The Dynamics of the Parent/Child Relationship (Part 1)

Have you ever wondered why your relationship with your parents is so challenging? (Or if you have a great relationship with your parents, maybe you’ve seen friends and siblings struggle and wondered why.) In this post, I want to explore why the parent/child relationship can be so challenging – I would argue it is the most difficult type of relationship. I also want to make a case for why it’s the most important relationship to work on. In fact, if you want to see improvement in any relationship in your life, your relationship with your parents is the highest leverage place to invest. When that relationship improves, every other relationship will follow.

Categorizing Relationship Types

To begin understanding what makes the parent/child relationship uniquely challenging, we need to talk about a few terms that will help us categorize every relationship type. First, every relationship can be categorized as “symmetrical” or “asymmetrical.” In a symmetrical relationship, both parties bear equal responsibility to one another. Friendship among peers is the quintessential symmetrical relationship. I’m your friend, you’re my friend. We bear the same relation to one another. Here are some other examples of symmetrical relationships: neighbors, classmates, co-workers, cousins. Asymmetrical relationships, on the other hand, are characterized by two distinct and unequal roles. Here are some examples: teacher/student, doctor/patient, aunt/niece, boss/employee, grandparent/grandchild. Notice that two different words are needed to describe these relationships. Notice also that there is almost always a difference of age, power, or status between the two roles. Some relationship types may fall in either category. Siblings, for example, will tend to be symmetrical relationships, but may be asymmetrical if there is a large age difference. In mainstream American culture, marriage is a symmetrical relationship, but in certain cultures it is more asymmetrical.

The other factor that will help us categorize relationships is “static” vs. “dynamic.” The roles in a static relationship, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, will remain roughly the same throughout the relationship. A friendship may change over the course of 10 years, but as long as both people are progressing developmentally, they will still relate to each other as equals. In a dynamic relationship, the roles changes over time. And more to the point, the roles are meant to change. That is, the change isn’t just something that happens; it’s part of the intended design of the relationship type. The chart below gives an example of each relationship type.

Friendship, as I’ve already stated, is the best example of a static/symmetrical relationship. The relationship between a doctor and a patient is inherently asymmetrical – the patient seeks the help and expertise of the doctor. But the relationship stays the same over time – ten years in, your doctor isn’t going to start asking you for medical advice – so it is static/asymmetrical. The dynamic/symmetrical category does not naturally contain any relationship types that I’m aware of. This is because the traits “dynamic” (= ever-changing) and “symmetrical” (= consistently equal) cannot easily co-exist. (But note that relationships can shift from symmetrical to asymmetrical, as when one spouse becomes the caregiver for the other with an early onset illness.)

The final category is dynamic/asymmetrical, which is represented nowhere more fully than in the parent/child relationship. This relationship is clearly asymmetrical in the beginning, with the parent having complete power over (and responsibility for) the child. The infant is completely vulnerable and helpless, dependent on the parent for absolutely everything – food, shelter, health, love, nurturing, etc. But with each passing year, the child’s responsibilities grow and the parent’s responsibilities (at least in relation to the child) diminish. By the time children are 18 or 20 (or 25…or 30…) they are expected to launch out into the world and provide for all their own needs. And all the years in between infancy and adulthood are meant to be a gradual transition from one to the other.

Why the Parent/Child Relationship is so Challenging

I hope it is now becoming apparent why this relationship type is so challenging! At every developmental milestone, the roles of both parent and child change, so that the relationship is like a complicated dance with no repeated steps. And if either party grows complacent, it’s all too easy to get stuck at a particular stage. Think of the parent who continues offering financial assistance well into adulthood because they’re afraid of seeing their child fail. They are trying to maintain control of the (adult) child’s life at the expense of the child’s growth and development. That level of help is appropriate at a particular stage in the relationship, but at a certain point it actually becomes harmful to both parties.

