At what point does our job as parents get easier? Some would argue that the most difficult stages are when our children are younger. They require maximum attention, love, affection. And don’t even get me started on the psychoanalytic developmental stages of life – talk about pressure! Jean Piaget talks about four fundamental stages of development from birth to age 12. In each stage, a parent figure is key to how one moves through these stages. However, what we don’t often talk about is when that child grows up. What happens to the relationship when that child becomes an adult with their own thoughts, feelings, experiences and sometimes trauma? Many of us know our relationship with our parents as adultsit might be difficult. But it can be an even bigger transition for those in the parenting role.
This stage can be difficult to navigate because our role as a parent has shifted from being a caregiver to being more of a support system. In all this shifting, there can be differences in how one views life. With such a difficult transition, it’s common to wonder, how can I stay connected to my adult child?
Raising young children
Before we begin to have a relationship with our children as adults, let’s touch on raising young children. It includes all the toddler tantrums, the late night hugs, the kissing of a small wound or a big feeling. Protecting this small being in a big world is something that needs to be recognized and validated. As a parent, you can put aside your own needs or wants to provide the best care for your child. This is no small task and, let’s be honest, it can be emotionally draining. When these little beings turn into teenagers and adults with perhaps a different view of the world, it can be difficult to adjust. This major change can make it difficult to relate to our adult children, so what can be done?
Changes in emerging adulthood
This transition in the parent-child dynamic occurs long before that child is officially an adult. As a teenager, there is a heavy focus on exploring identity, love and worldviews. As they enter their 20s, this identity either becomes stronger or changes based on experiences, values, and beliefs. The parental role can change from protective to something much more unfamiliar – simply by leaning into the roles of curiosity and support. This may seem easy enough. However, I have noticed when working with parents of grown children that it can be difficult. One of the biggest concerns is feeling like they are seeing their child making similar or the same mistakes they once made. Often, this leaves them as parents feeling powerless and scared. If this fear sounds familiar, you’re not alone!
The changes necessary in this dynamic continue as this young adult grows into his 30s and 40s. At this stage, their main focus may lean toward starting a family of their own, cultivating and developing friendships, and finding their identity in a professional environment. All of this can be difficult for a parent because there is a sense of loss. They often find themselves reflecting on the past as they also grow up. There can be a role reversal that seems conflicting and confusing. This role reversal can involve something as complex as a change in caregiving or something as simple as a change in emotional need.
Read more about aging in the parent-child relationship
What makes strong relationships with parents as adults?
We know that raising young children is something that requires a lot of patience, love and care. As your relationship matures into adulthood, the dynamic changes can be overwhelming. With that in mind, how does one stay connected to their grown children? Below is a list of tips that can be a useful foundation for your ultimate goal of connecting with those you love most.
Respect the boundaries
The word “limits” has been used over and over again. I have noticed in sessions, some clients roll their eyes as they know I am about to use this word. Because this? Perhaps it is because the misuse and overuse of the word has led us to forget what it really means. Psychotherapist Matt Cartwright describes boundaries as a vital part of maintaining healthy relationships. It is what sets boundaries to build integrity and authenticity in our relationships with others.
Read more about setting boundaries
When it comes to grown children, you may recognize that you have new boundaries in the relationship. Your adult children may be placed by you. The first and healthiest step to take is to recognize, acknowledge and respect that these boundaries exist. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Instead, acknowledge that they may differ from what was once expected within the relationship and that’s okay. These boundaries can bring an unexpectedly better dynamic with your adult children.
Once these boundaries are recognized, it is important to keep some basic communication tools in mind. This can help you discuss these boundaries in a productive way. Keep in mind that your child is the expert in his life. While their approach may seem foreign to you, it’s important to take a step back and really listen to what’s important to them. Remember, you don’t have to agree, but it’s important to respect boundaries. This also applies vice versa. You may have your own new boundaries. It’s important to set some basic understanding of how to disagree in this new dynamic and how to hold each other accountable.
Recognition of differences
Conflict is inevitable in any kind of relationship. Sometimes this can be a result of a personality difference that can feel scary. Instead, one way to see this difference would be to celebrate your adult child’s independent thoughts and ideas. A difference in opinion, thought, or even lifestyle can bring a unique perspective that enhances closeness in your relationship. Make room for discussions, keeping in mind the basis of how to disagree. This will help you understand these differences instead of avoiding the unknown.
Young children need consistency and structure. As a parent, you are the expert as they try to navigate learning about the world around them. When these kids grow up, we take a step back from CEO to consultant . Your experiences and ideas are valuable. Being able to offer “expert advice” without expecting them to fully implement that advice can be a foundation of trust and respect. This also goes along with being a sounding board for your adult child. Allowing that line of communication to be open without having to give certain advice could also be a powerful way to listen differently to your adult child.
Continuing to make time for each other
Whether online or in person, continuing to spend time with your adult child is also an important factor. Staying connected and getting to know each other on a deeper level creates an ongoing familiarity and closeness. I recognize that this seems like an obvious step. However, as both you and your grown child navigate different milestones or life events, it can be easy to overlook a quick 5-minute phone call. Even if it’s just saying “I love you,” these moments to connect are vital.
From the day you find out you’re going to be a parent, it’s so easy to dream about who or what that child will become. Letting go of your expectations and finding these little ways to be open and present with your adult child is one of the best ways to stay connected with them.
Struggling to navigate the transitions in a relationship? Working with a therapist can help you work through your emotions and stay connected!
What are some traditions you have in your family to stay connected with your grown children?
Offers individual and couples counseling. She specializes in relationships, depression, anxiety and family dynamics