Relationships are — how can I best put this? — complicated.
I'm no psychologist, but even I know that because we can't climb into other people's minds, we just don't know what's going to please them, bore them, or, quite possibly, offend them.
It's true of friendships, marriages and business partners, but it seems to be especially evident in families.It's one thing to bicker when you're living under the same roof — who hasn't fought for the remote, computer or phone — but it's another to continue the arguments on a regular basis once everyone's flown the coop. That's the basis for Jane Isay's new book, "Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Parents and Their Adult Children." Isay, a well-known book editor (she shepherded both "Friday Night Lights" and "Reviving Ophelia" to publication) who is also the mother of two sons, found plenty of manuals to fall back when her kids were young. But as they got older and moved away from home she found herself without a playbook. And rather than giving this idea to another author, she decided to have at this one herself.In the process, she interviewed dozens of families. "Everyone I talked to felt that they were walking on eggshells with their adult children, and they also felt that they were the only ones with the problem," explained Isay. Of course, that's not true. But trying to maintain a healthy relationship with your children once they've been thrust into the real world can be pretty sticky, and often requires a mix of communication skills, honesty and good old-fashioned patience. Here's what Isay suggests:
- Look at your family's personal style. Through the course of your life, you'll run into lots of other families, and they all interact with each other in different ways. Some people talk to their parents or children on the phone daily; others talk once a week or even once a month.
The important thing is to fall into a pattern that works best for you. Just because your husband doesn't call his mother but once every couple weeks doesn't mean that you can't check in with yours every couple days. "One of the things that was interesting to me," said Isay, "is that everyone has a different style, and even within the same family, different children have different degree of closeness and of distance."
- Have the big talks, about money, wills and advance directives, together. "People who can sit with all of their children at the same time to talk about their finances will find that some of the mumbo jumbo about money will go away," predicts Isay. Money is too often used as a metaphor for power, favoritism and love in families, but if you put it all out in the open and involve everyone, it creates an even playing field. It's fine to pick children to serve particular roles — estate executor, power of attorney — but be open and honest about your reasoning behind the decisions. Truth be told, the most important thing is that you have these provisions in place. And when it comes to gifts or loans, play fair. It's OK to bail your son out, but explain to your daughter that you'll be there for her if she ever needs a hand. Then set limits — a 30-year-old does not belong on your couch.
- Use e-mail. Or snail mail. The point is, you don't always have to catch up over the phone. True, hearing a loved one is the best way to communicate if you can't sit down in person, because emotions aren't as easily lost in translation. But if you're like me, there are days when you're so busy, you don't have time to return, let alone initiate, a phone call.
On days like this, it's easier for me to shoot off an e-mail just to let my mother know I'm OK and that she's in my thoughts. A lot of elderly people don't use e-mail, but, as Isay said, expecting a message from you just might be the incentive they need to check their inbox daily.
- Respect each other. As parents get older, it can seem as if the roles have been reversed, explained Dr. Jack Wetter, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, Calif. Children often become the caretakers, and handle things that their parents used to take care of for them when they were young: doctor's appointments, living arrangements, and even privileges like driving. This can really shake up the relationship, and finding a balance comes down to respect. Broach these duties gently, with open communication, until you find comfortable middle ground. Some find that incorporating outside intervention — a therapist or financial planner — into the mix works best.
- Be involved, but not enmeshed. Big problems happen when either party starts meddling in the other's decisions and lifestyle — and by meddling, I mean trying to control, not offering constructive advice. "You know the difference because if the parents are more upset than their children about the children's decisions, they are enmeshed," says Dr. Michael Wetter, a clinical psychologist (and, yes, the son of Dr. Jack Wetter).
Give yourself an emotional check up — if you're feeling a little apprehensive about decisions your son is making, you're likely on the right side of the line. But if depression starts to set in, or you're finding yourself up at night or sick with worry, you may be in too deep. Take a step back, and repeat after me: It's not your life. Everyone's entitled to choose his or her own path, and mistakes, quite frankly, might be the best teacher.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .