Relating to adult children — 08 August 2004
How to be the best parents for your adult children

Parenting is an incredibly complex and challenging job. There is no “user manual” for raising children. Parents do the best they can with the wisdom and experience they have. With their own personality, intuition and advice from others they create their parenting style. There is even less information available about how to best maintain your connection with your children once they become adults.

Some principles about child rearing are commonly accepted. The goal is to help young children develop the confidence and skills to become healthy and happy adults.
Parents are urged to be loving, supportive, helpful and instructive in guiding their youngsters toward autonomy.

In order to accomplish this goal parents are advised to do the following: Be very involved in your children’s lives. Ask many questions. Know where your teenagers are. Check out their activities and friends. Warn them about risks and dangers. Tell them, and show by example, what you stand for and believe. Let them know right from wrong. Help them study and do well in school. Teach them to behave well so that they will be accepted in society and become successful.

Though all these recommendations are very important in helping children grow up, they are the antithesis of effective parenting once the children have matured into independent adults. Your adult children do not need or want you to be very involved in their lives, ask many questions, hear your unsolicited opinions about their friends and activities, be advised about life’s risks, be lectured about right and wrong or about their manners.

Many parents of young adult children are very perplexed as to what is appropriate, wise or helpful to do at this juncture. “What do I tell my daughter, who comes home from college, about curfew when she goes out in the evening?” “Do I tell my 22 year old son that his friends do not seem to be good for him?” “Do I advise my daughter that I do not approve of the way she handles her finances?” “What can I do to get my son to treat his wife better?” These are just a few of the concerns parents struggle with. These are people who already recognize that their role with their adult children requires modification from their previous one.

The attitude held by parents about their role and their adult children’s role as the years pass, determines many of the behaviors both generations undertake.

Some parents hold the belief that their children remain children forever and continue to treat them accordingly. Other parents feel entitled to the care of their adult children as a benefit of having raised them. Yet other parents see parenting as a time limited task that ends once the children leave home.
What is the appropriate role of parents toward their grown up children?

All children seek approval, love, and acceptance from their parents from infancy to death. Parental affirmations, respect and appreciation often promote in children a healthy sense of self-esteem and the capacity for self-actualization and happiness. With this formula, there is not much confusion as to the role of parents have with their adult children.

By the time the children left home, intense supervision stopped being an active task. The lessons of right and wrong have already been absorbed. The risks and dangers have been taught. Values and social skills have been ingrained and autonomy has been achieved. All that is left, is the need to continue providing the essence of parenting – appreciation, love and respect.

In healthy families adult children have matured into loving, kind, respectful and autonomous beings. They love their parents and become their adult friends and admirers. These young people are receptive to their parents’ guidance and help when they solicit it. Parents share themselves and their resources and wisdom when asked.

In effective families, parents and adult children mutually respect and love each other and honor the integrity of each individual. No one “owes” anyone anything. Love flows from the heart and is received as it is given – with reverence and deep appreciation. This only helps the cycle of caring, respect and reciprocity to circulate anew.

Parents of adult children need to remember:

  • Your children are independent young adults and need to be treated as such.
  • Having raised your children does not entitle you to their love, devotion, or physical care.
  • Your daily role of the past has ended. If you continue to practice it you will offend your children and discount their autonomy.
  • All decisions about your adult children’s behavior in your home can be dealt with as you would with any other welcomed guest. Use loving and respectful language to articulate your needs.
  • Your unfavorable opinions about your adult children’s behavior and choices are only relevant if they are solicited.
  • Flood your adult children with positive comments about their worthiness, choices and conduct.
  • If it is not positive- keep it to yourself. If it is needed for creating family harmony or honoring another person, speak kindly and lovingly to solicit your children’s cooperation.\
  • Deal with your own worries, judgements, fears and concerns about your adult children by discussing them with a mate, trusted friend or counselor.
  •  Address serious and dangerous situations, such as drugs, alcohol abuse and health risks with a plan and the support of others and with love.
  •  Ask – don’t tell your adult children how to solve their difficulties.
  • You need to be the solid, supportive, accepting and loving force in your adult children’s lives since this is the foundation of their well being.

August 8, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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