The second reason this relationship type is so difficult is that, in most cases, our relationship with our parents is our oldest relationship. This means the patterns that exist between us are the most ingrained, and consequently the hardest to unlearn. In fact, many of the parent/child patterns are rooted in our bodies and operate beneath the level of conscious awareness. If we want to experience change in this relationship, we have to do the hard work of learning to see the patterns first.

The final reason this relationship type is so challenging is that our relationship with our parents is often the context of our deepest, most primal wounds. There are things that all of us need as children – love, acceptance, affirmation, safety, support, meaning – and inevitably our parents cannot give us everything we need in exactly the way we need it. These childhood wounds can range from not getting as much attention as we needed to violent abuse. Whether big or small, we all have these wounds and they often stand as an obstacle to making changes in our relationship with our parents. As long as we are operating out of our “wounded selves,” we will continue to harbor frustration and resentment toward our parents. We will struggle to extend the compassion and empathy needed to work on a relationship. And we will lack the humility needed to take responsibility for what we contribute to the problem.

Why the Parent/Child Relationship is so Important

This final challenge is also the reason this relationship type is the most important place we can engage in transformation work. The wounds we experience in our families of origin do not go away on their own. We might experience perceived relief from their symptoms if we distance ourselves from our family, but we will carry the wounds with us into every other relationship we engage in. The connections may not be immediately obvious. The problems you are having with your spouse or your boss or your child may not appear to have anything to do with your relationship with your mom or dad, but in the vast majority of cases these subsequent relationship problems flow from our attempt to get needs met that weren’t met in childhood. There is something missing or broken within us, and if we aren’t aware of it, we will unconsciously transfer the burden and anxiety of that wound to those around us. On the other hand, if we lean in to the brokenness and seek healing, that healing will flow into all our other relationships as well in the form of compassion and confidence.

And the benefits don’t end there! Not only will your anxiety diminish as you improve your relationship with your parents, but you will also be more able to take advantage of their wisdom and support! Obviously what they are able to give you will vary greatly depending on a number of factors, but I guarantee you that they have something to give you no matter what. I know this is a big statement, so let me explain what I mean. Even if your parent was a complete failure, you can learn from their mistakes. You may want to see yourself as completely “other” from them, but you probably have more in common than you think. Once you are able to see their story with compassion, you will be able to extend that same compassion to your own similar struggles. With this posture, you are much more likely to be able to grow past their mistakes than if you try to pretend like you have nothing in common. And what if your parent is not accessible to you, either because of geographic constraints, or because of illness and death? Even in these cases, you can still glean wisdom from their life by asking other relatives to tell you more of their story and their values. This, in turn, will help connect you to your broader family network, which will likely also lead to further support and guidance, should you want it.

Doing the Hard Work

This summer I have been leading a coaching group for folks who want to improve their relationship with their parents. I am so proud of the work this crew has been doing – it takes a ton of courage to try to change the dynamic in your oldest relationship! So often we are content with the status quo, because it is at least familiar. But what if something better was out there? What if a more meaningful, connected, compassionate relationship was possible? And not just possible in some hypothetical sense, but possible for you? What if you could resolve childhood wounds and finally extend forgiveness to your parents for the ways they failed you? What if you could enter your adult relationships with confidence, operating out of your truest self? What if you could extend to your children the things that you never received? If you knew it was possible, would you take a step forward?

In the fall, I will start a new coaching group on this topic. If this is an area where you’d like to do some work, take a few moments to fill out this interest form. Or if you’d prefer to email me directly with questions, you can reach me at deborah@bodyoakcliff.net. Over the next two months I will be posting more on this topic, so if you’re not ready to take any other step, just follow along here and see what sparks.


Reflection Questions

  1. What are you grateful for in your relationship with your parents?
  2. What is frustrating in your relationship with your parents?
  3. If your relationship with your parents could change for the better, how would that impact other aspects of your life?

Ready for more? Find Part 2 of this series here: “One Person Can Change the System.”

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