Call it the parent paradox: many of us love and respect the couple who reared us yet also resent the hell out of them. But social psychologist Susan Newman, author of Nobody's Baby Now (Walker & Co.), exhorts adult children to build a meaningful friendship with Mom and Dad. In researching her book, Newman interviewed 150 adults, ages 27 to 55, to investigate the tension between parents and children as they grow older. TIME spoke with Newman about barriers to a friendship with your folks and why it's critical to overcome the hurdles.
Why write another book about the parent-child relationship?
Almost all the books out there are from the parents' point of view--their frustrations and their disappointments with their adult children. The books from the child's point of view deal with caregiving issues or coping with dysfunctional dynamics like alcoholism or abuse. I wanted to know what adult kids think about their relationships with their parents who are still healthy and independent.
What were the biggest complaints adult kids had about their parents?
The most common complaints were of parents' overstepping their boundaries, like a mother asking her daughter about things that were none of her business or a dad demanding that his busy son spend more time with him. Many complained about parents who harped on [the adult child's] weight.
Is it possible to become friends with a parent who is controlling, critical or overly sensitive?
Absolutely. Not every parent and child will become bosom buddies, but even if both sides have behaved horribly in the past, there is still the possibility for change if one of them wants a different relationship. With a particularly difficult parent, it may mean setting specific boundaries ("If you start commenting on my weight, I'm going to leave"). Or one might need to spend less face-to-face time together. You don't spend a whole day with a parent who drives you nuts; you spend an hour or two.
So how can you change the relationship from parent-child to parent-peer?
Just as you would with a friend whose friendship you value. You have to let go of old stuff, work around problem areas--don't discuss politics if it creates conflict, for example--and pick and choose your battles. Staying connected is extremely important. You simply can't have a relationship by avoiding someone. Look for mutual interests, just as you would with a friend. And if you have a parent who seems to have no interests, home in on the obvious--grandkids, food, relatives or the past. It's also important to be genuinely concerned rather than merely accommodating. Think about your parents as people who have needs and desires just as you do. The goal is to arrive at mutually enjoyable ends.
And finally, just as no one friend can meet all your needs, let go of the notion that your parents can. Focus on what they do provide, and get your other needs met by a spouse, a friend or another relative.
And the payoff for the effort?
When you can focus on parents' positives, you'll be able to see and understand them not only as parents but also as people and discover surprising things about them--a talent they and one of your children share, a sport they excelled in as a child that was never mentioned, a startling achievement or a similar passion.