Through the Rearview: Adult Parent-Child Conflict

By Gabor and Daniel Maté. Posted on October 19, 2018 in Wisdom + Wellness

Having parents isn’t easy. From what I hear, neither is being one— but let me stick to what I know.

It’s intense, this parent-child thing. That intensity doesn’t necessarily change just by virtue of the “child” crossing through puberty, moving out, and joining the adult world. True, there’s typically a sizeable increase in physical distance – whether an ocean away, or just across town – along with a decrease in the magnitude of the relationship in the daily affairs of each person.

But, as the sign warns, “Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear.” When it comes to my parents and me, the past is never far behind. Whenever I think we’re in the clear, the rearview mirror is all too ready to show me an encroaching shadow, a replay of some unwanted feeling or interaction, gaining on me even as I floor it.

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said to his students: “If you think you’re so enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.”

Here’s what I hear in that quip: our mother and father retain their uncanny superpower of revealing to us where we’re still not quite grown up, even in our adult bodies and minds. They never fail to show us, in ways that can seem maddeningly haphazard one minute and diabolically deliberate the next (yet which I suspect are neither) that our maturity has very definite limits.

Recently, as we were meeting up to do some key “Hello Again” related work – a book proposal, in fact – my father and I had one of our little flare-ups. I say “little” but of course at the time it seems anything but. Without getting into the details, it involved yelling across multiple rooms, as various kinds of accusations flung back and forth under the guise of constructive criticism (some cursing) and me driving away only to stop halfway down the block to pound frustratedly on the steering wheel like a character in some movie we’ve all seen a thousand times. I definitely felt little, but the moment felt “big”.

The thing is, I should be used to it by now. I almost am, except that it’s in the very nature of these contentious moments to not see them coming. Landmines come to mind: hair-trigger explosive devices strewn randomly under the surface of a war-torn terrain. One never gets so desensitized that a sudden kaboom is a ho-hum occurrence.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m no longer shocked to be shocked. It still stings to find myself at odds with this man I love and admire so much, this special and unique person I call “Dad.” The same is true when things go south with my mother – as can also happen, though less frequently these days. But the dismaying, paralyzing impact of that sting is shorter-lived than it was a few years ago. Those who attended our first workshop in 2016 or have watched the footage on Youtube may recall that then, too, we had just had ourselves a nasty little tête-à-tête in the car on the way down to the event. What the video doesn’t show is that while we got through the weekend admirably, on the following Monday the tensions resurfaced, even more explosively.

While we could, I guess, take our father-son conflagrations as a sign that we are the last people who should be leading a workshop like this, it’s turning out to work the other way. Sure, moments like this are humbling – in the true sense of the word, not the humble-brag way people are given to use it online these days. But these flare-ups are also heartening and ultimately, vitalizing. They serve as a reminder of what we’re both up to here: as collaborators, and also as two people who love each other, each committed to stepping out of the shadows of the past.

As we will explore throughout our upcoming November workshop, there’s no need for both of us to be in a conciliatory frame of mind at the same time; it’s as much an individual commitment as a joint one. Accordingly, the way I speak to myself after Dad and I have come to verbal blows now has a new, constructive quality. As I lick my wounds and process the difficult thoughts and feelings that linger, I actively remind myself with increasing gentleness that this recovery is necessary, and it’s in service of something. I’m more and more willing to let the hurt heal, not so I can resume the fight or flee the scene, but rather in the interest of getting back in the game of building a great relationship: a game that can only happen in the present. Blame and a desire to come out on top have less and less of a seat at the table.

I can even feel a glimmer of gratitude for these conflicts. Like a sore back or an allergic reaction, they’re pointing to something out of place, indicating where I might want to put my attention. And they’re showing me something else, too: they’re showing me how much I care. It’s good to be reminded.

Daniel Maté

Join Daniel and Dr. Gabor Maté for Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Parents & their Adult Children in Vancouver, November 16 – 18, 2018.