Most parents work hard to raise their children into adulthood, and expect that things will go fairly well if they continue to do things the way they’ve always done them. However, in recent years, a growing number of therapists and researchers have identified a silent epidemic in regards to parents’ concerns about preserving strong bonds with their adult children.
During a recent counseling session, Rich, 53, reflected upon the emotional pain he had been experiencing after a rift occurred with his son Jason, 28, who he hadn’t seen in a several months. The tension in their relationship escalated after Kate, Rich’s wife, wrote their son Jason a letter expressing anger and disappointment about regrettable things that created strain between them.
Rich reflects: “The hardest thing for us is that we love Jason and our grandson, Oliver, but feel overlooked and a bit used. We helped Jason and his wife, Tessa, with the down payment for their home but don’t feel they’re grateful. It feels stressful when we are all together. Tessa grew up in a dysfunctional family, isn’t close with her parents, and discourages Jason from seeing us. It hurts us deeply that we haven’t seen our three-year-old grandson in almost a year. Our son stopped by for the holiday to drop off a gift but didn’t bring Oliver and said he was visiting his mom’s family.
Rich and Kate’s story is not uncommon. In my clinical practice, I’ve noticed a growing trend for parents and their adult children to have communication problems that often stem from unrealistic or differing expectations. As a result, countless parents are struggling to forge a close relationship with their adult children while respecting their independence.
In fact, many parents report they are “walking on eggshells” around their adult children. Like Rich and Kate, some have the misguided notion that they need to express everything they think or feel. This couple believes that they deserve respect and are disappointed when they don’t get enough attention or recognition. However, rather than seeking to understand Jason, they wrote a critical letter that came across as defensive to Jason and Tessa, which caused them to retaliate with more distance and criticism.
Parent and Adult Child Estrangement
In recent years, parents’ expectations that their children will follow the same course that they did are not always being met. Due to cultural trends that encourage individualism, an emphasis on personal growth, and increasing economic stress (making adult children look to their parents for support of every kind), there’s more tension in parent and adult child relationships.
Many parents find themselves shut out from the lives of their children and grandchildren, according to Joshua Coleman, PhD, an internationally recognized expert on parenting, couples, and families, and author of the new book Rules of Estrangement. For the most part, the reasons for estrangement between an adult child and parent are complicated and diverse. Some explanations include an adversarial son-in-law or daughter-in-law or parental divorce. Coleman explains that divorce greatly increases the risk of estrangement because it puts parents at risk for becoming more distant from their children due less contact. It also creates an opportunity for parental alienation where on parent covertly or overtly poisons a child against the other parent, and the child feels they must choose sides.
Since I often work with parents who ask themselves if they should continue to support their adult children who are distant, I interviewed Joshua Coleman. He posits, “The parenting environment has become much more intense in the past half century. For instance, prior to the 1960’s, parents were more likely to be more disengaged or detached. However, since that time, parents tend toward being too worried, too concerned. Many adult children reject their parents or become more irritable with them as a way to create a boundary with them or to develop immunity to their feelings.”
Further, Coleman suggests ways parents can protect their relationship with their child from estrangement,” he says, “First of all, stay committed and interested in improving your relationship with your child. Take responsibility for your actions when you speak to them. Definitely don’t get defensive when they complain. Try to show empathy by saying things like: “I recognize how my behavior may have been hard for you;” or “I understand how you could feel the way you do and I’m sorry our divorce (or any action) put your life on a harder course. The hardest thing for today’s parents is to accept that their adult child’s relationship with them is primarily going to be determined by whether or not that adult wants the relationship.”
Ways to Improve Your Relationship with Your Adult Child
In a recent article for Psychology Today, Marriage and Family Therapist, Sarah Epstein, explores the relationship dynamics between parents and their adult children. Maintaining and improving these relationships are relevant to any family, but are of particular importance to families impacted by divorce (as mentioned previously), and blended families coping with the integration of family members.
Further, Epstein argues that many parents fail to grow their relationships with their children when they reach adulthood. Indeed, that growth requires intention, and many parents with adult children need to avoid the trap of thinking that their relationship is static or that the dynamics of their relationship are baked in.
6 Ways to Improve Your Relationship with Your Adult Child
- Respect their boundaries. Do your best not to invade your adult child’s privacy or ask too many personal questions. Since boundaries change over time, check with them about how much distance and closeness they’re comfortable with.
- Speak to your adult child like they’re an adult. Avoid talking down to them or offering unsolicited advice.
- Show you’re willing to accept their values and beliefs. For instance, if you’re babysitting your grandchildren and your son doesn’t want them to have sweets, honor his wishes.
- Avoid getting defensive if they make negative comments about your parenting or their childhood. Instead, show empathy and ask them questions such as “I’m sorry you feel that I was a harsh parent, do you want to share the reasons why you feel that way?” Learn positive ways to communicate and deal with conflict such as asking for what you need rather than saying what you “don’t” want.
- Take responsibility for the relationship. Since this relationship is a two-way street, both parties should assume ownership of maintaining good communication. For instance, initiating contact, compromising and negotiating, and finding positive ways to connect such as text and Facetime.
- Apologize for your behavior when you’ve done something to hurt or offend your adult child (even if it wasn’t intentional). If they refuse to see you, write a letter of amends which recognizes your role in violating their boundaries and your willingness to do better in the future. In Rules of Estrangement, Joshua Coleman, PhD, offers specific guidelines for this letter.
In addition to the aforementioned strategies, Epstein conveys that parents and their adult children are well served to accept feedback so that improvements can be made in a relationship. Whether the issues in play are big or small, Epstein argues that “relationships strengthen when both parties can accept feedback about how a relationship feels.”
Whether a parent wants to be more active in the life of their adult child, or an adult child wants to establish age-appropriate boundaries around subjects that might be private, both parties need to engage in an open, honest and constructive dialog to ensure happiness and sustained success in their communication. While there are no guarantees, this approach will promote a healthy relationship.
This post is republished on Medium.
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