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"Our annual trip always means our annual fight." When parents are children.

" Last week we began to plan our summer trip to visit my parents and our annual fight began," Susan Gordan, a short, slender woman in her early 30's, said softly. "This year the fight was worse than ever and what my husband Stan said really hurt.

"When I reminded him that we were going to visit my parents the first week in August, he told me that this year he would stay home with our son, John, and that I should visit with our daughters, Jeannie and Barbara. That was like throwing gasoline on smoldering ashes. Stan knew that telling my parents that neither he nor John was coming would offend them. I'm sure he expected a fight to break out and then we wouldn't go at all.

"John is six years old and has been hyperactive since he was born. He has never been able to sit still. He is easily excitable; it's hard to stop him when he gets going. He has difficulty learning at school. In the last four years he has definitely added to the problem of visiting my parents.

"My father is old fashioned and expects children to behave, no matter how old they are. He even expects my children and my nieces and nephews to be able to sit still through a three hour meal. If they move at all or talk when they are not spoken to, he gets very upset and can be very nasty. John is impossible for him to understand. I know my father tries to control himself. But sooner or later he shouts at John, and then he and my husband shout at each other and Stan takes John and leaves the room.

"When we get there, the first thing my parents do is begin to discuss my older sister's children. How wonderful they are, how perfect they are and how much they achieve. They also criticize her and ask me what I can do about it.

"It can be difficult for all of us to hear the children compared in this way, but I'm sure when my sister visits they do the same to her. Discussing the trip in advance is bad, but the trip home can be even worse. When we get home, we fight about why I put up with all of this and why do I let my parents abuse me and my children. Almost anything that my parents say, Stan hears as a criticism of him as a husband and father.

"My mother is concerned about my son and me. The first thing she does when we get there is lecture me about the medication John takes. We are also usually barraged with a whole set of articles on what to do about John's problems. She often gives us long lectures about what we should be doing. That's just the way my mother is. But Stan takes it as personal criticism of us as parents.

"As uncomfortable as it is, they are my only parents, and I would like to maintain a good relationship with them. I put up with an awful lot from Stan's family and I don't see why he gets so bent out of shape."

" I know what I say often sounds bad, but it's because I'm concerned about my wife." Stan Gordan, a tall, slender man in his late 30's, spoke quickly.

"I'm always sorry after a fight starts. Even in this latest situation, I thought and thought for a couple of months about how I could make this a better visit. I finally decided that John is a difficult kid. He is difficult for our other kids to be with as well as for my wife. I thought I would make the sacrifice and stay home with John. I knew it wasn't going to be easy for me, but this would make the visit easier for my wife and my in-laws. I realized when I said it that I started a fight.

"Sometimes I don't think we listen to each other. When we discuss her parents and John, the next thing we know we're both saying things we don't mean. After I say something about her parents, she attacks my parents and my two brothers. I think the important difference between us is that I tell them off. When they misbehave, I call them and I say, 'Hey, look, you've gotta knock it off. You can't speak to my wife this way. You can't talk about my kids this way.' If they continue it, I tell them we won't be able to visit if they can't behave.

"I wish we could improve things in our visits with her folks. Not only are they critical of my wife, but she behaves in ways that are very painful for me to watch. Since there is nothing to do in the town they live in, we have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to keep the kids busy.

"Busy sometimes just means out of the way so that they don't run into my in-laws and get criticized. I will say that my mother-in-law spends a lot of time calling around to get them into various things like swimming pools at local community centers.

"There are few friends of my wife's that are still living in the town. When we go out with them, I learn that her father has been critical of her all her life and her mother seems to be helpless in the face of it. I wish there was some way that my wife and I could discuss this. I would like to see her stand up for herself. When I come home from work at night, I know whether or not her parents have called because of how down she is. We've got to find a better way of dealing with this."

