Chapter 7. Creative Approaches to Mid-Years; Parenting and the Empty Nest

Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Couples
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 7. Creative Approaches to Mid-Years; Parenting and the Empty Nest

The art of living does not consist in preserving and clinging to a particular mode of happiness, but allowing happiness to change its form . . . for happiness, like a child, must be allowed to grow up.( Charles L. Morgan, as quoted in McCary, Freedom and Growth in Marriage, p. 97.)

-- Charles L. Morgan

In no area of mid-years life is the growth approach more important, or more difficult to apply, than in the area of parenting. A couple at an enrichment weekend put it well. The husband declared, "Nothing causes more hassling between us than our two teenagers." The wife added, "Yes, and when they're not stirring things up, one of our parents needs something urgently." The interlocking of the generations becomes increasingly intrusive in the mid-years. Couples feel the crunch of being in the middle between the needs of still-dependent adolescents and aging parents. Their marriages can flourish only if they learn to handle these pressures.

This chapter will suggest some ways of coping with the problems and realizing the rich possibilities of mid-years parenting and the empty nest. The approaches and methods here suggested can be used as resources by individual parents and by ministers and other leaders in planning parent training groups and marriage enrichment events.

Keep Open and Growing

Parents' most important contribution to their children's growth is to be growing people with growing marriages. Lifestyles are contagious. Adolescents who have open, affirming, pro-life parents usually "catch" something of their love of life. As parents, you'll be more able to give your teenagers space to grow, releasing them to become autonomous adults if you have full lives and a satisfying marriage and or other relationships. Enriching your lives and your marriage lets you have more to give to your children and less reason to envy them.

Some Guidelines for Parents of Teens

It is relatively easy to lose one's objectivity, to get bogged down in problems, and to miss the opportunity to enjoy pleasures relating to adolescents. Here are some guidelines for helping you make your relationship with them constructive and mutually satisfying.

Keep Affirming Your Teenagers.

Tell them what you sincerely like and appreciate in them. A three-step method for resolving conflicts constructively consists of: (1) telling each other what you appreciate; (2) telling each other what you each need; and (3) negotiating a better plan to meet as many of both sets of needs as possible This adaptation of the Intentional Marriage Method(Before using this communication tool, I suggest that you read H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment, chap 2) can be used in an individual family communication session, and in family clusters, camps, and counseling. It is especially important to affirm your teenagers whenever they function in ways that are creative, responsible, and responsive to other people's needs. It's not easy for youth to move into adulthood in this time of conflicting values and rapid social change. Your appreciation of their small, tentative steps in that direction can encourage them to risk moving further toward responsible adulthood.

Take time to communicate with and, if possible, to enjoy your teenagers. Because most parents and teens have hectic schedules, it's easy for them to become like "ships that pass in the night" for extended periods of time. Such parallel living may produce feelings of alienation on both sides. Taking time to relate to your adolescents in good times helps balance and keep a healthier perspective on the inevitable times of distancing and conflict.

Make Your Way of Relating to Them Increasingly Adult-to-Adult.

Gradually relax the limits and the discipline to give them room to develop self-discipline and autonomy. Be firm on B-values (such as justice and truth). Make sure the family rules are flexible and negotiable on other, less important matters. Growing into responsible adulthood involves exercising one's right to learn by making one's own mistakes. Most teenagers have to "leave home," emotionally as well as physically, before they develop the ability to relate to parents as adults. One of the pleasures of mid-years parenthood is the new and mutually satisfying relationship with young adult children who have established their autonomous identity.

Let go of the False Assumption That You Are Entirely to Blame for All Your Children's Problems.

It's a difficult time in history to be parents of adolescents. Many factors other than what you have done, not least of all their own choices, influence your adolescents' decisions. Wallowing in guilt tends to increase the hurt done by the mistakes one actually made. You probably have given your adolescents "the strength to survive your mistakes." (Ann Stcinmann and David Fox, The Male Dilemma: How to Survive the Sexual Revolution (New York: Jason Aronson, 1975), p. 174.) It may help to remind oneself that behind much teenage behavior that disturbs us adults there is a positive search. Their search is for genuine self-esteem, autonomy, for acceptance by peers, for authentic relations with other people, and for a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In short, teenagers are in the midst of a painful but hopeful identity struggle.

