Parenting Upwards – What We Say to Our Parents Affects our Children

Blog post by Larissa Dann.  10th September 2014                    Image used under license from Shutterstock

The respectful communication skills taught in Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) are universal, and can be used in a range of interpersonal encounters – work, friends – and family.  This article reminds us to use these communication skills with our parents, and is a reflection of my own experience - including a story of dementia.  An uplifting observation by my daughter illustrates the importance of setting the example (modeling) for our children.

Communication skills are at the heart of a relationship, and in P.E.T. I see the three pillars of communication as listening, being respectfully assertive, and problem solving. 

In my experience, remembering to use these skills is most difficult when you are talking with your own parents.  Here, the old established patterns of relating, as a child of your parent, seems to assert itself over any acquired communication skill.

When I’ve been in a ‘situation’ with my parents, I’ve found I need to (literally) pause, breathe, and acknowledge that I am still bound by our old communication pattern.  Tentatively, I search for, and try to use, the communication skill I think most appropriate.  For me, this has been fraught – these are my parents, they’ve known me all my life; they’re adults, I am their child.  I have a history with them.  What will they think of me?  Will they recognise what I am doing?  Will they laugh at me, get angry with me, or not take me seriously?  I’ve found that putting my learnt communication skills into practice takes courage!

Fortunately, when I have remembered (not as often as I’d like), the results have been wonderfully positive, helping both my parent and me, and our relationship.

Now, the skills have become particularly relevant, as my mother succumbs to the damage wrought by dementia.

A Story of Dementia

This is a story that could touch any of us, as dementia becomes more prevalent in our aging society.  According to Alzheimers Australia, one in ten people will develop dementia once they’re over 65, with three in ten when they are over 85. 

Our family never anticipated that we would fit into this statistic. Things changed, however, around my mother’s 70th birthday.  Until this point, Mum was an intelligent and capable woman, who’d achieved many things in her life.  She was confident and affectionate, physically fit and healthy, with a great sense of humour. 

The changes in my mother crept up on us.  Rather than simple memory loss, we noticed her falling confidence, her confusion with dates, getting appointments wrong.  She became suspicious, obsessive, stopped looking after herself, and lost her sense of self-awareness.

Some years on, and my mother spends her days propped up in bed, shrunken and unable to eat solids.  She can barely speak, and when she does the words run together like melting cheese.  When her eyes are open, they are mostly blank.  But the core of her still exists.  Her toothless mouth cannot help but smile, curving in tune with the laughter crinkles at the edge of her eyes.  And from within, somehow, she can access that primal connection between mother and child.

The P.E.T. communication skills have helped me emotionally support Mum through these final years.  Importantly my children have learned, through observation, the value of listening.

Actively Listening to a Parent with Dementia

As Mum gradually deteriorated, she was often confused, frustrated and depressed. Active listening helped me comfort her in times of anxiety.

There was an occasion when my mother was still mobile and living at home.  She had become agitated the previous night, not sleeping until 1am.  She continued to be disturbed throughout the day, constantly wandering around the house, not knowing what she was looking for, but feeling it was important.

When I phoned, I spoke to my mother’s carer.  He was overwhelmed by concern (mixed with exasperation), and his powerlessness to help Mum.  I could not change anything for him, or provide any solutions.  I could, however, listen.

“That sounds frustrating.  You must feel so helpless”

“Yes!”, was his emphatic response to this small expression of empathy, before continuing the conversation. 

Then I spoke to my mother.  I had never heard her like this before – unable to articulate, mumbling, searching for words. 

Again, the only thing I could do was to actively listen to her utterances, trying to identify her feelings.

“You sound very frustrated.  You want to tell me what you’re looking for, but you can’t find the words.  It’s on the edge of your mind, but those words just won’t form”.

“Yes!" she said, sounding relieved amongst her anxiety. “I’m very annoyed”.  I was consciously silent for long stretches of time, to allow her to search for her words.

When we finished our conversation, Mum sounded happier and more relaxed.  I put down the phone, sincerely grateful for the skills I had acquired through P.E.T.

Modeling skills to your own children

What happens for our own children when they watch scenes such as this, and participate in supporting their family member through difficult times? I think it’s about modeling.  About children witnessing the use of these relationship skills, and the acceptance of change and difference in those we love.  On this occasion, my adolescent daughter happened to listen to my conversation with my mother (her grandmother).  Her spontaneous feedback was my hope for the future.

“I just realised . . . Mum, you are really good at active listening!  You were really good with Nanna, and active listened her - ‘you’re really frustrated – you’re searching for the words’.  It was really good!”.


© Larissa Dann. 2014.  All rights reserved.

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