Let Them Grow Up and Become Adults: Relating Effectively to Your Adult Children

August 3, 2006 7:54 am Published by

One of the most common themes I have seen in relationships between older adults and their children (who are now adults themselves) is how the kids (although they are 25, 30, even 40 and beyond) still act like “kids”. And part of this is because their parents continue to come to their rescue when their children make poor choices.

Parents want their children to be “happy” and, as a result, mistakenly intervene in their children’s lives when they should “let them be” and learn from their mistakes. Here are three additional skills required for healthy parent-adult child relationships.

Set appropriate roles and boundaries

In most families, some clear agreement exists as to the appropriate boundaries for parents and their young children. But when those children reach young adulthood, new definitions of roles and boundaries must evolve. Parents are bound to encounter problems if they attempt to set limits on the behavior of an adult offspring–unless these actions are directly affecting the parents. Providing choices with associated consequences is also usually inappropriate. In healthy adult relationships, the role of parent shifts from that of an authority figure to that of an advisor. If the role does not change, frustration and rebellion can be the result. This often leads a child to distance himself from his parents, or, conversely, perpetuates an ongoing parent-child relationship that continues an unhealthy, childlike dependency.

Allow family members to make choices and experience the consequences

In families in which children have not been required to accept responsibility for their actions while growing up, and their lives have been cushioned by their parents’ wealth and power, the development of personal responsibility is delayed. As these children become older, parents will find it more and more difficult to break this pattern. We have seen many wealthy second- and third- generation adults who have been propped up by parents, and who appear successful. But they are not able to sustain purposeful careers or relationships on their own. This often leads to severe dysfunctional patterns, including a wide range of addictive behaviors. Occasionally, and usually with the help of a professional counselor, the younger adult family members are allowed to experience the consequences of their choices–without their parents rescuing them. After a challenging and seemingly dark period, the child’s strengths begin to emerge, and the young adult begins to develop his true potential. Ironically, this potentially will remain wholly undeveloped unless parents withdraw their support.

Separate love and acceptance from competence and responsibility

In many highly successful families, parents unwittingly communicate that their love and acceptance is tied to their child’s performance and achievement. While it is important to raise children with a sense of personal competence and responsibility, family members need to know that they are loved and accepted regardless of what they do. This is a difficult balance to achieve. In fact, many individuals, even as older adults, are still striving to gain their parents’ acceptance and approval. In and adult-to-adult parent-child relationship, there are often opportunities for family members to have meaningful conversations about their relationship and to affirm their love for one another, apart from what they have achieved in life. In fact, many adult offspring who have made poor choices in their lives are able to begin a new, healthier path when they truly experience their parents’ affection in spite of their past mistakes–the effects can be powerful and healing. In the strongest families, love and acceptance are extended to everyone, regardless of circumstances.

Parenting adult offspring is challenging in ways that are unique to the generations living today. People are living longer, more robust lives than those of previous generations, while geographical distance and mobility have diffused relatives and their relationships. In many families, it is the transfer of wealth that has become an important focus of their relationships. This inevitably affects the relational dynamics between parents and their adult children.

While parenting when children are young has its inimitable challenges, the transition to healthy relationships between parent and child when both are adults can be equally difficult. We can all take the lead in our families by reviewing and revising our own roles and boundaries, in tuning up our communication practices and working to extend trust and love. We can stretch to take the high road in life’s many decisions–making many uncomfortable compromises–and learn to focus on ways to love and accept one another regardless of life’s circumstances.


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August 3, 2006 7:54 am

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