Taylor Dismuke, 28, describes her relationship with her mother, Vernona, 55, as more like best friends than parent-child. Vernona has played confidante to Taylor’s heartache and has never been shy about offering her opinion on her daughter’s outfits, good and bad. Though they now live hours apart—Taylor in Durham, North Carolina, and Vernona in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma—the two talk on the phone every day. The only time Taylor has ever felt her mother withheld information from her was when doctors found a lump in Vernona’s breast last year.
Taylor, the oldest child, is extremely protective of her mother, she said, and during their daily phone calls would inquire about her mom’s recent doctor's appointments. For a few weeks, Vernona put on a brave face and kept Taylor in the dark. When Taylor got the call from her mom explaining the diagnosis nearly three weeks later, she was hurt and frustrated. The two women share everything, Taylor said, so why would she lie about something that impacted their whole family? “At first I took it as being selfish: Why would you hold that information?” Taylor told VICE.
Taylor was set to launch a STEM nonprofit program in September around the time her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and later suspected Vernona wanted to spare her the added stress of a cancer diagnosis as she embarked on the next stage of her career. Vernona admitted she was trying to protect her three children—to shield them from the burden of worry, but also to prevent them from discovering how scared she was herself. “You don’t want your kids to be worried about you, so there's a temptation not to tell or to give limited information,” Vernona said.
Adult millennial children report feeling increasingly out of touch with their parents when it comes to important family issues. Major health diagnoses go unshared, news of a loved one’s passing is belated, money problems are brushed under the rug. For families like the Dismukes, the omission is intended to protect children from pain, but adult kids are often left angry or despondent, fearing they’re a low-ranking member on the need-to-know list amid a family crisis.
Generational differences have plagued parent-child relationships for decades. Studies have shown that unsolicited advice, lifestyle differences, and financial strain are major contributors of tension between parents and their adult children. When parents become grandparents, disagreements arise when the two generations fail to see eye to eye regarding raising grandchildren. Recently, the intergenerational discord between baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) and millennials (people born between 1980 and 1996) have highlighted fraught differences in political views, finances, family, and communication.
This intergenerational mismatch stems from diverging approaches to emotional conversations. Boomers are largely seen as closed off and less likely to seek out mental health treatment. Boomers also report having less meaningful interactions with family and friends compared to other generations. By contrast, millennials have embraced therapy, and Gen Z is the generation most likely to discuss mental health. Within her practice, psychotherapist Kathy McCoy told VICE, most of her patients are millennial and Gen Z. “There are individual boomers who are very open about feelings,” McCoy said, “but I think overall millennials tend to be much more in touch with their feelings and much more likely to express feelings and to want to have a conversation with parents that’s on a feeling level and isn’t as superficial.”
This breakdown in communication isn’t unique to the boomer–millennial generations, Tarra Bates-Duford, a marriage and family therapist, told VICE, but it’s been complicated by technology. While research shows both boomers and millennials prefer to interact face-to-face, the geographical distance between parent and child and the perception that texting and email are too informal may deter parents from having difficult conversations with their long-distance kids.
Still, frequently calling and visiting parents might not be enough for parents who are determined to keep their kids in the dark. Jessica Greenhalgh, a 36-year-old communications consultant in Boston, suspects her parents don’t tell her important news about their health because they believe it isn’t her business. When her mother was diagnosed with leukemia, she didn’t find out until about a month later; she learned of her grandmother’s passing via a voicemail. Two days after Greenhalgh’s father tested positive for COVID-19 this winter, she got a call from her mom mentioning they didn’t want to bother her with the news. She then enlisted the help of a neighbor and a family friend to keep tabs on her parents since she didn’t trust them to tell her if her dad might need to be hospitalized.
Greenhalgh’s mother, Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo, 66, agrees she isn’t the most forthcoming with scary news. Growing up, Margolis-Pineo said, her family relied on humor and diversion when heavy topics arose. This practice of solo coping followed her into adulthood. “For me, it is essentially a deep need to process the thorny stuff alone first,” Margolis-Pineo told VICE. “Develop the narrative and then share it. It’s almost like a first draft: I need a bit of time to refine the message before sharing.”
Greenhalgh said she has noticed herself mirroring her parents’ communication style. Not only does she shy away from discussing her own problems with friends, but she sometimes keeps her parents in the dark, too. It wasn’t until her recent divorce was finalized that she told her parents she’d separated from her partner.
