“I’m not sure what to do with my kid,” a mom told me, referring to her 20-something son. “We get
along great, and then I say something that makes him upset. He keeps telling me he’s an adult, and I know that. But I can’t seem to keep myself from going into parent mode.”
Children moving from adolescence into adulthood often struggle with the transition. But parents can have a tough time of it, too. And that struggle often comes out in our words, which can push our kids away — even when our kids want to maintain a good relationship with us.
Changing the way we communicate can increase trust and openness in our relationship with our adult children.vBut in order to change how we talk to them, first we need to understand the often-complicated motives and root issues that lead us to say the wrong things.
Root issue: We aren’t sure when and how to shift from being a parent to being a friend.
When our children are growing up, it’s our God-given job to be the “boss,” to teach our kids, to have the last word and to discipline when necessary. But as children become adults, our role transitions from being the boss to being a friend, from teaching to learning from them as well, and we understand that as we offer our wisdom, they may not accept it.
A young man recently told me, “My parents talk to me like I’m still a kid.” He said his parents frequently remind him to wear his coat and question his spending choices.
I suggested that maybe his parents didn’t mean anything by it. “Some people don’t realize that they haven’t made the shift from parent of a child to parent of an adult.”
“No,” he said, “I don’t think they realize they should make the shift. They try to control the way I live because they think they know best.” The transition from parent to friend is hard for two reasons:
The markers of early adulthood are not clear. They stretch over a much longer time than they used to. I moved out of my parents’ house and got married the week after I graduated college. But now a career, family and home are not necessarily the markers of early adulthood. One of my sons lived with us while he looked for a job after finishing his master’s degree. Another moved back in with us to save up for a down payment on a house. Our daughter lives with us while she applies to graduate schools. Understanding when we are friends (because we’re all adults) and when we’re parents (because they return to our house) is unclear.
We will always be more than our child’s friend. This reality complicates our relationship. Although we can’t boss them around, we will always think about what is best for them, worry about them and try to help them when they call. That means the complexities of being a parent and a friend last for the rest of our lives.
One of the best ways to navigate this challenge is to listen more and talk less. We can ask
more questions, instead of telling them what to do, and we can describe what we want rather than declaring rules.
We’ll also need to define and redefine the relationship many times. A friend of mine said his wife
frequently complained about how their 25-year-old son lived “like a pig” and that she shouldn’t have to clean his room anymore. I told my friend it was time to clearly define the relationship: “When I buy you a shirt, I’m your mother. When I say your room is not acceptable, I’m your landlord. It can be confusing, so I need to make that clear.”
Investment vs. control
Root issue: Parents think their investment in their kids gives them a say in their choices.
A corporate executive came to me so frustrated that he could barely get his words out. He’d paid for his son’s college and had cosigned a loan for graduate school. Now his 28-year-old son had decided to quit his job as an engineer and work for minimum wage at a sporting goods store because he loved the outdoors.
The dad admitted he should have said things differently when he talked to his son, but he
was angry. His son could have worked just two more years in the engineering job and paid off the
loans. This father knew his son was an adult now, but he nevertheless felt he had $60,000 of
legitimate interest in his son’s life decisions.
When parents give extravagant gifts or provide acts of service such as helping their child remodel a house, they need to be careful that they don’t tangle their children in strings. Love, give and help your adult children because you want to help, not because you want to influence the choices they make. If you do have a string attached, respectfully say it up front by describing the string.
Then don’t forget to ask questions — and answer your kids’ questions. That’s what you do with your other friends. Give your kids a chance to understand your intentions or to decline the gift or service.
If the father had established his expectations before he cosigned his son’s grad-school loan, he could have avoided resentment and frustration. Doing this will save you from saying hundreds of things you should not say.
Root issue: Parents expect their adult kids to share their values.
Adult kids may take a different stance on political issues, fall in love with people we don’t approve
of or even walk away from the Christian faith. Their turning away from once-shared values may be the hardest issue we face as parents. It may feel like they have rejected the deepest part of who we are. Sometimes this causes us to panic and say things that can damage our relationship.
A 40-year study out of the University of Southern California discovered several things that increase the likelihood that parents will pass on their faith, such as allowing children to express doubts about their faith, to ask questions or to try other denominations. Preaching at our kids was not on that list.
Of course, we don’t need to hide our values. We can ask questions about why our kids see things certain ways. We can share our stories and our hearts because they know that’s who we are. But we shouldn’t preach, since it can cause our kids to feel that our love is conditional.
We can’t argue our children into changing. But we can treat them with respect. When the issue has to do with something that will happen at our house, we can describe what we want, but we should remember to love them like a friend with whom we disagree. Questions and conversation open hearts in ways parental preaching will not.
With the right motives and by following a few simple communication guidelines, we can have meaningful conversations about school, work, money, marriage, politics and faith with our adult children. We can communicate as effectively with them as we do with other adults, even when the relationship is more complicated and the rules aren’t as clear.