strong mentor figure. For her dad had always been busy with his work, and was often out of the picture in her life. She felt she lacked a strong father figure. Because of that, she would seek older, fatherly figures to get guidance – be it in her professors, in her bosses, or in her pastors.

Despite all the guidance she received, she still longed for her dad to step in as her mentor.

Father and child at the sea

Was the problem because she lacked guidance? No, it wasn’t. She had more smart, highly capable and successful figures giving her support and advice than anyone else. In fact, many people I know don’t have a mentor, and they do perfectly well. Not only that, she is an incredibly smart and talented person. She is perfectly capable of guiding herself and solving her problems.

Truth is, she longed for her dad to be her mentor figure because she associated mentorship as love. To her, love meant being watched over, getting guidance and advice, being cared for, and so on. Even though her dad would talk to her occasionally, ferry her to work, participate in family dinners, and spend time with the family when he was not working, these did not register as love to her.

Mentorship, on the other hand, did.

How about you? What is your ideal for your relationship with your parents?

If you look underneath this ideal, what is it you’re looking for?

Is achieving this ideal indicative of that need being met? Or is it just in your head?

In the past, I wanted my parents to be my best friends because I saw open communication and relating to one another as love. Hence, I went out of the way to bridge our communication gap. I tried to talk to them where I could. I would ask them questions about their day, how their work went, their future plans, etc.

If they reciprocated, that meant they loved me; if they didn’t, it meant they didn’t care.

At least that was what I thought.

Yet I was looking in the wrong place the whole time. For even though they didn’t reciprocate, it was because open communication was not their language of love (see below on “Language of Love”). They had been trying to show me they love me all this while, through their actions (as I shared in Part-3: Revelations and Happiness). They had been trying so hard to express their love, but I had not been able to see it because I had been so blind-sided – so fixated on that one ideal, on that one expression of love.

If you’re reading PE, we’re probably similar in that you enjoy relating to others and having earnest, meaningful conversations. Chances are you would like to have deep conversations with your parents, beyond superficial chats. Chances are you want to hug and say “I love you” to your parents, if you’re not already doing so. Chances are you want to be emotionally closer to them. But for some reason, it’s not happening today.

If it helps, the reason why your parents aren’t doing that isn’t necessarily because they don’t love you. It’s probably because they’re not equipped in those “languages” of expression – be it sharing of emotions, open communication, physical hugging, or directly saying “I love you”. It’s just not how they express themselves to the world.

However, they would have their way of expressing love. Maybe it’s via disapproving of our decisions in life, because they are just too afraid we’ll suffer when we stray from the main path. Maybe it’s via constant worrying, because they don’t want to see us get hurt. Maybe it’s via nagging, because they want to make sure everything goes well for us. Maybe it’s via their fixation with work, because doing well at work means financial security, which means the family is well cared for.

Clearly, whether your parents love you or not is not contingent upon whether they fulfill your ideal. The ideal is just some image we painted up in our minds. Achieving it doesn’t mean anything, to be honest.

Chances are, what you’re seeking with your ideal (be it love from your parents, acceptance by your parents, self-validation, affirmation, etc) is already right there before you, before your very eyes. Don’t fixate yourself so much with your ideal that you miss the very thing you’re looking for – only to see it when it’s too late. The moment you release yourself of this ideal is when the healing between you and your parents begin.

Think about how you can be a better child to them

A lot of times we pinpoint faults in our parents, wondering why they can’t be smarter / richer / more open-minded / less stubborn / more positive / less naggy / quieter / more supportive / etc.

Instead of that, try a different tack – think about how you can be a better child to them.

So, how can you be a better child to your parents?

Start by being sensitive to their needs. Speak to them in their language of love (see next point). Don’t make things difficult for them. Let them have their way if it’s not a life or death situation. Pre-empt things they need help in (usually technology-related stuff if your parents are not tech-savvy), as parents can be quite unwilling to ask for help unless they’re pushed to the wall. Visit them often (if you don’t live with your parents). Take them out for a meal – make it a weekly or biweekly occasion if possible. Give them a call just so they know you’re thinking of them right now.

In being a better child to them, note it’s not about molding yourself to become their ideal of what a son/daughter should be (assuming they have an ideal). You want to stay true to yourself and improve how you treat your parents in your own way.

Speak to them in their language of love

Mother and daughter having a picnic

Language of love refers to the way someone expresses love. Different people have different ways of expressing love – some via physical touch, via words, via actions, etc. In the book 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman states the 5 key love languages people use are: (1) Words of affirmation (2) Quality time (spent together) (3) Receiving gifts (4) Acts of service (5) Physical touch.

Being brought up in a different generation, it’s not surprising to know our language of love is likely different from our parents’. For example, my parents express their love via acts of service. They like to do things for me. For me, I express love via giving words of affirmation. I also use other ways to express my love, but verbal communication is the primary method I use. (And hence why I’m always telling all of you how much I love you via the blog. :D )

This difference created a big rift between us at the beginning. I would try to communicate with them, but get nothing in return. In turn, they kept trying to do things like buy food for me and cook for me, but I would get frustrated with their obsession with food (some of which you may have read about in the fasting series). It wasn’t until I recognized their underlying intentions that things changed.

