How to Heal a Rift with an Adult Child
Frequently I help my clients work through problems with their grown children. Sometimes, an offspring is angry about something, and the parent is at a loss for what is wrong or what to do about it. These struggles often have their seeds in things that happened long ago, when the child was young. Even parents who love their children and try to do the right thing can make mistakes, and some parents let their issues—struggles with spouses, stresses of single parenting, fears about money or social disapproval—skew their child-related decisions. Although it sometimes takes some time, almost all these rifts can be healed, especially if the parent doesn’t get defensive or upset. This, of course, is not easy, but it is well worth the struggle. First, you have to understand what the cause of the rift is. Rifts between parents and adult children can be caused by several things: 1. A divorce which the child blames you for, or has sided with the other parent. If your family was split up while the child was living at home, your child may have had a difficult time, and blamed you for it; whether or not it was actually your doing. Children's loyalties are split in a split household, and they may feel, or be told, they have to choose sides; so they carry the resentment, hurt and anger into adulthood, and often distance themselves from one or both parents as a result. 2. Dysfunctional family dynamics: If there was a lot of drama in the family when the child grew up, including induced guilt, fighting, violence, verbal abuse, or other dysfunction, the child may feel it's necessary to create distance as an adult, to protect him or herself from the drama. 3. Fights about something that happened after the children grew up, such as hurt feelings, money or sibling issues (you like/treat my sibling better), struggles with the spouse of your adult child, smothering behavior on your part, neglect or avoidance by you or your child. If you have not behaved in a mature manner around your adult child's friends, family or in-laws, have behaved in a manner your adult child(ren) perceive as unfair, or been perceived as unsupportive in some way,
your adult child may be punishing you by keeping an angry silence. If you have been perceived as too clingy or smothering, the adult child may withdraw to get some breathing room. No matter what the issue is, it's important that you allow your child to grow up and become independent of you. Don't look to your child to fill your life after they grow up, as they did when they were little. Don't view your child's partner or spouse as an enemy; or your child may choose them instead of you. Back off, give your adult child some space, and make sure you have a life of your own. With space, your child will have a chance to see you as a person, not just their disappointing parent. It’s also important to listen and acknowledge your offspring’s experience, feelings and point of view, even if it’s not very flattering or kind toward you. If you let your child know you’re willing to try to understand, he or she will be more willing to hear your side. Once you two can have a good discussion (and sometimes it helps to do this in writing instead of face to face—email can give each of you a chance to say your full piece, and absorb what each other is saying). Use the guidelines below to help move from the parent/child dynamic to a more friendly one. It's not easy to let go of adult children. As you see it, they're still your babies. However, you'll do much better interacting with them if you help them grow into friends. Stop seeing them as people you should take care of, and see them more like your other adult relatives: siblings, cousins, etc. Of course, you'll always have the honorific of Parent, but it's really not your job any more, and if you try to hang on to it, you'll either wind up feeling used, or your adult children will avoid you. Here are some guidelines to help. Guidelines for Helping Your Adult Children Grow Into Friends 1. Call your grown children by their given names, rather than childish nicknames. If you have teenagers, they may already have asked you to do this. “Suzie Q” type nicknames are fine for small children, but as children begin to grow up, they feel more respected when called by their given names. By doing so, you also remind yourself to treat your children as young adults.
2.Discuss adult topics. As your children grow, don’t limit your conversation strictly to family topics or questions about their personal life. Involve them in discussions of current events and the like, just as you would with a friend. Take a minute to think of “adult” topics you’d like to talk about with them. Politics, events, sports, work issues (just facts and events—avoid complaining) political or local neighborhood issues are all suitable topics. Nagging and constant reminders are ineffective with young children and inappropriate with grown children. Of course, you should set limits and make sure that irresponsibility and bad behavior have consequences, but you needn’t patronize your children. If they want something from you, don’t respond unless they ask you in a polite, adult manner. Include them in your planning discussions and expect that they will take appropriate responsibility for family issues. 3. Share with your children on a parent-to-parent basis. If your children have children of their own you have expertise they can benefit from, but be willing to learn from them as well. If they’re reading books or taking courses on parenting, discuss the information as you would with another parent your own age. If they parent their children differently than you did, don’t take it as a personal affront, and don’t interfere unless you’re asked to. 4. Don’t react if your grown child does or says something annoying. Just ignore it and change the subject. Treat your adult children as politely as you would the grown children of a friend. If they are doing something to annoy you, and you don’t react, they will stop. After all, if you were with a friend’s family, and someone did something odd, you’d just ignore it, and you wouldn’t let yourself be drawn into family squabbles. You’d just be polite and pleasant, for your friend’s sake. 5. Ask your children for opinions and advice. Even in early childhood, children can be encouraged to develop their own opinions about events and decisions you face as a family; as they get older, you can ask for their ideas about what to do. When your children become adults, you can request advice about work issues, investments or other concerns. Sharing advice as friends and equals will create the friendly connection you want.
6. Pay attention to the balance of your interaction. As a parent, the role of nurturer and caretaker is familiar, and perhaps comfortable, for both you and your children. But you don’t want to foster that relationship when your children are grown. Don’t let your part in the relationship slide into all giving (or all receiving). Remember, the objective is to create a friendship with your children. If your children always seem ready to take from you, make some suggestions of what they can do in return. I wish you warm and loving family relationships, with your children, their children, and all your extended family.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., "Dr. Romance," http://www.tinatessina.com, is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with 35+ years experience in counseling individuals and couples and CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for Love Filter - the Relationships Website. She's the author of 13 books in 17 languages, including Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage; Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences; and The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again. She publishes the Happiness Tips from Tina email newsletter, and the Dr. Romance Blog. She has written for and been interviewed in many national publications, and she has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live and many other TV and radio shows.