When the Inevitable Crises Arise, Don't Panic.

Whatever you do, don't rupture the relationship by heavy-handed or manipulative methods. When one is most tempted to be heavy-handed is precisely the time when your teens need a caring, supportive relationship with you most. If communication breaks down, get the help of a trained family counselor. Such a person can be both referee and coach in helping your family remobilize its own resources for resolving the conflicts constructively. (Information about well-trained marriage and family counselors can be obtained by writing The American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, 225 Yale Ave., Claremont, CA 91711, or The American Association of Pastoral Counselors, 3 West 29th St., New York, NY 10001)

Find a Parent Training and Enrichment Group.

Coping with the problems and developing the positive potentialities of parent-teen relationships will be facilitated if parents do not try to go it alone but instead, find a support group of other parents. Joining the local ACME (Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment) group is an effective way of discovering couples who are interested in enriching their own marriages and in providing increased opportunities for others to do so. If an ACME group doesn't exist yet in your area, their national office will provide you with guidance in starting one. (Write ACME, 495 South Church St., P.O. Box 10596, Winston-Salem NC 27108.)

Marriage enrichment events involving mid-marrieds should provide opportunities for these couples to share ways of strengthening relations with their adolescents. A mid-years couples class can have a series focused on "creative parenting" using a book on family communication such as Virginia Satir's Peoplemaking.( See Annotated Bibliography) Parent Effectiveness Training and other parent education approaches can be helpful to parents of adolescents.( See Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training (New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1970).

Transgenerational communication events are workshops in which parents and teens take part in communication exercises designed to build bridges across the generation gap.( Cassette course IIIB, "Enriching Parent-Child Relationships," in H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling, Part 1, describes such an event and suggests other ways of enhancing parent-teen relating, including a healthy family growth interview.) "Family clusters," composed of three or four families plus several singles, can provide mutual caring, enrichment, learning and communication among several families and between adolescents and adults who are not their parents.( For information on "family clusters" write Dr. Margaret Sawin, Box 8452, 12 Corners Branch, Rochester, NY 14618) Solo parents face a special challenge when their children reach adolescence. It's important for them to find or develop a support group to provide mutual encouragement and companionship for themselves, and opportunities for their adolescents to relate to other caring adults of both sexes.

Changing Your Inner Responses

Enjoying your teenagers and relating to them creatively will be more feasible if, in the language of Transactional Analysis, you first make peace with your inner Parent; enjoy, befriend, and control your inner Adolescent; and keep your inner Adult in the driver's seat when you communicate with your teenagers.( See above note p. 19) In addition to the three parts of the personality described in T.A. literature -- Parent, Adult, Child -- there is also that fourth part of every adult's personality, the inner Adolescent he or she once was. Our inner Adolescent is reactivated by the presence of teenagers. Most parents are not aware of this influence even when their inner Adolescent is distorting their responses to their flesh-and-blood teenagers. Much of the painful, unproductive conflict between parents and teenagers results from the teenagers' activating or "hooking" their parents' inner Adolescent.

Getting to know, like, and control your inner Adolescent can enable you to do the same with your actual teenagers. As you have made peace with the Parent you carry within you, you will be able to relate more appropriately to your teenagers because your inner Adolescent will not need to be either submissive or defiant. To illustrate, being overpermissive or overpunishing with teenagers is usually the result of conflicts between the parent's inner Adolescent and inner Parent.

Keeping one's inner Adult in control in relating to one's teenagers is easier said than done, of course. Here's an awareness exercise that can help parents meet and come to terms with their inner Child, Adolescent, and Parent.

