Understanding the Changing Relationship Dynamics Between Parents and Adult Children with Daniel Maté

Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Parents and Their Adult Children is a project, co-created by Daniel Maté and his father Dr. Gabor Maté, that aims to tackle topics related to this unique relationship dynamic.

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Many parents and adult children simply accept the state of their relationship, whether good or bad, and “there isn’t a sense that it’s a realm of exploration and active transformation and inquiry that can shift and grow and open,” says Daniel.

So what happens after raising a child into an adult? What then?

Trauma and Splitting from the Self

Trauma isn’t what happens to you; it’s what happens inside of you. It’s the split inside the self that happens as a result of the very terrible bargain we have to make: we need to be attached to our parents, we need to be connected, and yet we are also trying to become ourselves.

But what if the family environment isn’t emotionally capable of holding the fullness of who we are? That’s when the split happens. All of us, in some way or another, says Daniel Maté, “particularly in a society that’s not set up to maximize human wholeness, which ours is not,” are going to at some point experience a disconnection from ourselves beginning in childhood.

The parent-adult child relationship is unique; it’s unlike any other relationship we engage in. What’s different about it? Maté says it’s like “the sea has risen at the same pace and level” with your growth in relation to your parents. When you met each other, you were not yet a person, but they were. Because a parent’s job is to take care of a child, that means there is a necessary power dynamic in place.  

However, when you fast forward to twenty or thirty or forty years later, and you attempt to have a relationship with each other on something like an equal footing, challenges arise almost always.

So the big question is, how do you navigate the dynamics of this relationship?

Pitfalls, Patterns, and Prototypes

If you don’t deal with this question, it usually manifests in some negative way. There are different variables that make all relationships unique, but there are common patterns that show up frequently to look out for. Some are obvious, while others may be subtle.

In some families, the relationship looks like total estrangement. Some children, when they become adults, say “I don’t need these people anymore, and it’s not worth the effort, emotional labor, blood, sweat, and tears. I can’t grow in their presence.”  

Then, there are functionally estranged parents and children who keep each other at arm’s length and see each other at holidays. For some, this works. “You have the right to live however you want as an adult,” says Maté. There’s nothing inherently wrong with your choice.  

However, it’s beneficial to have the ability recognize the pitfalls and “prototypes,” as Maté and his father refer to them. These are common roles that parents and adult children fall into.

The “Guilty Parent” is the one who is hyper aware that human children develop as a function of their environment. They suffer and struggle with all of their perceived failures in raising their child. For the child in this situation, it’s painful to be seen as someone else’s failure.

The “Victim Parent” feels wounded by their child, and the “Child Parent” needs the child to take care of them emotionally.

For adult kids, there are several prototypes as well. The “Aggrieved Child” says, “You’re never going to understand me.” This is a common experience from teenage years into adulthood. Children who feel this way see the authority structure as arbitrary or illegitimate. They feel unseen and often angry, but also hurt.  

The “Dutiful Child,” could never possibly pay back all of a parent’s love, and a “Self-Sacrificing Child” is always there, no matter what. They end up taking on more than they can handle, which causes them to be resentful.

Parents and adult children cycle through these prototypes, and no person is in any one prototype all the time. Instead, they are modes or “programs” that we slip into depending on the situation or our emotional state.

Moving Forward

It hurts to be in that constant state of conflict, so if we want to change the way we approach parent-adult child relationships, how do we begin? How can we move past these prototypes and pitfalls? According to Maté, it can be as simple as just starting to notice. It doesn’t take much--it can begin with a compassionate curiosity.

The patterns are deep, they are not conscious, and they are not moral failures. We’re not even actively choosing them. We don’t plan on getting triggered. The “program” runs itself.

But just by getting interested and recognizing this happens to everyone in some way or another is an excellent first step. From there you can start to dig into what specific things trigger you and what you feel like when you are operating in a particular mode, and you can investigate the experience as opposed to getting caught up in telling the story.

When we get caught up in the story, and all of the reasons and justifications for how we’re reacting, we’re not in the present. Alternatively, if we’re in the present, it’s possible to just be with our experiences, noticing that it’s interesting, and that it’s not right or wrong. It’s what happening. All that other stuff is not what’s happening. That’s just the story we tell ourselves about it.

It’s like pressing pause to see if we can “create a gap between the stimulus and the reaction and find a genuine response to what’s happening,” says Maté. That’s where mindfulness practice can be helpful. You don’t have to meditate to be mindful, but it is one way. Just the noticing and the intention can have a big impact. On some level there’s always some intention operating, and it’s usually not the one you think.  

Perhaps it’s recognizing that at some level you want want to keep drama going. “The minute I can admit what’s happening, I can start to locate other things that are true,” says Maté. “If I can get that, I don’t need to work so hard at changing my behavior.” At that point, a new behavior might spring up. With new intentions, it’s like having a fresh start, but you do have to be present to do that. If not, you’re still stuck in the story, or the drama, of the situation.

We can’t disown something until we own it. Maté gives the challenge to ask yourself what your perspective is and what lens you’re looking through. Often we just don’t know; we’re unaware because of the trauma of being disconnected from ourselves. But when we get our intentions in line with our thoughts, we really can be amazing.

Key takeaways:

  • Walking is a great way to get mentally unstuck

  • Daniel and his father Dr. Gabor Maté are working on a project called Hello Again that focuses on relationships between parents and adult children

  • Understanding the common patterns and prototypes parents and adult children fall into can help improve relationships

  • Compassionate curiosity is a great place to start