Parenting adult children: the new dynamic

How well do we know our family? It’s a question that most of us ask ourselves at different times in our lives, especially when we come into conflict with those we love.

Parents can be protective of children and often have dreams and aspirations for them that children don’t always agree with. On the other hand parents’ best intentions can be misconstrued by their children.

Sometimes we don’t even know these conflicts exist or we know that challenging the status quo would be futile.

But, when we do confront these issues they quite often reveal secrets, insecurities, fears and belief systems that we’ve carried with us our whole lives and kept hidden from our loved ones out of fear of hurting them.

Media personality and presenter Jane Caro delves deep into this realm of human experience to reveal the inner machinations of parent-child relationships in a four-part Compass series Mum’s Boy, Dad’s Girl, which premiered Sunday October 9 at 6:30 pm on ABC1 and iview.

The show follows five brave families as they let Caro into their homes and lives to reveal what makes their relationships tick. It’s a fascinating, sometimes shocking and mostly heart-warming insight into the lives of contemporary Australians.

In the first episode that aired last Sunday night, we met 58-year-old Melanie who has fought a lifelong rebellion against her 88-year-old father Warwick who she says she has always seen as “an authoritarian figure”. We also meet Warwick and hear all about his own difficultly trying to raise his rebellious only daughter in a family of four children.

Then there’s 65-year-old Helen and her son Brett, aged 34. In later episodes we find out how Brett struggled with his sexuality as a teenager and on coming out to Helen, was surprised to learn that she too had a secret that would rock Brett’s world. It’s a volatile relationship but one that was brought closer when Brett’s father left.

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Brett's coming out to his mother strengthened their relationship

Jason, 46, is a seemingly normal father of 18-year-old Patty – protective and concerned, but his experience being a father is changed by his disability. In this story we learn about the challenges he has had to overcome to care for Patty by being a hands-on dad. On the flipside we learn about Patty’s own protectiveness of her dad and the unique friendship between father and daughter forged by overcoming adversity, but increasingly strained by her own search for independence.

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Jason's disability has made being a father difficult

Denise, 64, and Alex, 31, from Melbourne are hoping the experience of being on the show will help bring them closer together. Denise has found it difficult to make a connection with her son Alex, while Alex has had his own challenges in trying to make his mum be more authentic in their relationship and having to cope with his own mental illness.

One of the most gripping stories is that of Val, 49, and James, 29, who have suffered great loss and suffering following the death of Val’s husband and James’ father. We learn about Val’s struggle to raise two children alone, her protectiveness of the family now and her struggle to keep her family together after the tragedy.

Caro says while these stories are all unique and different and explore individual relationships on the personal level of each family, they also penetrate into a core experience that is universal in Australian families everywhere.

“The feelings that people have towards one another, the uncertainties, the delights, the fears, the conflicts – people are going to want to identify with that very much,” she says. “The triggers to those are unique to all of us but the responses are the things that we all have in common.”

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Son and mother Alex and Denise

While she expected the participants to reveal a lot, Caro was overwhelmed by just how much they revealed during the filming – something which she insists was the result of careful casting and the way in which the participants were interviewed.

Despite admitting she “really didn’t know what to expect before making the show” the veteran presenter says she has learned more about parent-child relationships than she ever thought possible.

On the list of things she’s learnt is how strong and the unique the bond between a parent and child can be. “I’ve learnt how powerful that relationship is and how there is an enormous sense of protection from parent to child and child to parent,” says Caro.

“One of the big things I picked up from doing the show is that nobody is ordinary, no one is normal or average. Everybody has things to tell you. There is no right or wrong way to do things, there is just your way,” she says.

Caro says this rings true as she reflects on her own experience parenting her two daughters. While she says she may not have got everything right as a parent, she is thankful that her daughters, now aged 25 and 28 years old, have turned out to be wonderful people.

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Caro with James and his mother, Val

“I can see the mistakes I made, they weren’t the obvious ones, but I can also see that my daughters have turned out to be lovely people and it’s a delight to be around them,” Caro says. “They probably turned out that way in spite of me rather than because of me.”

Caro was amazed by how each party responded to the revelations that were made during filming. “There are so many things that I never expected to experience, to be witness to, that came up,” she says.

But while the show reveals the conflicts, insecurities and tensions, we also get to discover the positive interactions and sense of family belonging that make relationships worthwhile says Caro.

“You will see many of the relationships evolve, particularly in the case of Warwick and Mel. There is a sense of them really making peace with each other. Melanie is looking after him now, so the power balance has changed and to Warwick’s eternal credit he has the humility and wit to accept that and enjoy it and be proud of Melanie,” she says.

One concept that Caro particularly wanted to explore was the idea that different parents respond differently to children of the opposite gender. As the mother of two daughters Caro has often wondered what it would be like to parent a boy – something that she may well get to discover after becoming a grandmother to little Alfie just six months ago.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to parent a boy. I haven’t noticed any differences in how Alfie is to how my daughters were when they were that age, but he’s only a baby so the verdict is still out on that one. He’s got a strong personality, but so did my daughters when they were that age,” she says.

“But from the show what was interesting was how the two father groups were so protective of their daughters, while mothers weren’t so protective. In fact, they wanted desperately for their sons to have a partner, which I found very interesting,“ says Caro.

So what did Caro learn about how life events shape our relationships? She says that James and Val’s tragic loss of a loved one made her realise how bereavement would have an undeniable impact on a family. “Death is a very dramatic event, like a birth of a child and it puts us on the metal and shows us where the cracks are,” says Caro.

But as to whether the generation we are born in influences our family relationships, Caro is more sceptical. “I would say after watching how the relationships changed over time that it’s not the times that change us, it’s us that change over time. So I actually think the idea that each generation is different from the proceeding one is rubbish,” she says.

“I truly believe that my children have taught me more than I have ever taught them,” she says.

So how do we push through these conflicts and have harmonious parent-child relationships? Caro says it’s mainly about forgiveness.

“It’s by the ability to forgive one another and oneself and the ability to maintain the relationship – that is the test of it,” she says. And it’s that kind of advice that only a mother could give.

Episode 2 of Compass: Mum’s Boy, Dad’s Girl screens Sunday October 16 at 6:30pm on ABC1.

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