Being a successful parent depends on being able and willing to continuously adapt to an ever-changing set of needs, dictated by your child’s age, stage of development, personality, and temperament. What works when children are young, dependent, and see you as all-knowing and all-powerful falls apart when they hit puberty and figure out that you are all too human. By the time you have learned how to cope with all the turbulence of the teen years, they are off to college, the military, the world of work, or perhaps marriage.
But what happens next? How do you remain connected to your adult child when he or she is no longer living with you, has a job or career, is in professional school, or perhaps has a live-in partner or spouse or even children of his or her own? Where do you fit in the scheme of his or her life now? What are the rules that determine your roles and responsibilities now that they are no longer kids … but are still your kids?
Many people I provide therapy to are baby boomers, and a number of them are struggling with issues relating to their relationship with their adult children. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day typically cause a dramatic increase in the number of conversations in my office that revolve around these topics. Many parents are confused about communication with their adult children and what is normal, healthy, and appropriate. Parents want to know if they should call their adult children or wait for the children to call them. They wonder if they are being intrusive if they ask about their child’s romantic prospects, plans, or relationship(s). They are uncertain if it is appropriate to inquire about their son’s or daughter’s job search, interviews, or employment.
Some of the confusion may be related to the generation gap in the digital age and the fact many parents may not be comfortable using technology to stay in touch. Many a family argument has centered on communication—what, when, why, and how. Parents may be inclined to want visits and phone calls; children may be more inclined to treat their parents like they do their friends and try to encourage Mom and Dad to get on board with texting, Skype, or Facebook. If parents agree to these forms of communication, are they losing respect and status in their relationship with their adult children or are they just getting with the times?
Something to keep in mind in managing your relationship with your adult child(ren) is to decide what your overall goals for the relationship are. Do you value being honored and respected by your children, or do you more yearn to be close and open with each other? Do you want to encourage independence in your adult offspring, or do you prefer to be reminded that they still need you now and then?
If you value closeness and communication over respect for your status as the family matriarch or patriarch, you can help foster this by being open and honest about your own life, and willing to answer questions about your struggles, past and present. If you want your children to be self-sufficient rather than trying to solve their problems for them, you can express confidence that they will do the right thing. Keeping your mouth shut and your mind open is a good policy most of the time. Give them enough freedom to make mistakes, and don’t take responsibility for the messes they might make.
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