Close your eyes and become aware of your body and of your inner space./ Picture in your mind the house where you lived as a child and see yourself at that age inside the house. Be aware of the feelings of the child./ Picture your parents joining the child, one at a time; watch what happens. How does each feel?/ Now, let the years pass and see yourself as an adolescent in the house where you lived then. What are your feelings as an adolescent?/ Picture your parents joining you, one at a time; see what happens./ Recall and relive the feelings of several incidents from your teens -- experiences involving punishment, approval, peers, sex, religion, alcohol./ If your memories are mainly of pain and alienation, see if you can have your adolescent self and your parents come together and be reconciled in your inner picture./ Relive the time when you left home and said good-bye to your parents. Be aware of the feelings on both sides./ If your inner adolescent is sad, lonely, or lacking in self-esteem, picture yourself as an adult, comforting and encouraging her or him./ Be aware of the strength of your Adult, the here-and-now part of you which can choose not to be controlled by your inner Child, Adolescent, or Parent./ Now, complete your memory Journey in any way you choose and, when you are done, open your eyes./ Discuss with your spouse your experience of exploring the past./

I hope that this exercise helped you get better acquainted with your inner Child, Adolescent, and Parent sides and made you more aware of the ability of your Adult to control their influences. Did you become more aware of ways in which your feelings and attitudes from your early life influence your relationships with your teenagers?

Parents as Pioneers

Margaret Mead has observed that parents of today's youth are parents of the first generation that has grown up entirely in the new world that emerged between 1940 and 1960 -- the world of the bomb, the population explosion, the environmental crisis, and the planet-spanning communication grid.( Margaret Mead, Culture and commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970) Lightning-fast social changes have widened the communication and value gap between the generations to an unprecedented degree. This new world that has emerged has made many of the attitudes and ideas which we learned from past generations irrelevant to our children's future. This makes it a tough time to be an adolescent -- or the parents of an adolescent. But it is also a potentially rewarding time.

To cope creatively with the future, Mead holds, there must be a new kind of communication and collaboration between those who are older and the young, who are most at home in the new world and most involved with that future. Enough trust must be developed between the generations to permit older adults, who have the essential skills and handles of power, to work with youth and young adults in finding workable answers to the crucial questions many youth and young adults are asking, questions such as "What will enable humanity to survive on a livable planet?" The challenge, to both adults and youth, is to pioneer in developing a new kind of collaboration between the generations so that we can search together for the answers to the problems threatening our planet's future!

Parenting Your Parents

One of the most difficult experiences of mid-years couples is the reversal of roles, as aging parents become increasingly dependent on them -- emotionally, if not physically. Seeing the once-competent parents we love waste away and lose their ability to handle and enjoy life is an agonizing experience for everyone involved.

Responding lovingly and appropriately to the needs and demands of aging parents can occur to the extent that we are able to keep our Adult side in control when we're with them. To do this usually requires completing unfinished growth work. In particular, it requires becoming a more nurturing Parent to our own inner Child, so that that side of us can relinquish the hope and need to have our parents always available as nurturers. The behavior of aging parents will not so easily activate our inner Child if our Adult side, and not our needy inner Child, is in the driver's seat. The death of parents will be less traumatic, though still very painful, if this growth work has been accomplished and the inner dependency on them relinquished to a considerable degree.

As the health of aging parents declines, an existential chill settles over the psyche of a mid-years person. But becoming a parent to one's parents provides an opportunity to express our love, assuage our guilt, and do anticipatory grief work preparing for their eventual death. The death of parents is a challenge and an opportunity to do unfinished growing up. Anger and fear wells up from the inner Child who feels deserted. This provides an opportunity to be a caring, nurturing Parent to one's inner Child. The death of parents also provides an opportunity for one's Adult to discover that it can cope with the new reality this brings, and use the new sense of inner freedom of which it may become aware.

Creative Possibilities of the Empty Nest

For several weeks after our last child left home, Charlotte and I experienced heaviness, antagonism, and emotional distancing. It took us a while (in spite of the fact that we are both counselors) to realize that we were in a grief reaction. For the first time in over twenty-five years, we were together in our home for an extended period without children. It was not until we expressed and began to resolve our conflicted feelings of loss and release that our depression lifted and we became aware of some of the new possibilities of our empty nest.

