When Generational Worldviews Clash

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Reader’s Question

I am a teenager, currently thinking about the kind of future I want to have. My parents are very old, and in fact are the age most grandparents would be. As I also have younger siblings, this puts a huge burden on my parents to support us, and for me to support my parents. We currently live in a country where pensions and retirement funds are not given, and where most parents move in with their children once they are financially stable.

My parents and I have often got into arguments concerning my future. They have wanted me to pursue some career which would earn me lots of money, but in which I have no interest, and would not excel. I, on the other hand, want to pursue something that I know I can do well (and I have a thought-out plan for it).

From what I see, my parents seem to think that if they stop me from talking, yell at me loud enough, and call me enough names, I will understand their view. I try very hard to be as mature as possible by talking in a calm voice and using reasoning and evidence to support my claims, however my parents see that as pretentious and disrespectful towards them, which makes them yell even louder and sidetrack the argument. My parents also tend to have a hard time understanding what I say in a literal sense, for example, I will say something in the simplest manner with no intention to harm, and they will somehow misinterpret it into something else offensive. Trying to correct them is also seen as disrespectful.

I feel like I am being used and manipulated, and this has happened ever since I was young. My parents sent me to a fairly expensive school, and would blame the school, my friends and things like television for my incompetence. I have never felt much emotional attachment to my parents, as they have often made me feel guilty for making them look bad or not meeting their expectations. When my parents and I aren’t arguing, I feel our relationship is fake, as if we’re pretending nothing’s wrong. I don’t know what to do, because every time I try to do something about this problem, it doesn’t end well.

Psychologist’s Reply

The clashes you describe with your parents sound very similar to those experienced by families who immigrate to Western countries from other cultures. The conflict in these families often center around the older generation’s adherence to a more hierarchical, conservative, or elder-revering culture, while their children adopt the more Westernized culture of their new country. This means that the older and younger generations have very different standards and expectations for what parents can expect from their children in terms of obedience and financial or physical support as they age. Ideally, in these families the generations are able to achieve some sort of compromise between the old and new world views, although this is easier said than done.

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However, you also describe a real lack of communication between you and your parents; rather than effectively listening to and discussing your very different points of view, it seems that arguing and yelling replace efforts at empathy and understanding. The lack of emotional connection you feel towards them is the best evidence that there has been a tragic rift in what should be a loving, although never perfect, relationship.

Because of the quasi-acculturation issues and the sincere difficulty you and your parents are having in communicating with each other, the first and best suggestion I have to offer is a course of therapy with a family therapist. The role of the therapist in this situation would be to hear out both sides, yours and your parents, and act as an objective mediator as you try to narrow the gulf between you. A family therapist would also be able to help everyone in the family work on more effective communication skills, so that the yelling, berating, and misunderstandings you describe cease to be the primary way your family tries to communicate. If your parents are resistant to the idea of family therapy sessions with you (as they might well be) you might consider asking them to meet with you and a religious figure, one of your teachers, or a school counselor. While none of these individuals are likely to have the same skill set as a family therapist, they may be able to help you advocate for your point of view, as well as help your parents better express their own concerns and expectations. If they still refuse to meet and discuss the problem with a third party, I encourage you to seek out a therapist of your own with whom you can work through your feelings about the situation, and practice effective communication skills. There are also many self-help books available to you (e.g. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson, et al. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]), if you wish to learn more about improving your communication skills, as I sincerely hope you will.

One important point to remember is that there is rarely a true ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ in these family conflicts. Your parents may have a totally different world view than yours — this does not make them ‘wrong’. However, it does mean that you will have a serious challenge before you as you try to help them understand and respect your own world view and the choices you wish to make. By inviting them to work things out with an objective therapist and working on improving your own ability to communicate effectively with them about these heated topics, you will be giving yourself the best opportunity to come to at least a peaceful truce with your parents, even if a true mutual compromise remains out of reach.

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