You have done your best to raise your children to be well-grounded, capable and confident adults. And yet, in your view, they still act like children. How many times do you have to tell them to get better grades in college, practice safe sex, don’t drink too much, get a job, lose weight, gain weight, and the list goes on! You continue to give them great advice, but it is straining your relationship, and they just won’t listen. “How’s that working for you?” in the words of a famous talk show host with a Texas accent. For most of you, the answer is “it’s not.” And yet, you keep trying, hoping for a better result. But when it comes to parenting adult children, less is more.
When They Were Younger
When your kids are little, they are both adorable and overwhelming. I have great memories of teaching my son how to ride a bike and helping in my daughter’s preschool. At the same time, I also remember my daughter screaming bloody murder when her brother was experimenting on her with the latest chokeholds. Oh, and there was that time when she was two years old and threw such a huge tantrum at a department store a stranger approached to ask if I needed a time out! On those days, you can’t wait for them to get older so you can just have some peace!
When They Were Teenagers
Then they become teenagers, and adorable turns into frightening! They learn to drive, scaring the bejesus out of you as you narrowly miss hitting a traffic median and you fear the road rager behind you will pull a gun! They are able to make babies and go to parties, and you can’t sleep until they walk in the door. At that point, you wish they could just be responsible adults so you can just relax and get some rest!
When You Started Parenting Adult Children
Your wish (or at least you thought it was) for them to just be responsible adults comes true! You’re finally going to get a little “me time.” You drop your youngest child off at the dorms, but suddenly the tears flow in buckets and you can’t understand why they wish you would just leave them alone and go home! Won’t they miss you like you miss them? Don’t they love you anymore? Well, at least that’s what happened to me – a little empty nest syndrome with a dash of menopause. You drive home and the house is quiet except for your spouse, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse. Ah, but the worrying has stopped and you can get some good sleep now, right? Wrong!
When You Need to Stop Parenting Adult Children
You don’t want to intrude on their newly found independence, so you wait for them to call you. Silence. In the meantime, your heart is aching because you miss them so much! How can they not call? So you call them and ask how things are going. They either tell you nothing or if you have always had an open and honest relationship, they tell you everything. What to do? You’ve raised them well, so you know you should just listen. Easier said than done.
Why It's So Hard to Stop Parenting Adult Children
When your kids no longer live with you, those conversations can feel like watching them run into oncoming traffic. You want to yell stop! Wait! Don’t go there! Giving them that very good advice is the only thing that gives you some comfort (albeit false) that you have some semblance of control over what happens to them. But you don’t, and it’s very scary.
Why You Have to Stop Parenting Adult Children
Continuing to give that great advice can really impact your relationship, and not in a good way. Here are some rules to guide you in accepting your children as adults.
How to Stop Parenting Adult Children
1. Respect their privacy. In our natural role as protectors, we want to know any and all information that will help us do that job. But now that our children are grown, it is crucial that we transition from the role of protector to that of a counselor or adviser. In this role, we should only seek the information we need to effectively guide them at their request. We should never pry regarding matters about which we would never ask our friends, unless they volunteer the information. So don’t ask things like “are you having sex,” or “have you lost weight?” Trust me, those questions can only end badly. And that brings me to the next recommendation.
2. Ask before giving advice. Just as you should allow your adult child to take the lead on what information they share with you, you should always ask before giving your two cents. That means even when your child tells you that they are not using condoms regularly or have experimented with substances, ask them permission before you give advice.
As I mentioned earlier, this can be terribly hard. You are their parent, after all, and they need to hear all of the bad things that can result from these risky behaviors! That much is true – except you already have! If you’re a good parent, you have hammered that into them throughout their childhood. They have heard you, and now they are making their own decisions. Don’t cut off that communication by offering unsolicited advice. How many kids do you know will say, “thank you Mom, I didn’t know that but now I will definitely do X, based on your infinite wisdom?” Not many. But if you really want to give advice, simply preface it with “do you want my advice?” If they say “yes,” fantastic! But if they say “no,” respect that too.
3. Admit when you are (or were) wrong. As parents, it can be hard to admit we have done things that hurt our children, whether it was in their childhood or as adults. After all, we’ve sacrificed so much, and we’ve only had their best interests at heart. I’ve got news for you. No matter what your intention was or is, we have done and will do things that hurt our children, and maybe even to the point of needing to talk to a therapist about it.
Don’t shut down this conversation by making excuses for your past or present actions. Don’t make it all about you and how they are hurting you by telling you how you hurt them. Hear what they are saying! If you did X and it made them feel Y for the last ten years, then the words “I’m so sorry I hurt you by doing X, what do you need from me now?” are the best words you could ever say. These words lead to a dialogue about what your child is feeling. Making excuses, or simply saying you’re sorry without identifying the behavior for which you are sorry does not leave room to enhance emotional intimacy with your child. This is a great opportunity for relationship growth. Take it!
4. Never ever comment on their weight – Even if they ask! I learned (and am still learning) that lesson after my son and daughter went to college. I went to visit my son I his Sophomore year and noticed that he had lost weight. Was he eating enough? Was he using drugs? I just couldn’t help myself – I said it! “You look like you’ve lost weight.” It turns out that wasn’t exactly the best thing to say to a boy who was always insecure about being thin and constantly trying to gain weight. He came unglued! He would barely talk to me for the rest of the night! Lesson learned. Don’t say it no matter what!
But it’s okay if they ask, right? Wrong! My daughter came home from college and asked if she looked to have gained weight? I said “not much, maybe a little.” Her reaction was as if I had told her she could qualify for the TV show “My 600 lb. Life.” She cried and I felt horrible! So never, ever, ever, discuss your adult child’s weight! It can only end badly.
Less is More
All of this is to say that when children become adults, you should never stop loving them, but you may want to stop parenting them. Your adult children cannot become independent, confident, and thriving adults unless you actually step back and watch it happen. So trust how you raised them, be there for them if they need you, but remember less is more when it comes to parenting them.
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