Many parents of adult children think their job is over once the kids leave for college, move out on their own, or head off to the military. They believe they are getting their life back after all those years and are relieved a new chapter is beginning.
I appreciate the empty nest; Neil and I have enjoyed it for the last six years. Our children came home during the summer and the holidays while they were in college. Now they are moving on in their careers and time with them has changed. With the change of their life status came the awareness of the responsibility that Neil and I had to adapt the way we parented our children. Yes, they are adults and we had to change the way we parented them because of the different stage of life they were entering.
Changing the way we parent does not come naturally to us. We have to be intentional and focused in order to facilitate a smooth transition in a time that is often filled with challenge, strain, and fear. This season of life is one of the most vulnerable in the life of your adult child; failure to appreciate its significance will lead to division, hurt, and frustration for everyone.
Each week I have encounters with young adults that I would adopt if I could. They are wonderful people who feel alone, even though their parents are in their lives. Some of them have made numerous attempts to make their parents happy, but they have fallen on deaf ears. They feel like they are rarely on the radar screen of their parents’ lives and they don’t know what to do to get back on it.
Most of the young adults who feel alone say their parents are clueless about how they feel. Worse yet, they feel like it comes down to two sides: The parents either want control over the adult child’s life or they want little to do with them. To be in the middle means the parents are going to have to really work at the relationship, which may take them outside their comfort zone.
Examine the following questions and see how you are doing in this area. Better yet, ask your adult children to give you their thoughts on how you are handling your relationship with them:
1. Do you still tell them what to do? At this point in your child’s life, it is disrespectful if you talk to them like you did when they were little. They are adults now and when you forget that, you send the relationship back to a place that will hurt the trust which needs to exist between you. If you need to talk to them about something, be sure you speak to them like you would a neighbor, coworker, or friend.
2. Do you ask questions? Or do you make assumptions because you think you know them? Too often parents of adult children look at their kids through a filter of who their children were when they were growing up and fail to give them the opportunity to act, feel, and think differently.
3. Do you say “I told you so”? Parents get scared when their adult children make mistakes and often will warn them of impending danger. When a parent seizes the moment to remind their adult child of his or her mistakes, it builds a wall. One of the best gifts we can give them is to refrain from reminding them of our wisdom. Let them come to you and be humble when they admit their faults.
4. Do your expectations get in the way of your child’s dreams? Too often, adult children will not share their dreams with their parents because they do not want to contend with their parents’ opinions and disappointments. Listen for hints your children may be dropping. They may be testing the waters to see if they can trust you with their ideas, hopes, and dreams.
5. Do you model healthy behavior for them? I have met some pretty dysfunctional parents. Many adult children have to work at recovering from the pain they had inflicted upon them. Instead of worrying about your adult child’s behavior, it may be wise to first do a little reflection to see if you are a good role model of healthy behavior. As you work through the questions, be sure you capture the heart behind them.
You are extremely important to your adult children, so don’t underestimate the power of your influence. They need you just as much as they did when they were little, but they need you differently now. If you are willing to grow alongside them, you increase the possibilities of enjoying a meaningful, loving, and respectful relationship for years to come.
Catherine Hickem, L.C.S.W.