You probably have all you can handle with COVID-19, working from home and social distancing—that is until your parents came on the scene. Inter-generational strife is increasing in these stressful times with parental behavior ranging from full meltdowns to irresponsible risk taking and everything in between. These problems aren’t unexpected.
Viewed from the perspective of generational research, older parents, members of the Silent Generation (born before 1946), are likely to be more compliant with governmental orders and more likely to be consumers of single source news information that may not give them the full picture. Consequently, while they may follow the letter of the orders, they may not follow the spirit because they do not fully believe the seriousness of the threat.
Baby Boomer parents, on the other hand, are hard-wired to resist government, and, as the “Me Generation” are more apt to think of themselves before considering the impact of their actions on others. On the other hand, Boomers are the best educated Seniors and are likely to be well-informed about the Coronavirus. Boomer parents may understand the risks posed by the virus but bristle at the government-mandated restrictions on their personal freedoms.
What to do? Communicate.
First, try to understand the situation from their perspective. Your parents have abruptly transitioned from being independent adults with complete control over their lives to being shut-ins with very little personal freedom. Their world has shrunk. Many view their lives as having a limited timeline, and they mourn each day as a loss. As they began staying at home, many parents are going through the grief cycle: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and, finally, acceptance. Where are your parents on this cycle? It can vary from day-to-day. Try to understand what they are going through. With your empathetic support, they will get to acceptance.
Second, listen to what they are saying and what they are not saying. If you approach your parents with a willingness to learn what they are experiencing, you will be better able to help them through this crisis. Along with the various stages of grief, your parents may be experiencing a lot of fear. They are worried about their children, their friends and themselves. The projected death toll numbers are frightening—a lot of people are going to die. Give your parents the opportunity to talk about what they are feeling, and then channel the conversation to what actions they can take to deal with those feelings.
Third, don’t tell your parents what to do unless they ask. Remember how it worked when you were a teenager and your parents told you what to do? Well, now your roles are reversed, and it’s payback time. You may be wondering what to do if your parents are acting irresponsibly? Encourage your parents to consult a trusted third party, give them the CDC or local health department guidelines, and let them make their own decisions. If your parents are acting in a way that puts them at risk of becoming carriers, tell them that you are going to limit physical contact with them. But do not cut off all contact because that is unnecessarily hurtful. Social distancing can easily become social isolation which carries its own serious health risks.
Fourth, accept that you won’t always agree. You and your parents are all adults with different life experiences and perspectives. You won’t always agree. Pick your battles. Not everything is worth a major blow up. If your parents are engaging in accepted but not optimal behaviors, you may want to accept that. You don’t want to become noise where they can’t discern the difference between high and low risk behaviors. Do provide your parents with good information, give them the opportunity to discuss it with you and trust them to make good decisions. After all, they raised you, didn’t they?
Fifth, treat your parents as adults. Let them retain as much of their independence as possible. Don’t threaten them, lose your temper or treat them like children. It’s a time for patience. Explain your fears and concerns for them and ask them what they are willing to do to put your mind at ease. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t change your parents in a day. Accept and applaud each positive change they make in their behavior.
Sixth, pick the right time and place for the conversation. This should be a private conversation. Shaming your parents in front of others is counterproductive. Timing is key. Let’s face it, just as some people can’t be approached before their morning coffee, others shouldn’t be spoken to when they are tired, hungry, preoccupied or in the middle of something. For some older parents, background noise or their favorite show will interfere with their ability to hear or focus on the conversation. Try to schedule a time where both you and your parents are prepared to discuss what measures they will take to protect themselves and what you can do to support them.
Seventh, stay calm and maintain your sense of humor. Yes, I know there’s nothing funny about COVID-19, but using humor can be a very effective way of getting your point across. Remember, the odds are that you and your parents will get through this: don’t let your relationship be a casualty of the coronavirus.
Disclaimer: I am a Baby Boomer parent and a Career and Personal Development coach. My views are influenced by conversations with my sons and my clients (from all generations). If I was to write a similar article from the perspective of how parents should deal with their adult children, in all likelihood, I would identify the mirror image of the same 7 techniques.