Parenting Your Adult Children: The Do's and Don'ts by Kristine H. Johnson, LMFT

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Those were the days…

In the early years, we were the center of our children’s lives.  They not only relied on us for basic survival and nurturance, they also looked to us for guidance, advice, leadership, and modeling.  For many parents, this was a very rewarding time of intimacy, love, and satisfaction.  Our kids depended on us and sought out our wise counsel.  

And then…

Their world expands and the natural process of separation/individuation (which is absolutely necessary for their own development) begins to create some distance. Misunderstandings, miscommunications, and hurt feelings result in anger, resentment, and a sense of deep loss.   

As a parent, how do you shift your role, become sensitive and open to what they are telling you that they no longer like, want, or need of the relationship? I work with clients who are either an alienated parent or an Adult Child(AC) who has chosen to “cut off” their relationship with their parents for various reasons. 

Having a rupture in your family does not mean it cannot be repaired.  It takes flexibility and the deep commitment to treating your AC as an adult.  Your relationship is based on your shared history, but there comes a time when that is not enough.  Difficult as it may be, it means stepping back and redefining your role.  

THE DON’Ts

Don’t give your adult children advice unless they ask for it…

 It can be so easy to jump in and give advice, based on your own life experience.  You may think “you know better” and have a right to deliver that advice for “their own good.” Yet From the AC’s point of view, it can feel like criticism of what they ARE doing, whether its about career, finance, or relationships.  Unless your concern is about their health, safety, or fear that they may abusing others, you should refrain from jumping in and assuming they want to hear what you have to say.  Proceed with caution.

Don’t make comments…

I know you can’t help yourself.  But you are no longer allowed to comment on their weight, physical appearance, haircut, clothing choices—except when you have something positive to say.  You are also not allowed to do the above about their friends, prospective mates, or children. Though you may feel like they don’t care what you think, they do!  And negative feedback verbally or in your body language—raising eye brows, rolling your eyes, sighing—are heard loud and clear.  They don’t want to hear it!  They are looking for support and acceptance not a critical voice.  

Don’t be defensive…  

You feel that you have sacrificed so much for your child.  You worked two jobs, gave up on your own dreams, and prioritized your child’s needs above all else. You have!  That is your truth.  Yet, it might not reflect your child’s experience of their relationship with you.  Yes, you worked two jobs, but your child felt like the job was more important than they were; they missed a consistent connection to you. One child may feel you favored another child, leaving them behind. They appreciate all you’ve done, but it is more a reactive gratitude, especially when you bring it up as a litany of all the things you have done for them and how much it cost over their lifetime.  

Don’t criticize their parenting…

You made your choices of how you raised your children and its time to let them make their decisions about their children. You may want to stop them from making the same mistakes you did.  You can’t see that they (partner to partner)may want to do it differently. If you see a situation you feel is unsafe or negative for the child,  approach your AC in a private, loving and open way. Don't be offended if they don't take your advice; it is not a personal criticism of how you raised them.

THE DOs

Do listen and try to understand their point of view…

If you believe you’ve done nothing wrong, that you did your best, and then put a wall up when hearing your AC’s view of your shared childhood, they will stop telling you their honest truth.   Distance will grow between you and the relationship will sour.  There is nothing so healing as an honest acknowledgment of the pain you caused others without being defensive.  

Even if you’re convinced you’re the more accurate historian in the family and your memories are the “right” ones, know that your child has different experiences than you did.  Incidents that had little meaning to you loom large in their hearts and minds.   Be able to listen to their own interpretation of their lives without jumping in and presenting your point of view, especially when it is one of denial. 

Do write things down…

Often, a well-intentioned, thoughtful letter can work better than a conversation.  The emotions can de-escalate and give both sides the opportunity to review and read over many times.  A sincere apology, without defensiveness, can make a world of difference.  In addition, I recommend that you write down your thoughts in a journal that reflect the feelings that arise as you go through what is almost always a difficult transition.  

Do have humility…

It takes a lot of strength to admit when you’ve made mistakes.  It requires a willingness to examine and take responsibility for words and actions for which you have regret and feel shame.  But it is important to remember that when you can do this in a calm accepting way, the power of a sincere apology cannot be overestimated. You can’t just offer a blanket “I’m sorry,” though, and expect dramatic results. It’s not enough.  You also need to dig deeper into your AC’s dissatisfactions and address those underlying feelings

Do persevere…

There is a saying about raising children:   “Days are long, but the years are short.”   This reflects the fleeting passage of time when raising children.  I believe it also applies to rifts in families where there is dissonance.  Those days when you are at odds with your grown children feel especially long, but the years that go by in this state go by so quickly.  It is important to embrace the opportunity to change that dynamic so that you can enjoy each other before its too late.