Forget exes, is it possible to be friends with your ageing parents?

Expert guidance on building a relationship of equals


“It’s weird to watch your parents grow old. My childhood tormentors are no longer in the room—instead there’s a whole other person, just as confused by the passage of time as I am.” If this reflection by 35-year-old author Sneh Sapru hits home, you’re likely a millennial finally seeing your parents as real human beings.

A slew of uncomfortable realisations generally follow: they’re getting old, they need you, they have identities beyond just being parents. And perhaps, you realise you’ve outgrown your former parent-child dynamic—whether you were raised in an authoritarian household, leading to a brusque adult relationship, or a conflict-free environment that remained pleasant but lacked intimacy. You genuinely want to get to know this ‘whole other person’ Sapru describes.

While forging a new relationship with your parents is no small feat, it could help you leave the past behind and build a more harmonious future. As your parents embrace new roles as grandparents, navigate health and ageing issues, adapt to technology and a woke new world, becoming their ally starts to feel essential.

After all, they did their best for us.

While aspiring to be ‘friends’ with your parents can seem as laughable as expecting Mumbai not to get waterlogged in the monsoons—the former is possible. Trauma-focused relationship therapist Prachi Saxena, counsellor and family therapist Archana Singhal, along with adult millennial children offer their insights.

Why millennials are renegotiating their relationship with parents

According to Singhal and Saxena, a shift in perception typically occurs between one’s late 20s and early 30s. For instance, Aaakash Ranison, a 29-year-old environmentalist, experienced a tumultuous relationship with his single mother while growing up due to his academic failures. Her ensuing frustration, rigid restrictions, and financial struggles to support them exacerbated the tension. But as an adult, he realised how his impatience, judgement and lack of empathy contributed to their strained relationship.

Life experiences prompt adult children to relate differently with their parents, and circumstances might require both parties to live together as equals. Ideally, parents should now view their offspring as ‘capable adults’. In cases where children have become parents themselves, their newfound insights can deepen their understanding of their parents.

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu indian parents film imran khan friends with parents
Representative photo: Still from ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’

Reflecting on her own experience, Sapru says, “As the first-born, there was a lot of confusion from my parents about what they needed to do to mould me. But I wasn’t made of clay, and they struggled to accept that they couldn’t [mould me]. My financial independence and vocal criticism of their parenting style made them slowly accept I wasn’t a sculpting project. In hindsight, maybe that’s a scary thought for parents? That their child could grow up to be a stranger, someone utterly different from what they know.”

Saxena says that psychologically, most children want to become friends with their parents, but the latter can find this challenging as it signifies a shift in power dynamics, a loss of their traditional role, and makes them feel vulnerable. On the other hand, for adult children, allyship involves embracing tolerance—paying attention to their parents’ needs instead of dismissing them. “To be an ally, we have to accept our parents as they are. This is a humongous task because they have (usually) corrected us and now, we notice a lot of flaws which we feel we’re not in a position to point out,” adds Saxena.

What’s the difference between friendship and allyship

While they might seem like two sides of the same coin, Singhal explains that friendship implies mutual enjoyment and companionship, while an ally takes on a more supportive role. “Being an ally to an ageing parent involves offering emotional support, practical help and companionship,” she says, adding, “An ally also understands the challenges and needs of their parents and actively seeks to assist them.”

This could mean helping them with technology, weighing in on financial decisions, understanding their needs and being proactive in offering support, without infringing on their independence.

surviving lockdown parents dear zindagi friends with parents
Representative photo: Still from ‘Dear Zindagi’

A challenging aspect of this process is separating two conflicting roles — the inner child seeking justice for not being parented the way they wanted, and the grown-up who desires a better life for their parents. “When you are helping your parents, you have to do it on their terms,” explains Saxena. “We can’t truly help people on our own terms; that defeats the purpose. Look at your parents in the here and now.”

