“The kids are all grown up and we’re empty nesters!” It sounds like a taste of freedom, but once adult children are grown, the relationship works like a retractable dog leash—pull and tug, more or less slack, pushing for space while longing for closeness. It’s like an in and out dance. Indeed, two of our three adult children returned at different times to temporarily live with us.
Parent and Adult Children Resentment and Pain
Often times parents struggle with their adult children exercising their freedom and rights. We watch helplessly. I know I have felt concern, sometimes fear, witnessing my children’s decisions; choice of lover, spending, dropping out of school, breaking the law, disciplining grandchildren, and even eating habits. From the adult children’s perspective, our concern and fear can be perceived as judgement, lack of trust, and rejection.
Deeply enmeshed and rooted-in-the-past emotions can arise. If adult children were raised with good enough parenting (appropriate guidance, safety, and love), their feelings towards their parents are probably of contentment and peace.
However, there are large numbers of wounded North American adult children. Generational trauma exists. Consider the estimated millions of children who grew up with alcoholism. Add to that all other addictions and mental illnesses. Those children often become adults with legitimate grievances expressed through resentment, bitterness, and estrangement.
Oftentimes, regardless of good enough parenting, adult children can turn against their parents because of such influences as spousal possessiveness, mental illness, differing values or religion, or simply personality differences. From a young age to this day, our youngest daughter, Katie, and I can easily step into conflict. It was insightful to realize that on the Myers-Briggs personality indicator she is polar opposite to me. While she thrives on introversion, details logic, and firm decisions, I thrive on extroversion, creative intuitiveness, emotions, and flexibility. Do you get the picture?
Too often parents and adult children become alienated, sometimes temporarily and other times for a lifetime. Just watch an episode or two of Dr. Phil. The parent and adult children dynamics has inspired the writing of several books. Here is a sampling:
- When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment by Kenneth M. Adams
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson
- Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz
- How To Really Love Your Adult Child: Building A Healthy Relationship In A Changing World by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell.
- Adult Children Secrets of Dysfunctional Families: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John Friel and Linda D. Friel.
- Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward and Craig Buck
- Setting Boundaries® with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents by Allison Bottke and Carol Kent
- Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children by Sheri McGregor
- Doing Life with Your Adult Children: Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out by Jim Burns
Merely reviewing these titles gives the impression that the parents are the ones responsible to step up and do the healing. In most cases I agree. We had the power and control over our children. Plus, it doesn’t matter if we consciously or unconsciously passed on our own wounds. If we wounded, we are accountable. We can wake up and be the heroes to make amends and save the next generation from the same patterns.
There are some sad situations where adult children have gone sideways and have not allowed themselves to look back at their parents. They are unable to see that their parents have, oftentimes, healed and changed. What a sad situation.
If possible, use some of the ideas below to improve or mend your parent and adult-child relationship.
Improve or Mend the Parent and Adult Children Relationship
Hints for Parents of Adult Children
- If you are saying or doing anything to create pain or discomfort for your adult children, stop! If this is difficult, see a therapist. You are never too old. I have seen people in their 70’s who decided to control what they could—their own behaviour. Ditto, if you are filled with resentment or anger or lost in addictions. Realize through these clouded perspectives you probably did harm to your children.
- Accept that you are perfectly imperfect. If you emotionally, verbally or physically abused your children, own your behaviour and apologize. Becoming defensive or wallowing in guilt will only add tension and pain.
- If you neglected or cut off your children, take responsibility for your piece and reach out with regret and love.
- Shift your perspective about power. When you held the parental position of power and control, you may have made decisions that were not in alignment with the core of who your children were and are. It’s time to accept that your adult children are in charge of their life decisions, whether you like them or not.
- Listen to your adult children to learn who they are. Validate how they feel. Feelings are never wrong. Do not assume you are the one to give advice but give your adult children opportunities to give you advice, or at least their opinion.
- Accept your adult children, their spouses, their lifestyles, as is. That is unless they are involved in illegal, harmful or addictive behaviours. If that is the case, access professional guidance to facilitate a well-thought out intervention.
- Listen and listen some more. You may believe you did a bang up job of parenting but your children may have a different, maybe resentful, perspective. Their childhood truth may shock you. Demonstrate wisdom by calming listening and seeking to understand.
- Treat your adult children more like friends or guests. Demonstrate politeness, interest and welcoming behaviours.
- Use the Maya Angelou saying, “When we know better, we do better.” Let your and your children’s failures rest in the past. Apologize if it helps the relationship to heal and move forward. Don’t insist on an apology in return.
- If you are dealing with an estranged adult child, do your best to get on with your life. It takes two to make a relationship conflicted, connected or loving. You are best to focus on your own healing or your own personal development. Then, if one day an opportunity opens, you will be the change you want to show.
- Let your adult children know you are available and happy to support them. Never say, “I told you so” as it can ruin their sense of confidence.
- Celebrate your adult children’s accomplishments while avoiding trying to live out your unfilled dreams through them. Let them set their own goals and reach for their dreams. Reach for your own dreams.
- Realize relationships constantly evolve and shift. Be your best to give the best to your relationship with your adult children.
Hints for Adult Children
- Seek healing if your parents were abusive, neglectful, self-absorbed, dismissive, or immature, and you have feelings of resentment, betrayal, or abandonment. Consider finding a faith community or a trustworthy professional. You need to deal with your emotional baggage or you risk passing it onto the next generation.
- Subtly interview your parents about their childhood. You might discover they only passed on a fraction of the pain and dysfunction they experienced in their family of origin. Consider this as a demonstration of their love of you.
- Accept that your parents, based on their history, resources, and values did the best they could. See if you can develop some compassion for their lack of insight and emotional intelligence.
- If your parents’ home and gatherings have toxic elements minimize your time there or do not attend. Get on with your life.
- Use Maya Angelou’s saying, “When we know better, we do better.” Allow yourself to see your parents and yourself as imperfect. Notice if doing so opens you to forgiveness.
- Don’t expect change. Start to give yourself what you longed for from them when you were a child.
- Appreciate your parents’ experience, knowledge and wisdom. Let them support you while not overwhelming you or allowing them to take over.
- While honouring your own space, share with your parents highlights and lowlights of your life. Take an interest in theirs. Basically make friends with your parents.
- Avoid leaving your parents wondering if they are desirable company. Pay attention to how they have fun and include them in your social events.
- Focus on the ways your parents demonstrate their love.
- Express appreciation for what they are able and willing to give.
- Love one another, to the best of your and their abilities.
What challenges or successes have you experienced in the parent to adult children dance?
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Patricia Morgan MA CCC helps her readers, clients, and audiences lighten their load, brighten their outlook, and strengthen their resilience. To go from woe to WOW call 403.242.7796 or email a request.
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