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You And Your Twenty-Something Child: How Close Is Too Close?

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Dear Christine,
I am the parent of a twenty-something who is having a hard time letting go. My 25-year-old daughter and I have always been very close and now she lives in a different state and is living her own life. I know this is normal and I am happy for her, but I still talk to her everyday and if I don't, I feel very disconnected. And she needs me too; she still calls me whenever she is faced with a decision or a problem. My husband tells me we are too connected, but I am having trouble letting go. How close is too close?

-Concerned Mother, Flagstaff, 52

Dear Concerned Mother,

Your husband is right - you and your adult daughter need some distance. It's obvious how much you love each other and it's a wonderful blessing that you are so close; however, for her sake and yours it's best to take a step back and see the role your intertwined relationship is playing in both of your lives.

In order to fully mature and develop a sense of self, one needs to make decisions on his or her own. Having mom on speed dial at the ready to answer any question from what to wear to how to deal with a challenge at work prolongs the adultolescence period of one's life. Your daughter needs to learn how to become more self-reliant and she cannot do that if you are still helping her problem solve. Yes, she of course will want you in her life, but to what extent? This is a time in her life where not only is she navigating the waters of the real world, but she is also getting to know herself, and shaping the adult she wants to be.

I frequently see this over-dependence on parents among twenty-somethings. It's not surprising since most of Gen Y grew up being "friends" with their parents. Personally, I do not think it's healthy for mothers and daughters to be best friends. Some boundaries should be in place. If you know everything about your daughter's life and she knows everything about yours, then yes, you are too close. I encourage you to cultivate friendships with your peers and in turn encourage your daughter to establish her own support system - that includes you but does not revolve around you.

And she's not the only one whose growth and maturity may be stunted by this enmeshment. What about your life? Are you the one who needs her? Your daughter can no more be all of your life than you can be hers. Are you making your daughter your priority at your husband's expense? Are you overly focused on her life because you feel you don't have one of your own? Understandably, it's difficult for any mom to transition into having an empty nest. But rather than focusing on the emptiness of it, look for ways to fill your own life. Is there a change in your career you want to make? What dreams do you have? Find ways to make your own life fulfilling. Starting with something as simple as volunteering or joining some kind of socializing group is a good start. I also recommend taking up a new hobby that you and your husband can do together to rekindle the old flame.

Changing the dynamic of a relationship is not easy so begin by giving some thought to what role you play in perpetuating this pattern of over-connectedness. Are you always the one to call her first? Do you in your word choice or tone show your disappointment to your daughter when she doesn't call? Observe your own behavior and begin to look at ways that you can wean yourself off the need to call her. That said, when your daughter calls you in need, reassure her that you hear her and you are confident that she is totally capable of coming to her own conclusions. Just listen and ask her questions to support her in discovering her own answer rather than coming to her rescue. And as the frequency of the calls decrease, don't take it personally. View the new infrequency as healthy, and as a reflection of being a good mom who has raised a high functioning, independent woman. Focus on the quality of the connection, not the quantity.

For some expert advice, listen to the words of Dr. Susan E. Allen, licensed psychologist and life coach. She states, "one of the primary challenges of parenting through the twentysomething years is redefining the parent-child relationship. This includes taking a new look at how we communicate with each other. What works well in your particular relationship? There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to what is best. It can be helpful to ask your child what his/her thoughts are about how you communicate with each other. And make sure to listen to the response! Many mothers and daughters continue to be very close friends over the life span. A good barometer of whether it is "too close" is to ask, 'Is this getting in the way of other parts of my (or her) life?' (eg. marital relationship, job performance). Have fun looking at new possibilities for frequency and style of connecting with each other."

Instead of looking at this situation as if you've lost something, (e.g. - your little girl, your mother/daughter bond, etc.) think instead of what you are gaining. You have the opportunity now to get to know the adult your daughter has become, and to create a strong, lasting relationship with this woman you raised. She will always be a part of you, but sometimes really loving someone is learning how to let them go, grow, and having faith that her love for you will maintain the bond you have. Enrich your own life while respecting hers.

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