Transitioning from feelings of grief and disappointment to friendship and allyship is a personal journey. Here’s how to navigate it:

1. Address childhood trauma: Actively work through the repercussions of their parenting. Ranison, for instance, sought therapy, and credits both physical distance and personal growth for improving his relationship with his mother. He says, “Whatever I learn in therapy about myself and my childhood I share with her, so that we have genuine things to talk about. Today, we’re very close.”

2. Focus on the people behind your parents: Moving beyond hardened or outdated assumptions and viewing your parents from a new lens can foster greater empathy. Ranison suggests, “Zoom out, zoom out. Detach for a minute and see them as people. People who were born in a different time. Our understanding of the world, culture and tech is very different from how they have lived.”

3. Have difficult conversations: While you might want to launch into a lengthy PowerPoint presentation critiquing their ‘one-tight slap’ parenting model and highlighting why gentle parenting is superior, don’t. Instead, address their tone, taane, offensive behaviour and hurtful remarks—and allow them the same privilege, too. It will be tough, as Indian families are hard-wired to gloss over conflict, but persistence will pay off. Sapru shares, “I pay hefty therapy bills to work my way out of some confusing childhood memories. My mom is a mental health professional, so it makes talking about difficult things a bit easier at home, and her apologising for her past behaviour has helped.” 

Gehraiyaan complicated father daughter relationship india
Representative photo: Still from”Gehraiyaan

4. Help, and connect: Millennials grew up navigating the pre- and post-internet worlds, often bridging the knowledge gap for other generations. While new developments in modern life might be business as usual for you, they could be bewildering for your parents. Take the lead. Mummy patiently guided you through tying shoelaces and taught you recipes step-by-step—guide her through Google Pay and shifting gender norms.

Build a genuine bond with your parents by having honest and meaningful conversations. You could ask about their childhood, teenage years, life experiences and goals for their new phase of life. Also consider planning activities together like playing a sport, board game, or watching a movie to find common ground.

5. Step into a relationship of equals: Malvika K Singh, a 40-year-old brand consultant, has always had a good equation with her folks. “As older parents, they made an extra effort to ensure I had the best childhood. Communication was always free-flowing. If we were at an impasse, a talk would allow us both to reach a decision,” she says.

Still, as an adult, Singh struggled to have an equal say in decision-making: “I’ve had a crazy year, with my father in and out of the hospital. I finally told them (with a lot of courage) to remove me from the will and make me an equal 1/3rd partner on everything, since I make a lot of [financial] decisions now.”

Representative photo: still from ‘Piku’

Do things with, or for them, like you would for a friend—with an open mind. This may look like setting up poojas despite being an atheist or encouraging them to date after a bad marriage, without judgement.

Remember, there’s no fixed roadmap to allyship. For Sapru, this involves nudging her parents to prioritise their health, and worry less about hers, and plan new experiences (they want to do mushrooms in Bali together!). For Ranison, allyship meant building a home for his mom, while for Singh it meant helping her parents make better financial decisions.

How to navigate a toxic relationship

Trauma and past toxicity can be challenging to forgive, and you don’t have to. Compartmentalise your feelings, and agree to help your parents materially and logistically without becoming emotionally entangled. “Don’t hope for a loving, warm relationship,” explains Saxena. “You don’t need their approval anymore. You can heal that part of yourself in personal therapy and adopt the role of a detached caregiver.”

Role reversal occurs when the child takes on responsibilities traditionally held by a parent, which is unhealthy in any scenario. If your parents are in a situation where they need more than an ally for medical reasons, you might need to embrace a caregiver role. However, parenting implies fostering moral, physical, emotional, and social growth—which, honestly, it’s too late for, no? So, allow your parents the space to make their own choices, mistakes, and goof-ups (even if they denied you opportunities to do the same).

If you aim to establish a relationship of equals with your ageing parents, tackle difficult conversations, connect deeply, and respect their autonomy, you’re on the path to allyship. And who knows, maybe one day, like the Saprus, you’ll find yourself chatting with your parents about “psychedelic medicine, polyamory, conspiracy theories, aliens, and why it’s a good idea not to have kids.”

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Modified by Maaaty at Cheap Generic Pharmacy

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