What do you think represents love to your parents? Rather than “speak” to your parents in your language of love, speak to them in their language of love. This means if their language of love is quality time together, then spend more time with them. If their language of love is receiving gifts, then buy a small gift that means something to both of you. If their language of love is words of affirmation, give them a compliment and/or tell them I love you. They will be able to recognize your intentions more easily that way, and accept them more readily.

Do that every day, with every opportunity you have. Don’t stop doing that.

Don’t coerce them into accepting a language they cannot recognize. An example would be to insist on hugging them when they’re clearly uncomfortable with the idea. While you may have the best intentions, you are just imposing your beliefs onto them. Again, learn to “speak” to them in their language, not in your language. You’ll get much better and faster results this way.

Start from existing channels that are already open

If your relationship with your parents is very sour, start from the channels that are already open.

For example, what are the points of contact between you and your parents today? Monthly family dinners? Occasional email exchanges? Sporadic phone calls? Start from there. And work your way up.

My relationship with my parents went downhill during my preadolescent years. Countless arguments, doors slammed in faces mid-way during our verbal fights, shouting, yelling at each other, etc. Because of that, by the time I tried to improve the relationship (when I was 24 or so – 2-3 years ago), many doors between us had been shut close.

This was why when I tried to start our relationship on a fresh slate, I faced an immense amount of resistance. Whenever I tried to engage them in a conversation, I was “slapped” with a huge wave of negativity – particularly from my mom, who has a very “hard” personality. Conversation was clearly a “closed” channel due to nasty experiences we had in the past.

I figured that it was easier to start from existing channels. For example, occasionally my parents would ask me for help in reading their English mail (which they can’t understand; they are Chinese educated). In the past, I found it burdensome and would push their requests to later in the evening. But then I realized these requests probably meant a lot to my parents, so I became more helpful and patient whenever they sought my help.

Another example is when my parents ask me what I want to eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner, as part of a daily routine. In the past, I would just say “Nothing” or “I’ve already eaten”, since I make my own meals (or eat out). After a while, I realized meal preparation is one of the few things my parents can do for me today, so I began to leave my daily meals in their hands. They readily soaked in these opportunities too, which they saw as a way of being a part in my life.

As for my parents’ general lack of desire to communicate verbally, I decided that if we can’t speak much, then at least I can spend more time with them. So during the evenings, I would join my dad to watch TV. I don’t watch TV myself and I don’t care a lot about the TV shows, but to me these 30-45 minutes spent with my dad (and sometimes my mom joins in as well) is well worth the investment of time.

With these existing channels established, it became easier for us to add new layers to our relationship. For example, after they became involved in preparing my daily meals, it created the platform for us to talk, since we had to discuss what I wanted to eat. From there, it provided the opening for us to talk about other things.

I also took the step further by buying cakes for my mom and dad during Mother’s Day and Father’s Day this year, something that’s not a practice in my family as my parents are strongly against such expenditures (they see them as a waste of money). While they didn’t overtly say anything (my dad did say thanks, and even took a picture of the cake with his phone), I know they’re touched by the gesture.

And when I left for Europe this year (2011), I allowed my dad to send me off at the airport. Normally I would reject his request (or anyone’s for that matter) to send me off, because I see it as unnecessary and a total waste of the person’s time. Plus I like to be alone when I’m at the airport – I enjoy the quiet time by myself before I depart for another destination. But I realized it’s his way of showing his love for me (see point above on “Language of Love”), so I accepted his offer.

At the moment (Jul 23, 2011) I’m in Germany, Cologne, and I stay in touch with my parents via Skype calls (a huge step forward for us considering we could never hold a conversation longer than 20 seconds in the past). Our relationship has progressed to where it is today via building up from pieces left between us, after many years of verbal fighting. (Update Feb 2012: I’ve since returned back home to Singapore after a seven-month travel!)

Likewise, no matter how dire your relationship is with your parents today, there are openings you can start off with. If there aren’t (i.e. your connection with your parent(s) has been severed), try the last mode of communication – where you guys left off. Then work from there.

In Conclusion

This has been a long series and I hope you have found it helpful in working on your relationship with your parents.

No matter how the state of your relationship with your parents is today, trust that it can become better – if you want to make it better.

For a long while, I had totally given up hope on my relationship with my parents. I thought it was irreparable, and whatever was done could never be reversed.

But as you’ve clearly seen, this isn’t true. Through a change in thinking and conscious effort, our relationship has improved quite dramatically in the past couple of years. And words can’t express how happy I am about that.

Thank you for all your wonderful comments, support, and open sharing on the first 3 parts. If you found the series helpful in any way, please share it on Facebook and Twitter (via the share buttons below). The more people who get to access this resource, the more lives we get to change around the world. Let’s work together to make the world a more beautiful place. :)

This is the last part of a 4-part series on how to improve your relationship with your parents.

(Images: Family running, Family on field, Father & child, Picnic)