Grow Up and Act Like An Adult
How to support your changing relationship with your adult kids
We all know that connections are important in the Third Act. Studies show that social isolation can be as deadly as a pack of cigarettes per day! So, it’s important to find ways to get together with friends, but family can fill the bill as well. And it’s not just your sister Sally or weird cousin Danny that you need to figure out how to relate to. Your kids are an important connection that will, with any luck, be there your entire Third Act. But now that they are adults, how do you keep from treating them like your kids (or at least your younger kids) and pushing them away? My son is 22 and I’m just starting to learn how to transition our relationship from one of mentor/mentee to one of respectful adults and equals. So, here are some tips and tricks I found that resonated with me. How are you making this transition with your adult kids?
Work on empathy instead of comparison
“When I was your age, I had a responsible job and a toddler to take care of!” That’s a sure fire way to get someone that you want to respect you to ignore you instead. You just negated their entire world. If someone ignored everything about what you were going through and just told you that you weren’t doing it right, would you listen? Retirement Wisdom podcast points this out really well. They talk about empathy instead of comparison. Ask your kids “how is this for you?” Rather than saying “when I was your age.” And then, really listen and put yourself in their shoes. You don’t know how the world looks to them, but you have to know it looks completely different than it did when we were kids. They are not a failure and you are not a failure either, if your kids are at a different place in their lives than you were at their age. Think of it this way: they probably have five or six or even seven decades left on this earth. They have plenty of runway to make this life thing happen and they’re going to do it right.
Here’s a tough one that comes from that seed: “You want your kids to uphold your values but chances are they probably won’t” said Celia Dodd in the Retirement Wisdom podcast. Their generation thinks of things differently than we do and that’s OK! If they didn’t, no progress would ever be made. Empty Nest Blessed is on the same page. They say your kids are not like you. They don’t trust systems and institutions, and they question everything. Don’t get defensive or take their questioning personally! Learn from them as this world changes, just like they are still learning from you about the things that aren’t changing fast enough for them. You raised them well. Trust them to make their values ones that work for the world as it is becoming. And, if you have a value of tidiness, or thoroughness, or constant learning and they don’t? That’s not failure, either. So long as their values are not injurious and fit with their world, they get to figure them out for themselves and that is not a failure on your part, or theirs.
Observe respectful boundaries
Just about every source I found was clear about being clear on boundaries. AARP puts it this way: “for emerging adults, keeping a privacy buffer is a crucial part of defining a separate identity, building confidence in making decisions, and learning to stand on their own. Parents who have cherished a close relationship when their children were younger may feel hurt if they sense their grown kids pulling away. Suddenly kids are balking at coming home during their vacations or are no longer available for lengthy phone chats.” The big message? Don’t take it personally! And, don’t forget to ask them to respect your boundaries, too. Your privacy is important, as well. Ask them to respect it. Your house has rules that you live by. If they live there, it is perfectly acceptable to ask them to respect those rules. Of course, it is also perfectly acceptable for them to have their own home with their own rules, too.
Find the right ways to be together
You used to be together all the time and conversations flowed naturally. Now, some parents expect that same level of deep understanding and communication in a phone call or sitting in the living room with a cup of tea. Mostly, that’s an artificial setting that is foreign to 20- and 30-somethings. It’s tough to open up in those artificial environments. The best advice I saw? Go out and do something with them. AARP observes that “many parents will go to great lengths to carve out time and activities that work for their grown children. Hard-to-get baseball tickets or dinner reservations, biking, skiing, whatever you all like to do as a family will feel familiar and the conversations will flow.” By the way, it’s also important to respect conversational styles. Sometimes they keep it short and sweet and a long discussion is 60 to 90 seconds, and sometimes they have more to say… usually just at the time when you have an important appointment you have to get to. The ebbs and flows are natural.
If your kid doesn’t live close, how do you find ways to be together? I love this idea: Empty Nest Blessed suggests you stay in touch with your adult kids through something they call “little touches.” They’re intermittent texts or emails with a little tidbit that you and your kid are both interested in. Sometimes those “touches” grow into great conversations. My son does this, and I didn’t even realize it’s what he was doing. He sends me random podcasts - sometimes things that don’t grab me at all. Sometimes I blow them off. I need to start listening to them and responding better.
Rethink your role
Empty Nest Blessed reminds us that our goal is to have a meaningful adult relationship with our grown kids. “Think about the other meaningful relationships in your life and take some time to think objectively about what it looks like to be a good friend. Good friends are trustworthy, loyal, and dependable. They’re encouraging, positive, kind, and thoughtful. They’re good listeners, non-judgemental, and express empathy. They’re supportive in good times and bad, and they don’t give advice unless asked. They respect your time and are fun to be around. Be that person with your kids.” They don’t need you to be the task master anymore. They need you to let them do the tasks, and sometimes fail. And they need to know you’ll support them, just like you support your spouse or friends when they try new things and sometimes fail. For me, the hardest part of this one is not to try to “fix” what’s going on with my son. I’ve been the fixer for too long. He needs to have the confidence that he can work through problems and he’ll be fine on the other side. If I keep jumping in to fix things, he’s never going to grow up.
Relearn your language and patterns of interaction
Psychology Today reminds us to speak to one another like adults. “Having spent decades in communication with each other, parents and adult children risk falling into age-inappropriate communication patterns… particularly during disagreements. Parents may lapse into speaking to adult children as though speaking to a child, making inappropriate demands or offering unsolicited advice. Unhealthy conflict styles can calcify during childhood and feel hard to revise. Silent treatments, passive aggression, screaming fights, ignoring issues, and guilt trips are just some of the destructive patterns that adversely impact the relationship.” Now is a great time to take stock of those unhealthy communication styles and patterns and put a stop to them! It’s work to search your soul to figure out what isn’t working and change the patterns, but if it means a more healthy relationship with your kids, it’s worth the work.
Trust the phases of the relationship
No relationship is static, so if it’s not exactly what you want it to be today, don’t worry too much about that. It will change over time. It will ebb and flow. Your roles will change. Maybe when they find their life partner they need you less, but maybe when they have kids of their own they need you more. And maybe when you first retire and go on your year of living dangerously you need them less, but once those grandkids arrive you need them more, too. Who knows what life changes will intervene to change your relationship? If there is a foundational relationship and trust in the love and support of one another, those ebbs and flows are OK - and even healthy. So, if you’re struggling with the relationship as it is today, relax! Trust that it will come back around in the future, especially if you are supportive even when it’s not exactly what you want.
I love this quote I found on my friend’s Facebook page from Whitney Fleming Writes:
“You will begin building a new relationship, one where you are no longer their sun. Your job is to be their moon, connected by a force so strong that it will never break.”
Raise them to be interdependent
There was one more thing I found on this subject and now I can’t find the source, but basically it was saying that all along we’ve said we want our kids to be independent. Historically, our goal has been to raise independent kids that can get along without us, but that’s the wrong goal today. Today, it’s more healthy to talk about raising “interdependent” kids. It’s OK for them to depend on you. It’s healthy. They need to know that there is someone there through thick and thin. It will help them to be confident, growing individuals. But it’s also healthy for you to depend on them. They need to be willing to listen and respond to your needs (like returning texts that start with the word URGENT and not shutting you out of their kids’ lives). And that interdependence doesn’t go away. It changes and gets stronger.
At the end of the day, every relationship is different and your relationships with your adult children will not be like any others. So long as there is respect, grace, and a dollop of fun, you’re on the right track.