Given present life expectancies, the average couple will have approximately sixteen years together after the last child leaves -- almost as long as they had together with children in the home. If a couple has done little to nurture their relationship through the years, the exodus of children usually reveals a painful marital vacuum. Many couples simply split at that point without discovering if they could revive and renew their relationship. Even couples who have not neglected their relationship may encounter stress as they struggle to relearn how to live alone without the children, creatively. Fortunately most couples make this transition and are happier together than during the child-rearing years. Studies reveal that after the children leave the nest there is a gradual rise in the degree of marital satisfaction.( For a report on the research findings, see Laws, "A Feminist View of Marital Adjustment," pp. 92-93.)

Parental concern and worry about children continue, and may even be intensified, after the children have left home. Parents wonder: Will they make it on their own? Will they succeed in developing fulfilling lives as adults? The struggles of young adult children with educational, vocational, and marital problems are particularly painful to parents because they realize that there is so little they can do to help. Accepting the fact that our children must make it on their own, and in their own way, is a difficult but necessary aspect of coping creatively with the empty nest.

Couples need to do three things to discover the creative possibilities of the empty nest. The first is to face, talk through, and resolve the big feelings, including the grief that accompanies any major change in one's life situation. If you're into the empty nest experience, or on the verge of it, I suggest that you each list in your growth log all your feelings about this new reality in your lives -- the anxiety, grief, freedom, depression, anger, expectation, loss, remorse, emptiness, and joy. Then express to your partner the feelings you have listed and discuss them. Pour them out and talk them through. Take as much time as you need to resolve these feelings so that your awareness of the new possibilities and the open future can increase.

The second aspect of creative coping is to develop actively the new possibilities and fresh options that are open to you as a couple. Anne Simon puts the challenge well: "Sixteen new marriage years, more or less, can spark an intensity unsuspected when there were young children and youthful struggles absorbing time and energy. Who will settle for mediocre, end-of-the-road marriage when there is a chance for lively interchange?" (Simon, p. 283)

List in your growth log all the things that you would like to do with your spouse, now that most parental responsibilities have diminished drastically. Compare your list with that of your spouse and make plans together to do those things which appeal to both of you. If there is little or no overlap between your lists, you probably need to participate in a marriage enrichment group. That could be helpful even if your lists are nearly identical.

The third aspect of creative coping is to invest some of the time and energy that the empty nest has now made available in developing and enjoying your own individual talents and interests. For a woman whose vocation has been mainly or exclusively homemaking, this may mean developing a new vocation, or reviving a long-dormant one, outside the home. List in your growth log the things that you would like to do to develop your separate interests. Then discuss your list and your spouse's with each other, focusing on how you can balance your togetherness and apartness. In light of your discussion, make concrete plans to begin realizing one or more of your individual dreams. Discuss your plans with each other. If both persons develop some autonomous interests it helps prevent sticky overdependency on each other. This is an important preparation for the years of retirement and for the eventual challenge of widowhood or widowerhood. To cope with the empty nest creatively, couples need to make the happy discovery that "The empty nest is actually crowded with possibilities."( LeShan, p. 240)

An Empty Nest Enrichment Group

A mid-years minister in Southern California decided that his church could become a more effective people-development center by expanding its growth group program.( Edwin C. Linberg, Temple City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Temple City, Calif.) He sensed that one group which was needed was an empty nest marriage enrichment group. Five couples were recruited. The pastor and his wife served as cofacilitators as well as participants. The group's contract included these purposes: to enable couples to develop the freedom to grow and to become growth agents for each other; to understand the dynamics of the empty nest stage of marriage, both as a crisis period and as highly creative, productive years; to help couples increase their communication skills and their experiences of the many facets of intimacy; to increase the spiritual quality of their relationships including Christian values; to develop a network of support and trust among them and a sense of outreach to other couples.

