Working Therapeutically with Generational Conflict

Working Therapeutically with Generational Conflict

by F. Diane Barth
Clinicians can help families with elderly parents in crisis heal by addressing and revising their “go-to” stories.


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strife between loved ones can be painful and distressing
Conflict between generations in a family is normal and even within bounds, healthy. But strife between loved ones can be painful and distressing, damaging not only some of our most important relationships, but also the self-esteem and sense of well-being of everyone involved. When it occurs between adult clients and their older parents, therapists and clients are sometimes in danger of simply repeating old stories about how the parents failed, disappointed, or abused their children. But it can sometimes be far more therapeutic to use this time to re-evaluate this thinking from a new perspective.

My own non-scientific data gathering from clients, supervisees, students, and colleagues meshes with the results reported in a 2020 article entitled “The Psychology of Family Dynamics Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic” in the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s Insight magazine. There, the author notes that COVID’s global outbreak, with its accompanying lockdowns, significantly, and often adversely, impacted family relations. Political differences and social anxiety are also impacting families, such that intrafamily responses to COVID and to politics are widening gaps between generations in families all over the world. So much so that there has been a call to expand public health services to address the intergenerational issues with which families increasingly struggle. This was highlighted in a 2020 article entitled “We’re in This Together: Intergenerational Health Policies as an Emerging Public Health Necessity” in Frontiers in Human Dynamics.

A Family in Crisis

Julie* is a married teacher in her late fifties. Her parents are in their eighties. I had worked with Julie when she was much younger to help her deal with a mix of depression and anxiety that she had been struggling with since graduating from college. During our work, her symptoms had improved, she had met the man whom she later married, and she made several important career moves. She came back into therapy for help with some issues related to her teenage son, but before too long, it became clear that she also needed help dealing with her aging parents.

“My dad was a great athlete,” Julie told me. “I learned to respect and care for my own body from him. Mom wasn’t much for exercise, but she was always working in the garden and taking walks. And she cooked healthy meals for us throughout my childhood. But now, Dad just sits in a chair and watches TV all day and orders my mom around. And although she still cooks, it’s mainly mac and cheese, brownies and ice cream—stuff she knows he’ll eat. They’re both overweight now, they both have heart disease, and I can’t see this going anywhere but downhill.”

As was true for many families, Julie’s struggles with her parents escalated during COVID.
Julie had tried bringing her concerns to her parents, but each time she did, they both got mad at her. Her dad told her that he was an old man, that he knew he was going to die one of these days, and he was “goddammned going to do what he wanted to do for the first time in his life.” Her mother said Julie should leave him alone—she didn’t want him to get upset and have a heart attack. As was true for many families, Julie’s struggles with her parents escalated during COVID.

“They had a hard time self-isolating during the pandemic,” Julie told me. “Now they’re vaccinated, but I’m afraid they’re not being safe. I’m frightened for them. I kept telling them that if they got sick, what were we going to do? I couldn’t take care of them, because I’d worry about infecting my kids, because we didn’t have a vaccine for teens yet. I was frustrated and angry with them. As usual, they weren’t thinking about anyone but themselves. I kept wanting to shout, ‘What about me? Don’t I count? Don’t I matter to you?’”

A fair amount of our earlier work together had centered around Julie’s childhood relationship with her parents. Initially, she spoke of her parents’ marriage as ideal. “I had a wonderful childhood,” she told me. “So whatever difficulties I’m having now don’t stem from problems growing up.”

She described her father as “bigger than life, a big man, physically, but he was also beloved at work and in the community. When he retired from his job, people giving tributes cried as they talked about how important he was to them personally, how he had helped them move forward in their careers, how he had always been there when they messed up and helped them figure out how to correct a mistake and use it for their own growth, and sometimes for the company’s, too.” After his retirement, he volunteered to coach local football and soccer teams. When she came back to therapy, she still saw him as a special person, telling me that “the kids he coached and their parents all adored him. He played pick-up basketball in the gym with much younger guys up until the minute they shut the gym down because of COVID. He had a weekly coffee klatch with some buddies. He was a busy, active man.”

But Julie’s image of her father changed over the course of our earlier work together
But Julie’s image of her father changed over the course of our earlier work together. One of the areas that we opened up in that work was her anger at both of her parents. As she told me during that time, “My mom was too docile for him. He was so big, so loud, so stubborn, he needed someone to push back at him. I felt protective of her, and mad at him, so I would stand up to him. We had some pretty big fights. My mom was always trying to get me to back off, leave him alone.”

We could say that much of the work of therapy is, in some ways, about helping clients tell us their life stories, and then helping them understand how their life stories impact who they are, how they live their current lives, and what they struggle with. Most of us have what Esther Perel has called our “go-to-stories,” that is, a story that explains something about us that we go back to over and over again. These stories, which can be as simple as “I was always a go-getter,” or as complex as “I was neglected by my parents my entire life,” can motivate us, give us hope, or leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. In therapy, as Roy Schafer wrote many years ago, we help clients learn how they construct their personal version of their own history, and then we help them start to reconstruct it.