Summary and Conclusions

When Susan Gordon began discussing the family's annual visit with her parents, Stan Gordon responded by saying that his wife should visit with their older daughters while he stayed home with their son, John. John, who is a hyperactive child, had been a special problem in their visits. Mr. Gordon felt he was trying to make it possible for his wife to have a good visit with her parents. He was willing to take care of his son by himself for the week. Mrs. Gordon believed that keeping their son home was just another attack on her parents. When they visited, Mrs. Gordon's mother would greet them with a variety of articles and pamphlets she had been saving to inform them of "better programs" that were available for children who were hyperactive. She would hover over Mrs. Gordon throughout the visit looking very worried and indicating her concern for the way Mrs. Gordon was taking care of herself. Her father would become increasingly annoyed at John for not being able to sit still and concentrate. He would wonder why they weren't doing a better job of disciplining him.

Mr. Gordon felt that not only was it difficult for his family to be there, but that his in-laws were also especially demanding and critical of his wife, who acted less mature during the week. Mrs. Gordon felt that there was some wish on her parents' part to be helpful but they didn't know how.

They had been critical of her but they were the only parents she had. She also believed that it was not necessarily as difficult for the children as it was for her and Stan. She recognized how hard it was for the two of them to discuss this problem, but they knew they often misunderstood each other's good intentions and both wanted to resolve these problems.

Everyone needs a place to go where they can rest and relax and not deal with life's everyday problems. This is just as true for adults as it is for children. This need can become particularly difficult when an adult visits the parental home with a spouse and a family. It is not uncommon to revert to behaviors that reflect the relationships that existed when growing up. This can be puzzling and troubling to their own family who is not accustomed to seeing the less grown-up side of the visiting adult "child." This was particularly troubling for Mr. Gordon, who could not understand why his wife behaved in this fashion. He was even more puzzled about why she tolerated her parents' behavior. Whenever adult children go to visit their parents, all experiences and all relationships are part of the total experience. Parents always remain parents and children always retain some image of themselves as being children in relation to them. If the adult children are comfortable in their current lives, it is a lot easier to deal with the old experiences of being helpless and dependent. Often by watching grandparents play with their grandchildren, adult children have a much richer view of their own childhood experience. As adults, they can reevaluate and accept frailties in their parents and in themselves.

When adult children have difficulties, the visit home often arouses their worst judgement of themselves. Rather than feeling they have become independent and capable, they are reminded of how dependent they might have been as children. This can lead to constant tension.

Mrs. Gordon's mother greeted them with articles and advice about how to bring up their hyperactive son. Mr. Gordon felt this was a criticism of him and his wife. Although she wasn't happy with this behavior, Mrs. Gordon understood this was her mother's way of coping with problems. She was trying to help her child deal with a difficult situation. Mrs. Gordon's father had always been a strict disciplinarian. He thought this was the way children should grow up and that discipline was essential no matter what you might feel. As difficult as it might have been for most children, it was impossible for John to live up to these demands.

However, children experience the interactions of their grandparents differently than their own parents. It is very important to listen to what children truly experience.

Mr. Gordon argued that when his own family did things that were inappropriate, he spoke to them directly. Mrs. Gordon felt that she had to spend a lot more time with his family because they lived closer and that Mr. Gordon didn't ever really resolve their behavior; he just shut it off until further discussion. In the process of several meetings, Mr. Gordon began to understand that Mrs. Gordon's parents had a commitment to the children and to them even though it was expressed in their own way.

Visiting only twice a year is difficult for anyone. If one wants to retain family relationships at a distance, it's important that one maintains contact on a year-round basis rather than waiting for all the information to be exchanged at one visit. The visit then becomes only part of the year-round experience, reducing the tension and making it easier for everybody to have a good time.

The Gordons began discussions with her parents about things they could do to make visits easier. They were hopeful that if they could continue discussions with their parents and children, they would be able to take greater advantage of the resources their families offered.

This case has been selected from private practice and consultation files. The names and circumstances have been changed to preserve confidentiality.
COPYRIGHT 1992 EP Global Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Family Life
Author:Schleifer, Maxwell J.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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