How to Have a Normal Parent-Adult Child Relationship

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How to Have a Normal Parent-Adult Child Relationship

From one Millennial to all the parents out there who need to hear this: Here’s how to navigate this new stage

By James Christopher

“Did you go to the dentist yet?” “When am I going to see your girlfriend again? I haven’t seen her in ages!” “How’s the job search going?” After only three minutes on the phone with my mom, I am eager to hang up. 

I love my mom, but I’m an independent millennial, and I learned how to manage my dental hygiene eons ago. And there’s a time and a place for these conversations, and it’s not a rapid-fire interrogation at 7 p.m. when I’m getting off the subway after a strenuous workday.   

I know my mom wants to stay connected with me (bless her heart), wants me to be safe, and wants to see me — and I also want to bond with her. But this is a shining example of the tough balancing act parents and their kids alike face when the children become adults. 

As a parent, even though your little ones have left the nest and are independent, they’ll always be your kids. And, as my mom grudgingly reminds me after many of our phone calls, you’ll always want what’s best for them. 

You know your kids are going to start making their own choices. You can’t coerce them into hanging with you — and you don’t want to be that demanding overbearing parent anyway. 

Is there a way to draw them back instead?

For starters, know that adulthood can also strengthen your relationship with your children, and a friendly bond can grow as they age. You can even become that “cool” parent your kids love to see frequently. 

In fact, an AARP study found that 75 percent of parents surveyed said they have a better parent-child relationship now than they did when their kids were 15 years old. The best part? Most agree that there’s a “friendship that emerges along with the adult.”

Changing the relationship landscape
Maintaining equilibrium can be challenging, and almost every relationship (mine included) can benefit from a tune-up. Here are some tips to help you become the interested and invested but not-so-probing parent from a “kid” who successfully navigated this complicated path with his parents. 

Listen, listen, listen…
Of all the parents and children I’ve spoken with over the years, I learned that listening more and talking less was the number one key to a close bond in later life. As parents, you’ve spent most of your life telling your children what to do (whether that’s to eat their vegetables or put on a more appropriate outfit). But come adulthood, the dynamic changes and your kids need to be heard more and spoken to less. They are adults, after all. 

“Listening is key,” says Wendy Perrotti, a leadership coach with two adult children. Like many parents, she wanted her kids to be “perfect” and consistently told them how to make positive changes, but soon realized that “you can’t actually tell them it — you have to stop talking and listen until they say something.” For the longest time, she “was just talking at her kids,” which led to a rocky relationship until she actually decided to hear their side of the story. 

“You can only see their life through your own filter,” she says. It’s been decades since you’ve encountered their problems, and the circumstances are wildly different, she explains. In order to be able to see their particular perspectives, struggles, and views in order to impart your wisdom effectively, you need to hear them first. 

Respect boundaries
If you’ve enjoyed a close relationship with your child since birth, it can be difficult to let go. It can be emotionally painful, as some parents I spoke with reported, when your kid who was once latched to your hip now turns down vacations or family holiday. 

But it’s important to realize that the entire goal of parenting is to transform your child into a fully functioning independent adult. And many “kids” who just flew the nest find that parents who don’t maintain healthy boundaries stifle the very thing they’re trying to achieve. 

“I felt like I couldn’t make decisions on my own,” says Katie, a marketing professional whose parents “continually interjected” into her life after she moved out of their suburban home and into her own NYC apartment. The constant interfering and unprompted sniffing into her life made Katie question her decisions, especially when it was done with what she felt was a judgmental tone (more on that subject later). 

Although Katie eventually gained the confidence to make her own decisions and spend needed time away from home, the struggle not only impacted her vital move toward independence, but made her dread her parents’ phone calls and visits. She eventually shared her feelings with her parents, and their relationship rebounded. The best thing you can do as a parent, she says, is to offer advice only when asked.

Angelique L’Amour, an author, coach, and speaker with two grown daughters, offers the perfect parental perspective: “Act in an advisory way, but also allow them to make mistakes and choose their way.”  