Julie’s go-to-story of a perfect family and a bigger than life dad shifted over the course of her therapy to a more realistic version
Julie’s go-to-story of a perfect family and a bigger than life dad shifted over the course of her therapy to a more realistic version that she had kept out of her conscious awareness. But unfortunately, as happens perhaps more often than we like to acknowledge, therapy gave her a new go-to-story in which her parents had failed her. Julie’s story about herself changed significantly, so that she was able to move forward as a young adult with a greater sense of agency and self-confidence. She was also able to tap into her anger with less guilt and anxiety. But now that she and her parents were all older, that story was ready to go through another reconstruction.

Rewriting “Go-To” Stories

In the early days of therapy in particular, clients want sympathy for their feelings and their point of view much more than they want to think about what anyone else might be thinking or feeling. But years ago, as I gathered information for my book Daydreaming, I discovered that the stories people were telling me through their daydreams were ways of reflecting on themselves and on other people. Today I see those stories as a form of what Fonagy and other attachment theorists call “mentalizing.” Mentalizing is a process in which a client works to put into words what they imagine another person might be feeling. Children, even adult children, often have difficulty separating their own needs and feelings from what we imagine our parents are thinking and feeling, which can make it difficult to mentalize.

When clients bring in conflicts, I ask them to tell me as much as they can about their ideas about themselves and about other people, including their parents. Following Harry Stack Sullivan’s idea that important truths reside in tiny details, I ask for all of the smallest details they can tell me. At one point, Julie was talking about her teenage daughter’s fights with her dad. I asked her to tell me about one of their arguments. After going into it in great detail, she said, “It’s kind of funny. I’m watching my daughter and my husband struggle to come to grips with the fact that she no longer sees him as having all the answers. I can’t tell who’s suffering more—my husband, who has fallen off of a very high pedestal, or my daughter, who doesn’t know how to think about him as just a person.”

She was silent for a little while, and then she said, “She’s lucky, although she doesn’t know it. My husband is sad, and he’s hurt, but he’s also just proud of her for standing up for herself. I never thought about it this way before, but I wonder if some of that is what went on with my dad. He didn’t have the psychological understanding to talk about any of this, but I did get the feeling that he was proud of me for standing up to him. He’s always made comments about my being more like him than like my mother, but until just now I never thought of that as pride.”

The realization that some of their old conflicts could be seen from a different perspective led Julie to rethink some of her current struggles with her parents
The realization that some of their old conflicts could be seen from a different perspective led Julie to rethink some of her current struggles with her parents. “My dad has always been so strong, so vital. It must be horrible for both of them to see him feeling helpless…and hopeless. No wonder they’re doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. No wonder they’re eating stuff they shouldn’t be eating. It’s their attempt to get themselves out of this difficult place—and maybe not just the one we’ve all been in during the pandemic. Maybe it’s also about getting older. They would never be able to talk about it, at least not to me. But maybe they’re a little scared about the future. Do they worry about being dependent? Do they hate thinking that my siblings and I will need to take care of them?”

In his classic paper “The Waning of the Oedipus Complex,” Hans Loewald wrote about the difficulty of this change for both parent and child, both of whom lose something as their mutual adoration dissipates in the face of separation and individuation. But, he says, something important is gained by both participants, who can become connected in a different way because of the changes they also mourn. This balance is a fragile one, Loewald tells us, and needs to constantly be negotiated and renegotiated. Therapists can help by encouraging clients to revisit old “go-to-stories” to see if they still hold true, or if they might be revised in any ways based on a client’s changing perspectives on his or her own life.

suddenly I realized that they had handled these difficult times really well!
One day after Julie had begun to consider the struggles with her parents from this new point of view, she said, “I started to think about the fact that they’re in their eighties, they had been expecting life to unfold in a certain way, and suddenly it took a different turn. What were they supposed to do with that, I asked myself? What would I have done in their shoes? And suddenly I realized that they had handled these difficult times really well! Better than some of my friends, even. They’re still together, still talking to each other—more than that, they seem to really love and enjoy one another. That’s pretty amazing all by itself.”


Both relationships and identity are, according to the psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell, an ongoing and ever-changing process. Therapists can help with this process by opening up space for clients to tell their story, and then for them to retell it and revise it as time goes on and they develop into new versions or new variations of themselves. During these shifts, parents, children, friends, and other important people in a client’s life also change; and part of the healing work involves learning and forgetting and learning again that all of us are, as Sullivan once put it, “far more human than otherwise.”

© 2021, LLC
F. Diane Barth F. Diane Barth, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in New York City and Great Barrington, MA. She runs private virtual study and supervision groups for psychotherapists from around the US, and for the past thirteen years has written a popular blog on Psychology Today, called “Off the Couch.” Her most recent book, I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.