About Parent and Adult Child Relationships

Dear parents: Your adult children don’t owe you anything.

Dear adult children: Your parents don’t owe you anything.

How’s that for a starter? We’ll come back to it later.

The primary influence in our lives derives from the character of the parent/child relationship. As children, it’s how we are formed and conditioned from birth. As parents, it’s the most important responsibility one can have.

What gets the most attention is when the child is still a child. What is less talked about and less understood is when the child becomes an adult. That relationship actually lasts longer and is more complicated.

If we consider an adult child from 25 years of age, parent and adult child relationships can last from 30-40 years. Consider just some of the possible ups and downs of adult life for both parents and their adult children – marriage, divorce, grandchildren, step parents, step children, money, job and career, substance abuse, in-laws, physical distance, illness, aging and death.

How is it possible to have a strong, healthy, positive relationship with your adult child or with your parent through all these changes over such a long period of time? And is that even realistic?

The reality is that it’s hard to do, it can get complicated and there can be periods of being both close and distant. There can be good times of great satisfaction, fulfillment and joy. There can also be times of strain, suffering and estrangement.

There is no one right answer on what to do. However, in my experience, one thing can make a huge difference. And that one thing is a common factor in just about all relationships.

That thing is healthy communication. Yes, it’s a cliché. But it can be a game changer. In my work, I’ve seen parents and adult children transform their relationship by learning that one skill. And when I use the term communication, I mean open, honest, respectful and safe interactions and exchanges. I mean communication infused with deep listening, validation and empathy.

Here are some obstacles I’ve seen in my own experience as a therapist, as a parent myself (I have 3 adult children) and as an adult child:

  • Talking past each other and not deeply listening.
  • Trying to fix problems without being asked.
  • Not making the other person feel heard and understood (validation).
  • Showing little or no empathy.
  • Being more interested in airing grievances than finding common ground.
  • Not accepting each other as adults capable of making their own decisions.
  • Not accepting each other’s lifestyles.
  • Not accepting who each other are as people.

The “not accepting” part is a big one, as you might see. That may be the biggest obstacle of all. I think parents and adult children can have a big struggle accepting the other completely and unconditionally.

So, I will say the other possible game changer is acceptance. Try to imagine what it would be like if you felt accepted gladly, willfully and intentionally. I think many issues would dissolve and go away.

Here are some helpful suggestions for parents and adult children:

  • Tell each other the kind of relationship you’d like to have.
  • Practice acceptance and curiosity; eliminate judgement
  • Don’t give unsolicited advice.
  • Practice empathy.
  • Let them solve their own problems.
  • Just check in to see how they’re doing.
  • Let them choose their own path.
  • Accept their partners unconditionally.
  • Let them know you’re there for them no matter what.

Having differences is inevitable. It’s also healthy in that it’s an opportunity to grow. In your differences you may learn something about each other you didn’t know before. Having a difference is not what matters. What matters is that you talk about them is a healthy, safe way.

I can also say from both professional and personal experience, that getting to know each other as adults, as you both grow older, can be richly rewarding. It can be a vista of positive new discoveries and fulfilling new experiences. The deep connection you forge together will bring both laughter and tears, and it will all be worth it. Let me come back to what I said at first, that you don’t owe each other anything. I meant it. And what that allows is the creation and continuation of a deeply connected, satisfying and fulfilling relationship. One that lasts a lifetime.