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Making The Change from Parent to Peer

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by Jen DuBos, LPC

How to transition your relationship with your child as they become adults

The transition from the role of parent to peer in the life of your now-adult child, and visa versa, is a delicate process that is only getting more complicated for families as societal roles and expectations continue to evolve. Moving from parent-child to peers and friends begins at around 13 and isn’t really complete in our day and age until the mid-twenties. It is usually marked by a major life event: moving out, graduating from college, or getting married are standards. The longitude of this relational change means the progression can easily become stalled, resulting in a dysfunctional hybrid relationship.

Some of the most common causes of a failed transition are
1) Parents fear letting go of the role of authority and control in their child’s life
2) Adult children fear having to take full responsibility for themselves
3) The parent-child relationship has become complicated by codependent features from addictive behaviors in one or both parties
4) There is an insecure attachment.

However the process becomes stalled, it is vital to get the ball rolling again or the failure to transition from parent-child to mutually respected peer will literally plague all involved for the rest of your adult lives. Furthermore, the longer a stalled transition is allowed to go on, the more likely it is an intermediate – and unhealthy- relational system will develop and take hold. The most important factor to pay attention to is whether you are helping or hindering the process of transition and what can you do to change your role if needed.

Newly adult children tend to find it difficult to redefine the boundaries of the parent-child relationship because they are not accustomed to having this kind of power. Furthermore, adult children are still concerned with alienating themselves from their parents or hurting them, especially if transitional issues revolve around fear of responsibility or insecure attachments. If your usually agreeable 18 – 20 something adult child becomes belligerent, argumentative, defensive, distant, or seems to intentionally do the opposite of what you ask, they may be trying to communicate to you that they are ready for a more peer-featured relationship.

Should these behavior changes occur, foster mutual respect in your transitional relationship by asking to have a chat. When you do sit down together, try to listen to your adult child as if you were listening to a friend. Refrain from correcting their communication style or language use and don’t become defensive. Finally, when things are resolved, restrain the urge to punish your adult child with artificial consequences. At this stage in the game, relational discord and other natural consequences are the most effective.

Many parents struggle with holding on to the parent-child dynamic when it is time to let that fade away. Though it is exciting to see your child grown and ready to face the world, it’s still hard to see the end of an era. You’ve put a lot of work into helping your adult child launch, make good choices, take care of themselves, engage meaningfully in society, and have mature relationships. It can be hard to think they really don’t need you anymore in the way they have needed you since they were born. If you feel emotions of sadness or melancholy, it’s okay. Life transitions are both gain and loss. So allow yourself to grieve over the loss of the parent-child life stage. Then you can move more intentionally into the next phase of life with your adult child.

If your adult child is the one clinging on for dear life, which is becoming more common as the period of adolescence continues to malinger in our self-indulgent pop-culture, then it may be time for you to be the heavy and enforce some new boundaries in the relationship. As the job market continues to present more challenges for employment out of college, and markers of adulthood such as marriage and child-rearing are relegated further and further into the future, adult children are moving home again. The problem I am seeing with this is, while these big birds want to be nested and fed, they do not want to be taught anything and they certainly don’t want to have to pay to live in the nest or be told when they need to fly home at night. Adult children of this generation are members of the “entitlement era”, which is a nice way of saying they can at times be rather spoiled.

If you choose to allow your adult child to remain at home through college, or move home after college, don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of. Your adult child still looks to you to help them define who they are- this feature will not change through the lifespan. And as the age old saying goes, if you treat a child like a child, they will remain children. If you treat an adult like an adult, they will rise to the occasion. Adult children living in the home can go one of two ways. Either they return to the role of subordinate in the home, which allows them to live there for free but requires them to do chores, check in, and be home at certain times. Or, they can live in the home as renters and peers which involves paying rent (real rent, like $250 a month, not $25), cleaning up after themselves, buying their own groceries, and being respectful to their housemates (in this case, their parents). I of course recommend the second option because it fosters a relationship more consistent with the reality of your ages and stages in life.

Time cannot be borrowed, bought or stolen. We are at its mercy and when the time comes to advance to a new way of being, it behooves us to move gracefully and purposefully into that new reality, or lose touch with reality altogether. Children grow up and parents grow older, but there are always new joys to discover as we continue in relationship through the lifespan.