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All Grown Up: 3 Tips for Negotiating Relationships with Adult Children

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By Suzanne Clarey, LCPC

Navigating the dynamic between parents and adult children can be an overwhelming experience for all involved.  Parents may feel confused and rejected by their children’s seeming lack of desire for parental input, and adult children can feel alternately resentful and insecure.


The following three tips are for parents endeavoring to negotiate these new (and often frustrating) relationships:

1. Respect Autonomy.
A shift needs to be made in your heart that your adult children have become autonomous individuals.  Developmentally, and in the eyes of the law, they have become independent, and are responsible for moral and behavioral self-governance.

For parents, this new territory requires a new mind-set.  While your adult children may make choices that differ from the ones you would like them to make, those choices are not wrong simply because they differ.  Conversely, even when their choices are poor (within reason), they can be invaluable learning opportunities.  If you have a friend who expresses ideas that are different from yours, what do you do?  You probably listen respectfully and try to suspend judgement.  You may ask clarifying questions as you seek to understand his or her point of view.  When you disagree, or if your peer does not ask for your advice, you respect your equal’s right to his or her own opinions and do not take their differing views personally.  Begin to interact with your adult child in the same healthy and well-adjusted way you would with a peer.  Refrain from attempts to substitute your judgement for their own, guilt trip, coerce or manipulate your adult child’s viewpoint to your own.

As your primary job description as a parent shifts from instructing and protecting, to encouraging and supporting, your adult children will begin to trust their own abilities and resourcefulness, as well as to develop a gratitude for your loving vote of confidence.

2. Give Advice Only When Asked.

This is both an attitude and a discipline on your part.  Once you start to be vigilant in this area, you might be surprised at how much advice you gave previously without realizing it.  Suppressing the urge to give them suggestions or “answers” promotes the adult child’s development in important skill areas (e.g., critical-thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving), while fostering appropriate self-reliance. When unsolicited advice is constantly given, it can prevent the adult child from learning how to effectively evaluate choices, follow through, course-correct when needed, or to accept the outcomes of their choices (both good and poor).

Instead, be a good listener, encourager and supporter of your adult child.  Be aware that you may experience a real sense of loss as your child’s overt dependence on you decreases.  Trust that they have the aptitude to make good choices for their own lives, and remind yourself that their desire to make their own decisions is important to their healthy development, as well as an indication that you have done a good job!

Lastly, as you trust God to guide them and discipline yourself away from giving unsolicited advice, you will be able to experience the joy that comes when you create the space for them to ask you for your insight when needed.

3. Value Relationship Over Being Right.
Protecting the relationship between you and your adult children is more desirable than being technically “right” about an issue.  We have all encountered a person who may have been correct about about a topic, or had more insight than we did at the time, but who in their desire to be right made preserving relationship with them  difficult.  It can be daunting to see your adult child make choices without your direct guidance, especially if you consider those choices to be mistakes.

However, keep in mind the bigger goal, which is a lifetime of mutual respect and an honest, open exchange of thoughts, feelings and ideas.  Tips one and two culminate in this tip.  As you recognize that your adult children are autonomous individuals who see and experience the world differently that you do, accept that they will have differing opinions.

Secondly, as they continue to grow in maturity and confidence, appreciate their need to make their own choices without your second-guessing or constant input (no matter how positive you believe it is).

Effectively navigating this new type of relationship between equals is a challenging process, so be patient with yourself as you make mistakes.  The goal of having adult children who both choose and desire to have you in their lives is worth the effort!