What Age Are You?
June 24, 2014
Master family therapist, Maurizio Andolfi, M.D., was the main speaker at the three-day SC Marriage and Family Therapy conference in Charleston, SC this past weekend. He was working live with a single mother and her twin children, trying to empower the mother to take control of her home, when he said this to the mother:
“If you are not your real age with your parents, you are only half a person.”
As I hurried to jot down these words verbatim, I noticed that almost everyone in my row was doing the same. His words had hit a nerve.
How interesting, I thought as the day went on, that we struggle in so many ways to be our age and treat others as the age they are. Sometimes we have to fight to be our age with our parents. We have to let them know that they must see us and treat us as adults. Acting our age can be a good predictor of getting that to happen, but not always.
A girlfriend of mine received a card from her mother on her 35th birthday. The outside of the card read, “To my daughter who is almost grown”. Seriously. When she showed me the card I laughed out loud but it was not humorous to her. Her mother still saw her as an adolescent. She had a college degree, a husband, two children, and a mortgage. But she was only “almost grown”. Fighting with her mother’s perception of her had created constant relational difficulties. I have held on to this memory and have made great efforts to treat my adult daughter with the respect she has earned as a well-functioning adult.
There are also parents who treat their children as if they are older than they really are. We have 15 year-old children who are being treated as if they are fully grown. They are given all the privileges of being an adult… cars, money, freedom… but none of the responsibility, and so they turn in to pseudo adults, or as Andolfi would put it, half people. We also have college students whose parents send them off to college with this message: ‘You are an adult now.’ Then the parents disappear as if they had flipped a switch and their adolescent had magically, overnight, turned into a responsible adult. No coaching. No more guidance. No helping hand. No hand. These kids flounder and often fail in the college world. They, too, become half people, but in a very different way.
I also began thinking about the children who, because of family dynamics, end up parenting a parent. When a parent is incompetent, sick, addicted, or in any way unable to function properly, a child often takes the role of being in charge of the family. This child skips a generation and all kinds of crazy things can happen. I remember a time when my brother and sister-in-law were going to keep my then 6 year-old daughter for a weekend. When I was kissing her good-bye I said, “Now take good care of Uncle Eric and Aunt Loretta,” to which she replied, “Oh Mommy, you know I can’t do that. I am only six years old.” I stand corrected, again, by my Zen master.
How do we interact with our aging parents? With our adult children who have been compromised by the recession, job loss, illness, or other difficult circumstances? And if we no longer have parents, how do we treat ourselves as the age we really are?
I often hear the saying, ‘Age is only a number,’ and I understand the meaning of this in relation to how we view ourselves, how we feel, and how we interact with life. But I love Andolfi’s words, and his intention with these words. We are called to act our full age, not more, not less. We can ask others to treat us in age appropriate ways. It makes for healthy living and a solid family.
Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min.