I think I peaked as a parent when my children were very young. I felt like I could do anything, no matter what came up. Twins born two months premature with physical and developmental issues while I had a two-year old at home might give you a sense of some of the hard stuff that came up. Still, I felt good about parenting. Yeah, it could be tricky but I had these great kids and we laughed a lot and loved together. And then they grew up. The last 8 years have been all about parenting adult children.

Parenting young children and parenting adult children are completely different. Many of us currently in our 50’s have children in their 20’s. They’re still children but they’re not. Some people may find this an easy, delightful phase with kids launched, becoming their best friends. Hmmmmmm… I love my kids more than anything in the world. They are my favorite people and they are indeed delightful and I have found this stage of parenting to be surprisingly challenging. Largely because my role seems so unclear. I’ve heard the same from many of my peers and know that I’m not alone.

When my daughters were younger, they would come talk to me and there was some clarity as to why. They were looking for help and, problem solver that I am, I was always quick to oblige. They seemed to appreciate that when they were upset, I could offer solutions. Until they didn’t. A few years ago, my oldest daughter let me know that when she confided in me, she generally wasn’t looking for suggestions. She just wanted me to be her mom, to listen, to validate, to hug. I was floored and probably a little defensive. It’s not so easy to turn off problem-solving mode and what about those times when you’re sure you know what’s best for them and if they’d only just heed your sage advice, all would be well with their worlds?

Try googling “parenting adult children” and you quickly learn that suggestions and feedback, particularly when unsolicited, are not the way to go. For some adult children, that kind of parenting strengthens dependencies and for others, it’s simply not what they want or need. My suggestions and feedback came from a place of love and were maybe what I needed more than they did.

My “aha” moment was not a single moment. First, as I mentioned, my daughter let me know that my suggestions and feedback were not welcome. Then came coach training, where I realized that the skills I was learning went well beyond coaching. Other-focused listening, presencing, reflections, inquiry, open-ended questions, acknowledgment, and “refrain from giving advice” are all tools coaches use to guide and support clients. These tools ultimately help clients find answers within and for themselves. These are skills that can make all of our adult interactions more respectful and meaningful. Parenting adult children, after all, begins with recognizing them as adults and interacting with them accordingly.

So what does all this mean? Let me clarify that I have not fully mastered what I consider to be the proper way to interact with my adult children. But I have vastly improved. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it now. Of course, I can’t help it sometimes and offer suggestions without being asked because I know what I know. But I do it far less than I used to. I focus on what my daughters say and listen non-judgmentally when they speak about something that’s going on (except when they talk about certain reality tv shows). When they come to me, I ask how I can best support them. And I try to remember to ask if they’d like suggestions, feedback, or just a shoulder or a hug. Less interrupting, more listening and a substantial amount of validating.

Here are some helpful pointers I’ve learned along the way:

  • No one outgrows the desire to hear praise and receive validation
  • Listen to your adult child to learn who they are; Don’t assume you know
  • Nothing good comes from a sentence that begins with “you should”
  • Each person gets to choose their own life path, including adult children
  • Unsolicited advice and feedback are never a good idea
  • Let them clean up their own messes
  • Treat them with the same respect you’d offer another adult
  • Don’t say “when I was your age” unless asked for a story from that era
  • Accept that your child is not a mini you in thought and action, even if they look like you
  • Be open to criticism
  • Consider dialectical behavior therapy if you are having trouble tolerating your child’s distress
  • Accept that even if your legal obligation ends when they turn 18, parenting continues forever

Parenting adult children in a productive way requires stepping back, taking deep breath after deep breath, checking yourself, and respecting their right to build the life that’s right for them. You’ve done what you can to equip them for the build. Now let them do their thing. You don’t have to agree with it or like it. It’s not about you.

Thinking and Trying

Something to think about: “There are times as a parent when you realize that your job is not to be the parent you always imagined you’d be, the parent you always wished you had. Your job is to be the parent your child needs, given the particulars of his or her own life and nature”. – Ayelet Waldman

Something to try: Have a conversation with someone this week where you ask open-ended questions (that can’t be answered with a yes/no), reflect back on what they’ve said at least once, and take a breath every time you feel you are about to interrupt them. Practicing your listening skills this way will lead to more meaningful conversations with everyone in your life, including any adult children you may have.

Coaching Can Help

If you want to up your game when it comes to interacting with your adult children or any adults in your life, consider working with a coach. Schedule a free discovery call with me and let’s see if we’re a good fit to work together.

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One Comment

  1. This is indeed a tough subject area. Initially, as I see it, we as parents define the terms and extent of the relationship. As the child gets older, however, the roles slowly reverse. We never know exactly when to, or even if, “pull back”. It isn’t easy and in my experience, it depends on the individual child. Simply put, some grow up faster than others. One child may be ready to take on the world at (for example) age 20; a second may not be ready at 24. Either way, it’s all good to me. So long as I can continue to be part of their lives, and they are willing to let me be a part of theirs, I’m happy.

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