Can You Parent Your Adult Children?

Sharon Bush with daughter Lauren Bush Lauren
Sharon Bush with daughter Lauren Bush Lauren

When your children are very young, your role as a parent is all encompassing—you’re their provider, their teacher, their companion, and their emotional guide. Essentially, you’re their everything. But over time, the roles you play in their lives will change and the boundaries and dynamics that once came so naturally may become less clear. So how do you parent an adult child?

I have three beautiful children, Lauren, Ashley, and Pierce, and they’ve all grown up to become independent and successful adults. While they no longer come to me looking for rides to their friends’ houses or with questions about their schoolwork, they are still a crucial part of my life. That doesn’t mean that navigating our shifting relationships has always been easy. But from experience, I’ve learned a few ways to make the transition from primary caregiver to supportive bystander a bit smoother and as time passed, I came to accept and even love this new way of parenting.

For the majority of parents, the big question is “how much communication is the right amount of communication?” Here’s the truth: no one can decide that for you and not every parent will agree. Results from a 2016 CBS News poll found that 35% of mothers think their adult children should call at least once per week while only 12% would be satisfied with one call or less per month.

Regardless of whether you’re part of the 24% who want to talk at least once a day or a member of the party who wouldn’t mind getting a month’s worth of news in one gulp, it’s important to strike a balance and a routine that suits everyone. And with all the different methods of communication available, you can stay connected in other ways like through email, texting, and social media (only if it’s mutually agreed upon). You can even play a game online (like Scrabble) to signal your presence without coming off as intrusive.

The question about communication also extends to what issues are on and off limits. Part of parenting young kids and adolescents is asking the hard questions, talking about uncomfortable subjects, and engaging in heavy conversations whether your audience is receptive to it or not. And if you’re like many parents I know, most of your kids’ teenage years were spent pulling information out of zipped lips and for at least the first year of their time in college, you worried about what they were doing out there on their own.

While it used to be your job to monitor your kids’ behavior in order to prevent them from veering too far off the straight and narrow, as the parent of an adult child, your new job is to stand back and let them approach you when they want to talk about what’s on their mind. You’re still allowed to worry about them, but forcing them to tell you everything will only put a strain on your relationship.

That brings me to faith. In your new role as a parent of an adult child, you have to trust your kids to make the right decisions and accept that everyone (yes everyone!) makes mistakes. This is where faith comes in handy. To be a successful parent at any point in your child’s life, you need to maintain your faith in them and in your own parenting skills. Although good people can certainly fall into bad habits and make poor decisions, that’s not generally their default. Having watched your kids grow up, you know what kind of people they are at their core, and if you’ve never doubted their judgement before, then there’s no reason to doubt them now. Of course, if you have a real reason to be concerned about their health and safety, then you should intervene.

Finally, even after they’ve left home, make sure they know that they are always welcome to return. Moving away is just as scary for them as saying goodbye is for us, but having an open, standing invitation to return to the nest may help prevent awkwardness in the future. You don’t have to keep their bedroom untouched just in case they appear on the doorstep at any moment, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them every so often that their presence (and that of their own families) is always a blessing.

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