Family Roles in Transition: Parents and their Adult Children



“One thing I have come to know: all adult relationships are voluntary—at all

times. If a relationship is not voluntary, then it ceases to be a relationship

and becomes a hostage crisis.”

                                                           ~ Larry Tolson, The Empathy Trap Book

In the many years I have worked with children and families, there has never been a shortage of parenting complaints: colicky nights, terrible two’s, temperamental teens, and my personal favorite, “Oh my college son? I think he is majoring in Beer Pong.” Even if we can relate, we will likely roll our eyes and smile. We say things like, ‘This is just a phase’ and ‘Don’t worry, they’ll grow out of it.’ But what do you say when someone tells you, “I wish I had a relationship with my adult child.” This is not a phase; adult relationships are voluntary, or they are a hostage crisis.

If you have a terrific relationship with your adult children, good for you! Seriously, it was well earned. Parenting is tough work, and as they grow and change, so, too, does your relationship. Sometimes just keeping up is an Olympic event, and you won the gold! I encourage everyone to ask their children what they think is the secret. I did. In fact, I asked many of their friends who also call me “Mom,” and a few parents, too. It was an eye-opener!

Listen more than you talk

“When I have a problem, I don’t want my parents to solve it. My parents are good at listening. They know I can work it out for myself.” We are so used to advising that this can be a tough one. Try to listen without judging, listen without expression at all, if possible. If you feel you must speak, ask them, “What do you think you should do?” Grown-up children need your emotional support. In recognizing their ability to problem-solve, you boost their independence and promote their personal responsibility.

Choose to react differently

“My Mom is cool, my friend talks to her, not his Mom. He says, ‘You know how my Mom gets, she yells, or gets sarcastic, and she always says, I told you so.’” You may not think you do. Perhaps it was so long ago you forgot, but they remember. Our voice resonates in their heads long after they are grown. Tell them you want to be available to them. Promise not to be upset, judge, or say, “I told you so,” because you want an adult relationship with them.

Practice respectful boundaries

“I love calling my Mom or going home to visit. She knows I’m busy, and she doesn’t make me feel bad when I don’t call or visit.” Guilt and intrusion are never going to win hearts. As hard as it is, we need to respect their personal boundaries and be happy when they call or visit. Make your time together about quality, not quantity, and they’ll want to come back. This distance you’re feeling is hard, I know, but it is necessary as they establish their own identity.

Create opportunities by sharing common interests

“We used to do fun things together. Now it feels like dinner and 20 questions.” Want to spend quality time with your grown kids? Get ballgame tickets, tickets to a play or another event you think they will enjoy. You can rebuild relationships with shared common interests. If they have a love interest in their lives, be sure to buy an extra ticket. Conversation will follow.

It’s okay to disagree

“I’d call them more often if I didn’t think everything was going to be a fight.” Our children are not us. Naturally, we are going to disagree about something. Pick your battles wisely and stay calm. If you know there is a sensitive subject that will likely lead to an impasse, agree that it’s okay to disagree and, if possible, let it go.

Every parent and child have a dance. Sometimes we get out of step, and we may need to change some of our old routines. Believe it or not, if we give them space to be their own person, they will come back into our lives. Hang in there, relationships like this are worth the effort.


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