Greenhalgh doesn’t feel like a valued member of the family when her parents aren’t forthcoming with life updates. “It really does convey a feeling of not being important enough to be a part of these big life issues,” she said. “If they’re going through these large life issues and need to discuss them with people they care about, I may be one of those people.”
Boomer parents told VICE it isn’t their intention to keep their kids in the dark; they just don’t want to disrupt their children’s burgeoning adult lives. Christopher Adams, 54, the Fort Lauderdale-based founder of aquarium care website Modest Fish, said he doesn’t plan on telling his kids about upcoming surgeries on his wrists so they don’t put their lives on hold to care for him as he recovers. He and his wife also didn’t inform their children when their grandfather was hospitalized with Covid-19 last year. Michael, a retired police officer in New Jersey, waited to share the news of his cancer diagnosis until he felt he had answers prepared for every potential question his children could raise about his treatment and prognosis to avoid any undue worrying. “They don’t need to have another burden on their heads wondering how mom or dad is doing,” the 57-year-old told VICE.
However reasonable the desire to shield kids from bad news might be, boomer parents may use the role of protector as an excuse to lie by omission. While it may be difficult for parents to separate the memories of their child from the adult they’ve grown into, parents must make a cognizant effort to treat their kids as adults, Bates-Duford said, instead of acting as if they’re fragile or incapable of coping with bad news. Boomers should put themselves in their kids’ positions and consider whether they’d want their own parents to tell them about an illness or death of a grandparent. Or if parents purposely withhold due to a fear that their children wouldn’t rush home to care for them, this could stem from a subliminal fear that parents didn’t effectively raise their children or let them down during childhood, Bates-Duford said. Instead, boomer parents should trust they raised their children with healthy coping strategies to deal with emergencies.
Boomer parents may also be hesitant to share health concerns or financial strain because they want to maintain a strong facade. To admit their ailing health or dwindling funds is to confront their own limitations, McCoy said. “It’s very hard for boomers, who are the generation that said ‘Don’t trust anybody over 30’—now that they’re way beyond that and aren’t as good as they used to be, it’s very hard to let go of that image of oneself.”
Adult children have an expectation that as they enter adulthood, their parents will consider them emotional equals, especially regarding family matters. But even as some millennial kids grapple with protector parents who seemingly care too much, others suspect their parents may not factor them into their lives at all.
Throughout her entire adult life, Rome-based writer Federica Bressan’s boomer father has failed to tell her what she considered important information: Minor accidents, giving away her motorcycle without her permission. When, last year, he sold a family home she expected to inherit, she found out months later when he mentioned it casually on the phone.
Aside from an elderly great aunt, Bressan’s father is the only family she has. If she didn’t make the effort to keep in touch, Bressan suspects she’d be totally in the dark, even if her aunt were to die. Bressan, 40, believes her father doesn’t purposely withhold information—he just doesn’t consider her a person worth confiding in. “It doesn’t cross his mind that sharing information means that the message you're sending me is I am part of a group that is a family and we talk about things together,” Bressan told VICE. “Be it the motorcycle, be it the house, but what really hurts is you feel excluded from the family, and the family is just him and I.”
Even if there have been past instances of withholding, communication between parent and child can be improved. Before a crisis occurs, adult children should make clear to their parents they want to support them through any difficulties, McCoy said; you could say something like, “I want to support you now and always. What do you feel comfortable sharing with me, and how can I help you?”
Bates-Duford suggested establishing a basis of clear and open communication where parent and child catch up, free of any distractions. Regardless of history or distance, maintain weekly phone calls so you each feel more ingrained in each other’s lives. It’s also important to address times in the past where transparency was lacking. Start by discussing why these topics are uncomfortable for the parent to share with their kids. If the parent is concerned with being judged, they need to convey this to their child, rather than avoiding the news entirely, Bates-Duford said.
Following a withheld cancer diagnosis, the Dismukes—daughter Taylor and mother Vernona—both strengthened their communication skills and established boundaries. While Vernona understands that her adult children have a right to know about her health, she’s still entitled to process the experience privately. Taylor is there to be a sympathetic ear when her mom needs to vent.
“Even though I’m concerned,” Taylor said, “I’m still not the one that’s battling this.”
Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.