With the holiday season full upon us, it’s time to turn attention homewards. For some unicorn people, there is only joy as you anticipate spending the holidays with your parents or adult children.  But for the rest of us, there’s joy, sure, but also a bit of apprehension, worry, or even dread.

As an adult, it can be difficult to figure out the terms of your relationship with your parents.  Are we friends now? Can we talk about the parts of my life I know they’re not thrilled about? Why is it always my fault for not calling but somehow never my mother’s? Can we—should wewatch Game of Thrones together? Mysteries abound.

And while I have yet to get to the other side (i.e. being the parent of an adult child), I imagine it to be no less mystifying.  Should I tell them how I really feel about their spouse?  Do they even need or want me in their lives? Why am I still paying for everything?

Enter into this conversation, Aziz Ansari’s new show, Master of None. In the second episode, the series tackles the issues surrounding the relationship between adult children and their parents, and how we often miss each other in our efforts to connect.


Who Are You, and What Do You Want from Me?

I think one of the things that’s brilliant about the Master of None “Parents” episode is that it gives us what we all long for—a window into what our family member is actually thinking and feeling.  We see how a father’s insistence that his son play the guitar stems from his own frustrations and disappointments from an impoverished childhood.  We see how another father makes sacrifices over a lifetime to create a world of opportunities for his son, and then swallows his own disappointment when the son declines to spend time with him. Somehow, the show presents these themes in keeping with a comedic spirit, and it feels poignant, instead of heavy-handed.

The episode also highlights one of the key sources of conflict between parents and their adult children—the trouble with expectations.  On each side, there is a vision of what the relationship should look like, of what we should have together.  Frankly, it seems maddening that your parents could have raised you, literally been there from the beginning, and yet you have considerably divergent views and perspectives.  So, with both persons committed to their own vision—what do you do?


Accept What Is

We wish our relationships with our family members were different; or, often, we wish they were different.  We wish they understood us better, or really saw us as ourselves. We focus on what could be, keeping us stuck in a cycle of false expectations and disappointment.  To exit the loop, you have to start by accepting your relationship for what it is, and your family members for who they are.

Acceptance means letting go of whatever you think your relationship is supposed to look like. Maybe you have a spouse or a friend who seemingly has an amazing relationship with their parents or adult children—don’t get caught in thinking that your own relationship should mirror theirs.  Instead, take stock of your connection and consider how you would like to acknowledge its joys and let go of the disappointments. Celebrate and embrace the traditions or activities that you enjoy with your family.  There will be times where you disagree or don’t get along, but that does not have to cast a shadow over your entire relationship.

Personally, I spent years willing my parents to be different people, wanting them to fit into a mold of what I thought my parents should be.  Shockingly, all of this pining for something else did not make our relationship better.  We could not move forward until I accepted that it was never going to be the way I imagined.  But, once I accepted this, it opened the door for our relationship to evolve, and the relationship became much more satisfying than what we had before.


Actively Work to Change the Relationship (instead of just hoping it gets better)

If you feel that there are parts of your relationship that you truly cannot accept, then it is time to have a conversation with your family member.  Before you approach the person, think hard about why you find the behavior unacceptable and figure out what you would like to happen instead. Let them know what you’re struggling with and how it impacts you (yes, I am talking about how it makes you feel).  While the problem may not be worked out right away, you are beginning the dialogue, and hopefully putting you both on the path to a better relationship.


Not All Problems Can Be Solved…And That’s Okay

One thing that I have had to accept, as a therapist and an adult daughter (and a wife) is that not all problems can be fixed.  While I am certainly Team Improve Your Life, we have to be realistic, and not pessimistic, about what’s possible.  A parent and their adult child may never fully understand each other’s perspectives, and the relationship may not be what either person imagined.  But there is a peace that comes when you let go of your expectations. That peace opens the door to what’s really possible between you.




Want more great parenting tips?  Check out the Confidence Club, our social skills group for kids!