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Fri, February 1, 2013
Fostering a Healthy Relationship with Adult Children
When I was ten, I had a neighbor that called her parents by their first names. Intrigued by this foreign concept, I remember asking my mother if I could refer to her as ‘Diane’. I don’t remember her exact answer, but it probably went something like this: “No. I am not your friend, I am your mother.”

Twenty years later, my mother and I have changed in many ways, but one thing remains the same: Our relationship is still one of the most meaningful relationships in my life. Over time, I have come to realize that the current state of my relationship with my mother is not simply due to the fact that she raised me, but a direct result of both of our efforts to nurture and maintain the bond.

According to Kira Birditt, researcher at the University of Michigan and lead author of a 2009 study on relationships between parents and their adult children, “The parent-child relationship is one of the longest lasting social ties human beings establish.” Although the transition from raising a child to an adult can be complex and challenging at times, there are many ways in which both the parent and adult child can foster a healthy and meaningful relationship:

Set Boundaries. Setting limits and boundaries is an important part of every relationship, and as your relationship with your child transitions into adulthood, previously set boundaries will likely require updating. Redefining boundaries may mean ditching the belief that you will do anything to help your children succeed, to learning to support your children in finding their own successes. It may also mean learning to respect that there are aspects of your adult child’s life that are private.

In addition, it is important to remember that even though your children have transitioned into adulthood, there are still topics that are off-limits. Save your venting about your marriage or your sex life for your friends or your therapist. Complaining to your adult child about your frustration with one of their siblings or another close family member can foster defensiveness and make for an uncomfortable family dynamic. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that nobody is a mind-reader, and both parents and adult children need to be open and honest with one another when a boundary is crossed so that the relationship can be repaired.

Accept Differences. Accepting that your adult child has different world views, beliefs, priorities, and opinions than you do may be one of the most challenging parts of maintaining a healthy relationship with your adult child. As he or she continues to age, it is likely that they will make decisions that you do not fully approve of.

As a parent of an adult child, it is no longer your role to approve. It is, however, your role to support them in making decisions that feel authentic to them. As your adult child forms their own families and traditions, they may not celebrate a holiday, make their meals, plan their vacations, or engage in religious activities the way that you do… and that is OK! Make your best attempt to embrace your differences and celebrate their uniqueness, rather than making comparisons.

Validate Feelings. Perhaps the most important aspect of the parent-adult child relationship is recognizing that being the parent of an adult is different than being the parent of a child or teen. For parents, it can be extremely challenging to sit by the sidelines and watch as your adult child encounters devastating setbacks, makes decisions that you don’t agree with, falls in love, gets their hearts broken, loses their job, or starts a new one.

Unless advice is clearly solicited, parents should offer validation to their adult children rather than problem-solving. For example, if your daughter called to share a story about a recent argument with her husband, it may be best to respond with “I can imagine how frustrating that must be for you” or “It sounds like the argument was very upsetting” rather than “You should just learn to ignore him when he gets like that.” By validating your adult child’s feelings rather than attempting to solve their problems, you are sending the message that you support them and believe that they are capable of handling the various struggles that life may throw their way. 

Choose Your Battles. In the words of Melody Beattie in The Language of Letting Go (1996), “Letting go helps us to live in a more peaceful state of mind and helps restore our balance. It allows others to be responsible for themselves and for us to take our hands off situations that do not belong to us.” Not only will picking your battles and learning to let go lead to a more peaceful existence, it will strengthen interpersonal relationships.

It is important to remember that choosing your battles does not mean stuffing your feelings away or pretending they don’t exist. It simply means learning to articulate them in a non-threatening and non-aggressive way. It also means prioritizing the relationship over being right. The next time you are on the brink of a battle and trying to make a decision about how to proceed, ask yourself these questions: “Does it matter if I’m right?” “Is there a right and wrong in this situation?” “Is this an issue that I’ll still feel strongly about in a year?”

Focus on the Present. Focusing too much on the past or dwelling on the future is a sure-fire way to damper a relationship with your adult child. Understand that as your children have grown up, they have changed. They are no longer the teen that constantly rolled their eyes, broke countless curfews, and picked questionable mates. Their childhood love for basketball and disdain for broccoli have likely faded.

It is important to show an interest in your adult children as they are in the present, and as pure as your intentions may be, interrogating your offspring about when they are going to settle down, get married, and give you grandchildren can quickly breed pressure and resentment. Patience and presence are some of the key ingredients in a healthy and happy relationship, and it is essential to let your adult child know that you love them for who they are today.

Seek Help When Needed. Let’s face it: there isn’t a rule-book on parenting, and there certainly isn’t a fool-proof manual for developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with your adult child. Every relationship is unique, and some are much more difficult to manage than others. There is no shame in asking for help when your relationship with your adult child feels toxic or overwhelming.

Just like therapists work with couples to help mend their relationships, they can help by facilitating communication between a parent and adult child and help both parties set realistic expectations and boundaries with the goal of fostering a happy, healthy, and balanced relationship. Therapy can be especially helpful in preparing for an adult child to move back into the family home and during other times of familial transition, such as marriage, death, divorce, or illness.

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