Adult Children: Disrespect or Deference?

Obey without question.  Your life and that of the family may depend upon it.


Do as I say, not as I do.


My Dear Readers,

Occasionally, I receive letters that, in my mind, speak to different concerns than what is being directly addressed by the writer.  Essentially, the unwritten message that is transmitted by the letter sometimes is more telling than the actual topic of the letter.  This week’s letter is one of those.

As a clinical traumatologist, I have long held that African-Americans continue to respond to complex psychological trauma as descendants of people who suffered slavery, segregation, and domestic terrorism. This psychological trauma lurks throughout their daily lives, seeking an opening in which it can strike, creating disruption, discord, and distrust.

In this week’s letter, the surface topic is a conflict in communication between a father and an adult daughter.  Between the lines, however, is FEAR that is reinforced by generations of complex psychological trauma.

Below is such a story….


Dear Dr. Kane,

I am writing with the hope that you can help me resolve a conflict I’m having with my adult daughter, who lives with me. My pastor, who I asked for advice, maintains that per God’s law, a child must always obey the parent.  My daughter, however, is a strong-willed and independent black woman.  This no doubt contributes to our conflict.

This all started when my spouse passed away several years ago.  My daughter now wants to care for me, getting all up in my business regarding my health.

For instance, I went to the emergency room recently. When my daughter found out, she was extremely upset.  She said that she was upset because I kept here in the dark about my health issues.  I told her that I didn’t want to worry her, but she stopped me in my tracks when she said that by not telling her this vital information, I was lying to her.

I was stung, angered and hurt by her remark.  As a parent, having spent 30 years protecting, raising, providing and ensuring that she would have the education and the will to care for herself, I am disappointed that she would disrespect me in such a manner.

I realize that we are of two different generations, but I am old school Mississippi in the way I was brought up; I would have never disrespected my father.  My father’s word was law, just like his father’s, and his father’s before him, and was never to be questioned.

But, I want the war between us to be over.

I have many issues of my youth that I have never spoken about. I do not want my past life to be a concern. My daughter has read your writing and respects what you have to say.  What can I do to get her to see this issue my way?

Clash of the Titans, Seattle WA


My Dear Man,

I appreciate that you have taken the time to write.  However, you should take this time to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I really want to happen here? Do I have a hidden agenda?
  • Do I really want the war to be over?
  • Am I seeking feedback on my behavior?

There are several deep issues here regarding parent and adult children interaction that I can and will respond to.   However, to clear the air, I want to respond to the questions that have been stated.

What do I really want to happen here?  Do I have a hidden agenda?

Of course you have a hidden agenda.  You’re assuming that since your daughter has respect for my writing, that she is going to change the course of her actions if I agree with you that she should do as you ask.   However, what exactly are you asking for?  Secrecy?  For her to ignore your healthcare matters?

Do I really want the war to be over?

Nope.  You want the problem to go away.  You want what you cannot have, a spirited independent daughter who will always obey you.   And, you seek to hold onto the old ways, the ways of your fathers.

The assumption that you make in your letter is that the ways of your fathers worked and therefore, not only is it good enough to work now, but it is in the normal evolution of things—and that something is wrong with your daughter because she dares to break from that tradition.  But, if that is your logic, then why did you spend, 30 years protecting her, raising her, providing for her, and ensuring that she has the education and will to care for herself?

Could it have been that you wanted your daughter to

  • Have more choices than you or your spouse?
  • Be empowered and never have to depend on a man for her livelihood or direction?
  • Stand on your shoulders and upon your death, be able to strive, thrive and do more than simply survive?

Am I seeking feedback on my behavior? 

No. It is clear from your writing that you are looking for opinions that support your point of view. You quote your pastor, who provides the power of “God’s Law” as a justification.   You have identified four generations, including you, of your daughter’s male relatives that dictate that parents rule without question.

Your forefathers lived during a time of domestic terrorism in which they had no governmental protection.  Therefore, it’s logical that in order to protect themselves and their families, parents would require strict obedience to their direction.  However, in this day and age, many African-Americans do not live under the similar life threating restrictions.

You are seeking to hold onto the patterns established for you during your own childhood.  You and your daughter are responding to a legacy of unprocessed psychological complex trauma passed down from your grandfather and his ancestors, and now you are passing it down to your daughter. As a result, your desire for blind obedience from your adult daughter may be a signal that you are living in fear.

Your daughter is showing you:

  • Love, trust, commitment
  • Sacrifice, duty, validation

You have responded by:

  • Being deceptive, keeping her in the dark
  • Lying by omission (not sharing the truth is the same as telling a lie)

Rather than hold tightly to your fears, consider the POST model of partnership, open communication, strategies for success, and teamwork approach.  Specifically:

  • Partnership-Re-evaluate your restrictive attitudes. Take actions that show that you and your daughter have the same objective of your continued good health and welfare, and therefore, are working together to achieve this objective.
  • Open Communication– Encourage the free flow of communication in both directions. Your adult daughter is your partner—embrace her as such. Be willing to share your feelings with her.  Encourage and support her in her role as your advocate in achieving the defined objectives agreed upon by both of you.
  • Strategies for Success-Let go of your current strategies—they will only lead to failure. Instead, identify strategies that will lead to specific actions that will address your issues. One such strategy is mutual respect.  Do things that show your daughter that she is respected and validated by you as an adult capable of making sound decisions, both with you and on your behalf.
  • Teamwork Approach-Implement these strategies as a unit. Come together as one voice, and commit to the strategy and actions as a team effort.

Please accept my condolences regarding the recent loss of your beloved spouse.  It is evident due to the manner in which you and your spouse partnered in raising your daughter, that the both of you must be congratulated for your hard work and success.

In honor of your spousal relationship, however, make the commitment to process your own unresolved feelings regarding your past history and begin living in this new era with your daughter.  Stop keeping secrets from her and begin to enjoy the trusting relationship that you have worked so hard to obtain.

It is time to stop surviving.  Allow your daughter to stand with you so you can thrive.

Concluding Words

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” This concept has value, but when it comes to the impact of complex psychological trauma, many individuals repeat fruitless behaviors not out of insanity, but out of the desire to maintain the comfort zones they have normalized in their lives. Essentially, individuals maintain the same behaviors and hope for a different outcome out of fear.

We fear the unknown, and we fear change.   In this case, people of older generations fear the new world that we feel may minimize our sacrifices and shouts for a new beginning.  It looks like the writer fears that his roles of provider and protector are going to disappear. Instead, his role is changing and in order for him and his daughter to thrive, he must stop living in fear and move towards living with fear.

“Trauma is a permanent fixture on the psychological self, so the objective is not rid yourself of the experience, but to learn how to heal, balance the injury, while carrying the wounding experience and continue the journey we know as LIFE.”

(Dr. Micheal Kane)

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

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