The group agreed to have six weekly 2 1/2 hour meetings, plus an all-day Saturday retreat. The sessions included these activities: "community building" experiences; active listening and trust exercises; couple communication work; input; and discussion periods. Each session concluded with experiential worship. The last session included a service of renewing marital covenants, planned by the group. In the post-series evaluation, participants expressed appreciation for the new communication tools they had learned, the growth they had experienced, and the warm support that had developed in the group.

This group illustrates some of the exciting possibilities for mutual support and enrichment. If such groups were available before and during the early part of the empty nest stage, more and more couples would discover the rich potentialities of Mid-Years II. They would experience the mutual help of a caring community as they remodel their marriage for maximum enjoyment and growth together.

Enriching Life by Facing Death

The empty nest stage is a time of increasingly frequent losses. To deal constructively with grief is essential to a good life during these years. After the recent funeral of a relative of our parents' generation, Charlotte said, "I was thinking during the service how many of these we'll be attending in the next few years."

A good way to cope with mid-years losses is to participate in a grief growth group. (The process of setting up and leading such a group has been described elsewhere.)( See cassette course 2B, "A Grief Recovery Group", and 2A, "Helping and Being Helped by the Dying," in H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling: Part II Coping Constructively with Crises. See also Oates, Pastoral Counseling in Grief and Separation.) Every significant loss tends to stir up awareness of the eventual death of oneself and one's mate. Therefore, an important aspect of mid-years marital creativity is to deal with one's gut-level feelings about death. Doing this important growth work can enhance the sense of the preciousness of each day of one's life and marriage.

A minister in the Pacific Northwest has been leading what she calls "Living with Dying" groups to help people deal constructively with feelings about dying and death.( Jane A. Raible, Everett Unitarian Fellowship, Everett, Wash.) The groups meet for five weekly 2-hour sessions, using Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying as a resource to be read between meetings(Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969) The first hour of each session is spent discussing topics from the book. The group then divides into two subgroups, led by the minister and her co-facilitator, for experiential and feeling-level sharing, including debriefing on such between-session assignments as: "Talk to three people about death, being aware of how they respond" or "Imagine that you have only a limited time to live and try to say how this awareness influences your feelings about your lifestyle and present relationship."

Unfaced or unresolved anxieties about death -- existential anxieties -- are a significant dimension of many mid-years problems, including marriage problems. A grief growth group or a living-with-dying group can help mid-years persons do their growth work around these anxieties by providing the most favorable context -- a caring community. If we face our anxieties in the context of an honest, growing faith and within relationships of trust, it is possible to transform at least some of the anxiety into motivation for living life more fully and creatively.

I recall an experience of hospitalization several years ago, when I was inundated by nameless anxieties quite out of proportion to the seriousness of my medical condition. My inner crisis gradually subsided as I began to confront my fears of dying. When I was released from the hospital, I had a remarkable experience. It was as though a veil had been removed from my eyes. The sky seemed bluer and the grass a more vivid green than I had seen it in years!

A Quaker writer speaks to the condition of many of us in the mid-years:

No one has reached maturity until he has learned to face the fact of his own death and shape his life accordingly. Then the true perspective emerges. The preoccupation with . . . accumulating goods, or fame or power, is exposed. Then every morning, seems fresh and new, as indeed it is. Each flower, each leaf, every greeting from a friend, every letter from a distance, every poem and every song strikes with double impact, as if we were sensing them for the first and for the last time. Once we accept the fact that we shall disappear, we also discover the larger self which relates us to our family and friends, to our neighborhood and community, to nation, humanity, and indeed, to the whole creation from which we have sprung. We are a part of all this, too, and death cannot entirely withdraw us from it. To the extent that we have poured ourselves into all of these . . . we live on in them.... So the divine spark kindled in us can never really be extinguished, for it is part of a universal flame. (Bradford Smith, "Dear Gift of Life," Pendle Hill Pamphlet No. 142 Wallingford, Pa. (1965).