When our children are young, we occupy the stage with them. As they become adults, we must move to a less active, more supportive, role and let them take center stage. As our roles change, we may be tempted to run out on stage to save our children from the results of poor choices, or to ignore them all together and abandon our positions in the wings.
We should consider the following points as we try to adjust to our roles as parents of adult children.
Resist being parental
The best way to parent adult children is not to. For the first 18 years of our children’s lives we have the opportunity to mold them and correct their bad behavior. Now that they are adults, it is time for them to make their own way. Respect their independence and their right to manage their own lives. As tempting as it is to tell them the right way to do it, only give advice when asked and give it sparingly and carefully. Encourage their good ideas and healthy choices. Clearly show them that no matter what happens, their parents will always love them.
Enable individual responsibility
When one of our adult daughters needed to return home for a while, I was shocked to learn my husband was not happy. He said, “We raised her to be independent. I feel like having her move home is a huge step backward.” While it is often necessary for adult children to live at home, it is important to work with them on an exit strategy and to not make living at home too comfortable. Communicate with them about their needs and how long they will be staying. Decide together how much they will contribute to the monthly household expenses and what tasks are their responsibility. Be clear about house rules. When considering whether or not to co-sign a loan or give adult children money, picture what will happen to your credit and finances if they default on the loan or cannot repay the money. Supporting our children does not always include bailing them out when they get into a bind. If we are always there to prop them up, they won’t learn to stand on their own two feet.
Explore new ways to connect
When our children become adults, they often move away from home. Rather than sit at home and wait for the phone to ring, try new ways to stay connected. My father-in-law has two sons and a daughter who live far away. He calls them every Sunday afternoon. My mother-in-law maintains an active Facebook account and interacts with her children and grandchildren several times a week. Phone calls, social media, and texting are all ways we can stay in touch with our adult children. Texting is especially good for a quick, "Good Morning!" or "I love you!" Always communicate love and encouragement. Plan to spend most of the conversation listening to them. Let them vent or exult, but always respect their feelings. Avoid nosy questions, and resist making judgmental comments. Another way to connect is to learn about their new experiences and interests. This communicates our interest in their lives, and our openness to learning about and experiencing new things.
Jane Isay, author of Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, observes that "parents are being trained during this decade to enjoy living on the periphery of their children's lives, and to begin to pay more attention to themselves." Our children want us to enjoy our lives and pursue our own interests. But don't misunderstand — they still want to stay in touch.
For her book Isay interviewed parents and adult children. While “listening to grown children talk about their parents,” she learned “how deeply they love us and how desperately they want us to grow and change as they do.” Those are comforting words to remember as we preserve our supportive position in the wings of our children’s lives while pursuing and enjoying fulfillment in our own.