Being a parent to an adult child is certainly different from raising a toddler, a school-age kid or even a teenager. What they needed from you five, 10 or 20 years ago isn’t what they need from you today.
If your bond with your adult child isn’t where you want it to be, don’t despair. We asked therapists who deal with family issues to share the most significant things parents can do to create a happier, healthier relationship with their grown kids. Here’s what we learned.
1. Stop giving unsolicited advice.
When your adult child comes to you with an issue about their career, their relationship or their own kids, it’s easy to assume they’re seeking your trusted input on the matter. But consider that they may just be looking for a compassionate ear.
The best way to find out what they need is to ask, “Are you looking for advice or are you wanting to vent?” said Dallas marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein.
Adult children “may not want consistent feedback on their choices,” Epstein told HuffPost. “If parents can embrace only offering advice when asked, and learn the skills to listen thoughtfully, their relationship will almost certainly strengthen.”
Winifred Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California, said it’s important to “stay in your lane” as the parent of an adult child.
“There was a time when we could pick our kids up under one arm and carry them out of the playground. It was our job to call all the shots,” Reilly, who is also the author of “It Takes One to Tango,” told HuffPost. “Once they’re adults, we need to be literally and figuratively more hands off.”
“Once they’re adults, we need to be literally and figuratively more hands off.”
That doesn’t mean you don’t play an important role in their life anymore. It just means your role has transitioned to “more of a trusted adviser,” Reilly said.
“Instead of, ‘Here’s what I think you should do,’ a better and more respectful move is, ‘Would you like to hear my thoughts on that?’” Reilly said.
“When invited, we can say what we’re thinking and ask what they’re thinking. When we’re not invited, it’s a good idea not to chime in,” said. “The overall message needs to be one of love and respect, even if we don’t fully agree with their decisions.”
2. Show your child that you believe they’re capable of handing difficult situations.
On a related note, West Los Angeles clinical psychologist David Narang said that one of the keys to building a strong relationship with your grown kids is to think of yourself as “a sounding board for a powerful adult,” instead of “the rescuer of a helpless child.”
In other words, you should operate under the assumption that your child is capable of tackling the difficult situation at hand, he said.
A common mistake among parents of adult kids is “getting too caught up in” the struggles their child is facing, Narang said. Perhaps you’re a parent who is hell-bent on getting your child to follow your advice. Or maybe you get so worked up about the situation that it makes your already stressed-out child even more overwhelmed, he said.
At this stage of life, your value as a parent is “in your capacity to withstand the suffering that your child is trying to tolerate,” Narang added.
His advice? Allow your child to “air out their distress,” and keep the conversation focused on them. Then, help them arrive at their own solutions.
“As a parent, your understanding of your child’s suffering carries unique power to help him or her feel supported,” Narang said. “Similarly, your awareness of your child’s inner strength has a unique impact to help your child see that strength in him- or herself, especially given your memory of all the times you have witnessed that strength.”
Taking this approach will help bring you and your child closer “because they will feel your support while still experiencing themself as a competent adult,” he said.
3. Stop playing the blame game and focus on repair instead.
Blaming yourself — or your child — for the cracks in your relationship isn’t going to make things better between the two of you. Instead of pointing fingers, “turn blame into responsibility to do better in the future,” licensed mental health counselor Tracy Vadakumchery, also known as “The Bad Indian Therapist,” told HuffPost.
“Your child knows that you did your best,” Vadakumchery said. “Them bringing up their issues with you does not mean they think you’re a bad parent.”
“If your urge is to blame somebody as part of your problem-solving, it’s important that you recognize this as a defense mechanism for feelings of guilt,” she said. “What if there’s no one to blame? Blaming is shaming and accomplishes nothing.”
It’s more productive to focus on repairing your bond: Apologize sincerely for any hurt you’ve caused, and make a promise to do things differently moving forward.
And if you’re not already working with a therapist, finding a mental health professional you can talk to “might not be a bad idea,” Vadakumchery said.
4. Do a relationship check-in.
You might assume no news is good news as the parent of a grown kid. If your adult child hasn’t raised any issues lately, you figure things must be fine between you. Or perhaps you sense the relationship isn’t on good footing, but you’re not sure where things went wrong. In any case, doing a relationship check-in — where you have “a big-picture conversation about the health of the relationship” — is a great step to take, Epstein said.
“Checking in can include questions like, ‘How does our relationship feel to you?’ ‘Do you enjoy our conversations?’ ‘What do you enjoy most or least?’ ‘Do you feel supported?’” she said.
Initiating a check-in demonstrates that you’re open to hearing feedback and having potentially difficult conversations, and that you’re willing to make changes to your behavior in order to improve your connection.
“In some families, parents dictate how their relationship with their adult children should look and enforce it through a sense of obligation. They explain expectations to their child without ever asking the child what they want from the relationship,” Epstein wrote in a recent blog post for Psychology Today. “An audit like this one instead signals a desire to get to know your adult child’s needs within the relationship and to commit to a bond that works for both of you.”
5. Avoid telling your adult child how they should think or feel.
If you have a more challenging relationship with your grown kid and they finally open up to you about something, “know that it took a lot for them to feel comfortable enough to do that,” Vadakumchery said.
“How you respond will either confirm or deny their belief: ‘That’s why I don’t tell you anything,’” she said.
That means steering clear of phrases that discount or minimize their experience, like “That didn’t happen,” “Don’t feel that way” or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” Vadakumchery said.
“While it’s true that memory can be unreliable, even if you’re right, telling your child that what they experienced didn’t happen will not only make them feel unheard or unseen, but you’re training them to not trust their intuition and not come to you about things,” she said. “Listen first before responding.”
And remember that most arguments between two people who care about each other are typically more about underlying feelings than they are about the topic at hand, Vadakumchery noted.
“Instead of focusing on the details, focus on their emotions,” she said. “If you don’t know what to say, sometimes the best response is to just be there. You don’t necessarily have to say anything. Just show that you’re listening.”
6. Honor — and encourage — boundaries in the relationship.
Adult children may set boundaries with their parents around certain charged topics of conversation, like their appearance, finances or career choice. Or the boundaries may be physical ones, like “Please call before stopping by the house,” Epstein said.
Rather than bristling at these requests, “parents can listen and honor those boundaries and even commend their child for standing up for what they need to make the relationship work,” she said.
It may help to remember that the intention of boundaries is to help people connect in better, healthier ways. So your child establishing some guidelines isn’t an effort to push you away ― it’s a way to create more honesty and trust in the relationship that will hopefully bring you closer together.