Avoid judgment
Another key to dodging the “helicopter parent” syndrome is to stop judging. After years of hands-on parenting, you might feel personally wounded when your child makes a poor decision. You feel their pain — maybe more than if it were your own. But if kids feel like their decision making is constantly on trial, they may shy away from sharing, and might even tune out all of your advice.   

My friend Ben, who works in the medical field, encountered this when his near-teetotaler parents criticized him for going to bars every weekend. Granted, he could’ve spent more nights in, but he wasn’t going full-blotto; he was having a few beers out to meet new friends. However, his parents’ censorious speeches not only created distance, but made him wary when they offered positive tips. 

Instead of being overly critical, try a more “cheerleader” and uplifting approach.

Let them know that they’re always welcome in your home
You don’t need a heated saltwater pool and home movie theater to lure your adult kids to visit more often (although it certainly doesn’t hurt!). The best tip is to make them feel like they’re always welcome — even if it’s spur of the moment or inconvenient for you.  

I always visit my parents because they constantly remind me that “this is your home too.” And they walk the talk. If I am having a tough workweek, they let me escape to Westchester from Queens, even if they are having dinner guests over — or aren’t even home. And they understand that my hectic schedule as a writer results in last-minute cancellations or impromptu trips to visit. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is.   

Know when to step in (the right way)
Although much of the advice I’ve gathered points toward remaining hands-off, there are times when you do need to step in, and just like any functional adult, tell your kid if they are being a jerk or engaging in destructive behavior. Your kids want you to do that for them.

The key is to let the little things go, so you can effectively speak up when big issues arise. “Resist the urge to fix [your kids],” advises Perrotti. Many millennials I surveyed have the same sentiment. “I felt like our bond got so much stronger when my parents stopped bugging me about tiny stuff, and then I actually paid attention when they imparted wise advice,” says Adrianna, who moved out of her family home to gain some independence. “It transformed from a ‘parent cries wolf’ situation to me realizing, ‘hey, this might be important.’”

And when the big things do come up, talk to your kids like you would talk to any other adult. Don’t tiptoe around the situation. “Don’t tolerate behavior that sucks,” says Perrotti. “Say, ‘I love you man, but this thing you’re doing is not okay.’” It’s different than asking “what’s wrong with you?” she says. 

Step outside your comfort zone
“You have to make an effort sometimes to be outside your ‘parent’ comfort zone if you want to connect,” says mom Katherine Weisman, who decided to listen to Future and 21 Savage simply  because her kids liked them. 

As your time together thins out and your kids’ interests begin to diverge from yours, it’s important to compromise. You don’t have to blast rap music in your car, either. Mom Suzanne Frank was able to bond with her son by cultivating a mutual adoration of skiing, and started listening to podcasts her daughter enjoyed in order to create talking points with her. 

Friendly reminder from us “kids”: This isn’t a suggestion to go overboard! “Do not be that dad who does beer pong or shotguns,” says Weisman. 

Make room (and leave room) for the significant others in your kids’ lives
Simply put, unless there are some serious problems with your kid’s sweetheart (like they’re on the lam from the police), try to accept them as they are. After all, if your kid is happy, that’s really all that matters. As Weisman says: “Expectations fuck up relationships.”

Additionally, you must accept that your kid’s significant other is a significant part of their lives, and that means that many of the decisions your son or daughter once turned to you for will now shift to their SO. That holds true for even the most dutiful of kids. 

It also means, as many millennials report, that parents have to accept that many weekends will now be devoted to just the couple alone. Don’t guilt-trip them about this. Every millennial I spoke with said they developed a stronger bond and were more inclined to visit when their parents understood the need for “alone time” with their SO. 

It’s important — dare I say, imperative? — to step back and understand that the love between a parent and child is still mutual, even if you’ve encountered some rough patches. The truth is, in most cases, both sides want to remain connected and close. Even though it might mean you have to bite your lip or avoid sending that text, strengthening your relationship with your adult kids is a journey, and it can be rewarding when navigated the right way. 

James Christopher is a New York–based writer working in politics and PR.

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