How to Adapt to the Changing Needs of Your Adult Children

man on the phoneBeing 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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  • Elise


    March 4th, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    I have very much struggled sin ce my children left home and have lives of their own. I know that I should be more hands off but I think that I kind of miss feeling needed. I don’t feel that anymore, I think that everyone can honestly take care of themselves, but I have been the provider and caregiver for so long that I guess I have lost my own identity in the process while they are gaining theirs.

    I in no way wish to stifle their growth and freedom, after all, this is what we always wanted. But I also need to feel like someone needs me every now and then and it does hurt a little knowing that they are doing just fine on their own. I should be pleased, I should be proud because I guess this lets me know that I did something right all these years, but I guess that it still hurts a little too thinking that I am not quite as valuable to them as maybe I once was.

  • Diann Wingert

    Diann Wingert

    March 4th, 2014 at 3:30 PM


    Thank you for your post. This is a confusing time for many parents. Your kids are independent and you feel a little left out. It might feel like retirement, but without the pension and gold watch. You have done a good job if you kids are functioning well on their own, so congratulate yourself on that. If you are in the early stages of dealing with the empty nest, know that the longing will pass with time. If after some time has passed, you still find yourself wishing there was someone you could provide advice or comfort to, I would highly encourage you to investigate volunteering in your spare time. Channeling the desire to be of service to others with the skills and abilities you’ve acquired by being an effective parent means may be the key to feeling good about where you are now and take the pressure off of your relationship with your kids as well. Good Luck, Diann

  • NancyJo


    March 4th, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Hi Elise–
    I am right there with you, and my heart goes out to you. My oldest graduated college two years ago and moved across the country, and my youngest is a junior in college who works out-of-state every other semester.
    I am disabled, divorced, and in a deep depression that started when my oldest moved away, my youngest moved to campus, and my mother became very ill and died – all within a year. For those of us who have devoted our adult lives to being “Mom”, not feeling needed is very painful.
    Like me, I’m sure your friends and family tell you to just get out there and enjoy making a “new life” for yourself…easier said than done. I know my oldest son will be getting married in the next couple of years and he and his future wife want me to to move to be near them, but I feel I am “abandoning” my younger son if I do that, even though he is perfectly capable of being on his own. I knew neither of them would stay in our home city b/c of their chosen careers, but I have no sense of self anymore. My sister always warned me that I needed to make a life for myself, and I DID work on building my career…but chronic illness has taken that away, too. So, I am alone 97% of the time, and don’t have the financial resources to get out and join my friends in socializing, as most of them are retired, have spouses with good incomes, or are widows whose husbands made sure they were financially secure…I don’t fit in.
    So, for what it’s worth, from one mom to another, I understand and am sending you a BIG “cyber hug”.

  • erik s

    erik s

    March 5th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    Honestly I think that there are far too many adult children who rely way too much on their parents for stuff that they should have learned to do for themselves a long time ago.

  • Diann Wingert

    Diann Wingert

    March 5th, 2014 at 5:25 PM


    Your situation sounds very difficult. You have faced multiple losses within a short period of time, so advice for coping with the empty nest just won’t meet your needs. Is there a community mental health clinic or family service center near you that provides in home or online services ? Many grief and loss support groups welcome individuals that are not in bereavement, but are adjusting to a variety of losses such as chronic illness and divorce.

    Diann W.

  • Cassie


    March 6th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    @ erik s- I agree with you!! I have friends with whom I graduated from college with and while I am a successful business women they are still living at home with their moms and dads! What’s up with that? There are boomerang kids and then there are those who take full advantage of their parents and move back home with no intention or plan for ever getting out of their house! Where is that independent streak that I am sure most parents want to instill in their kids? For some reason especially with my generation of peers, that independence seems to be missing. It is not easy getting established but at the same time it is not even possible to see all that you can achieve when you are still living under the same roof with your mom and dad and not even giving living alone a try.

  • serra


    March 11th, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    Oh please! These are adults… we think?!? It’s tme for them to grow up and get out on their own and learn what the real world is all about.
    The more we continue to be there for the to fall back on the less chance that they will ever learn to make it on their own.

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