After successfully raising her children into adulthood, one mother now faces a new challenge — how to be a parent to adult children
Ask me how to take care of children. I got you. Ask me how to raise good people with manners. A mix of structure and praise does the trick. But ask me how to be the mother of two grown young men. I am clueless.
There are about a million books that tell you how to raise your child, but the shelves are almost empty when looking for the Guide to a Relationship with Your Adult Children. Because let’s face it, you have already instilled in them all the lessons you can. Before they aged out, they would listen (even if they pretended not too) when you talked about life and obstacles to avoid. Now, they claim to have the answers. Your one job was to protect them until they could protect themselves. It is biological. Once an animal can hunt or fly on its own, it doesn’t need its mother for survival. While it seems so straight forward with animals…
How do we change the dynamic from one of protection to one of Guiding?
I must admit that these ideas only became prevalent as I found myself messing up regularly with my young adult sons. Inevitably, they would snap back at a comment I made and respond with something like, “Mom, I don’t need you to tell me that. I am an adult.” Followed by me feeling bad that I hurt their feelings and insulted their maturity.
Ugh! How am I supposed to take twenty-four years of behavior and change it on the dime? The tricky part of this transition is that my blooming adults are trying to get their footing. Like a baby learning to walk, they run as fast and as far as they can away from mom, but the minute they falter, they come running back for help. Only to push away again. Fortunately, it gets better after college when they find their stride. Then the problem is less of a “them” problem and more a “me” problem.
So, after much reading, talking, and listening, I think I have narrowed down the three most important aspects of raising an adult.
These growing humans want to be seen, heard, and respected.
Let Them Be Seen
The fact is, our children are always going to be our babies, even when they are old and grey. But we need to see them as people. An excellent way to do this is to have a conversation about their likes and dislikes as if you were meeting for the first time. We accept new strangers into our fold regularly, so reintroduce yourself to this new version of your child. Find common ground. Figure out the activities you can partake in that are new. Try not to repeat the same stuff that you did when they were children because you will fall into the motherly role again. For example, my son took a liking to country music as he searched for genres that fit who he is now. So that apparent common ground was a concert and dinner as adults. We laughed and shared stories like two old friends.
Most importantly, when a new friend reaches out or shows concern for you, you say thank you. Try thanking your child for calling or for meeting you for dinner. Change the dynamic, change the outcome.
Let Them Be Heard
Our adults are searching for the person they will be for the rest of their lives, and doing that, they need to take what they learned as children, keep what fits, but also find new outlets.
They are formulating ideas and values that may differ from the ones you have.
Remember that you have instilled in them values that have been reinforced since birth. Do not think they are going to turn a blind eye and suddenly become someone you are afraid of? They remember. But political, social, and religious values change. The key here is to listen with an open heart and mind. DO NOT express a judgment. That is a surefire way to shut down the conversation. Instead, ask questions about their ideas and show them you appreciate their sharing. For me, this was a lesson in religious beliefs.
My children were brought up Catholic, as was my and my husband’s families going back generations, long before we even set foot in America. So, when one of my sons announced that he was now going to be a Protestant, my initial feeling was one of failure. But then I heard his reason: he felt that the church did not accept his drive to study science, specifically genetics, genetic engineering, and evolution; he also felt that the Catholic church did not support many of the social policies he felt strongly about like feminism. Additionally, he spoke about how his faith reignited from the love, sense of belonging, and the social outreach of his new church. He found a church where he said, “I feel like I belong, and they love me for me.” He found his fit and found the people who would help him further grow into the man he dreamed of being.
Well, I could have stamped my feet and said that he was turning his back on tradition. But hearing the joy in him and seeing how he has been further transformed into a more confident and kinder man, I realized that instinct to argue was not one of protection, but rather self-preservation. I was initially so hung up on my sense of failure that I didn’t want to hear him. But, when I did, I was filled with a great sense of ease and pride that he has found his place. Now we often talk about his deepening faith, and it brings me joy that he has found a supportive, loving group of people with a similar value system.
Finally, Respect Them
We are used to being in charge and guiding decisions. Now we need to loosen the reins and let them make decisions on their own. Trust that they know what they are doing. As long as they are not hurting themselves or others, it is OK that things don’t work out exactly as planned.
Let them succeed on their own. Let them fail knowing that you will be there to offer that new guidance.
If that seems like letting go too fast, start by being the safety net under a trapeze artist. It is always there but never intrusive; sometimes, it is never seen by the audience. But if tragedy strikes, the net is there to catch the performer. Eventually, the trapeze artist will rarely, if ever, need the net — that is, until they introduce some new performers of their own.
The reason this is so critical is that the absence of respect, or perceived respect, can leave a person feeling restrained and infantilized. Something so simple like a family getaway can turn into a battle of wills if you insist on telling them what and how to arrange their plans. I made that mistake and tried to micromanage my rising adult. The result was a battle of wills and hurt words. A better way to handle it would have been to say, “You know how busy you are at work, figure out how much time you can give us. Anytime you can be wonderful.” Again, change the words, change the results.
The bumpy road from protector to guide can be difficult. But there are ways to navigate the process so that no feelings get hurt and everyone feels seen, heard, and respected. You can and should have a healthy relationship with your adult children and their new families as they grow and create their own families. I, for one, am excited about the people my children are becoming and the fact that we are slowly finding our new normal. If I need a subtle reminder, I look at my relationship with my mom, knowing that we, too, managed the transition from protector to guide to a friend. But that may be another story.
You may also enjoy reading Community Co-Listening: Can We Listen Without Judgment? by Indira Abby Heijnen