How to Parent Adult Children: Six Ideas To Consider
When your child isn’t a kid anymore, are you still a parent? Yes and no. Of course you will always be their “parent,” but what does this new version of “parenting” look like? It’s a complicated, ever evolving journey.
It’s counterintuitive to discover that life with your adult child can be more difficult than any other time in your parenting journey. Now that they’re on their own, how often should you and your spouse stay in touch with them? What do you do if you think they’re making mistakes? How do you handle choices they make that don’t align with your values? It’s challenging, but like all parenting seasons, there are rewarding aspects to this one, too.
If you and your spouse are in the throes of parenting adult children, here are a few tips to consider along the way.
1. Take care of yourself.
You might think this should be an afterthought instead of a first step, but being the parent of an adult can be a surprisingly challenging endeavor. You’ve spent the past two decades pouring time and wisdom into your child. Now, as they’re taking off into their own life, it’s time to devote some of that energy to yourself.
Spend time praying for your marriage and your children in this new season. Prioritize dating your spouse. Invest in your physical and mental health. Being intentional about caring for yourself will supply both vitality and peace of mind that will be invaluable as you walk this new path.
2. Remember your child is an adult.
A major key to success in this new relationship is to see and respect your child as an adult. This can be hard because you’ve known them so well, for so long. And let’s be real, you may still be supporting them in some way financially—phone bill and medical insurance, anyone? But no matter where they are on the “emerging adult” spectrum, your child has finished their basic training, and they need you to allow them to grow in this new level of independence. Recognize they are building on the foundation you provided, and now, it’s their job to make decisions that will help them create their own path into adulthood.
3. Graduate from parent to wise counsel.
You did it! Together, you’ve successfully juggled the transitions from diapers to teenage angst to adult independence. Now it’s time to graduate to your new role as wise counsel. As a parent of a kid, you were fully involved in their day-to-day activities and care. However, becoming a wise counselor moves you into a less active role with more freedom and flexibility.
You may find this season a little painful as you adjust to the reality that your child may not need you (or communicate with you) as often as you’d hope. Remember, you’re shifting from the ministry of caregiving to the ministry of availability. Your patient availability will open doors for communication and a stronger adult relationship.
4. Ask, “Would I say this to a new friend?”
“Watch your words and hold your tongue; you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.” —Proverbs 21:23 (MSG)
In your new role as wise counsel, you may find your tongue gets a little battered and bruised. The truth is your adult child tends to hear unsolicited advice as criticism, and sometimes, it is. When they do ask questions or ignite conversation, commit to being an intentional listener.
An easy way to check your conversation is to ask, “Would I say this to a new friend?” This isn’t the friend you’ve known for years who you’re vulnerable with and comfortable pouring into or having them pour into you. This is a “new” friend, someone with similar interests who you’re enjoying getting to know.
In many ways, your adult child is a new friend. They have opinions that may not align with yours. They may be living a life that is different from your own, different from what you modeled for them, or different from how you “would have done it.” But just as you would with a new friend who has a differing point of view, it’s your responsibility to be kind and respectful. And in the end, you may need to agree to disagree.
5. Set boundaries.
Setting boundaries is more than a buzzword. It’s making the effort to set up new systems that help you navigate the world together as adults in the same family. And here’s a heads up—you will do this more than once!
Think of boundaries as bumpers in a bowling lane rather than the cement median on the interstate. The goal is not to create a set of restrictive written rules that will cause you all to crash and burn if you break them. Instead, work to create guidelines that will help you all stay on course.
Boundaries to think about might include:
- How often do each of you want to call or text to check in?
- Are surprise visits OK, or should you check in with one another before dropping by?
- When are the most important family gatherings taking place?
- Where will you need to agree to disagree?
- Is it helpful to support your adult child financially, and what does this look like? If you choose to support them, be clear about your expectations—is the money a gift with no strings attached or is it a loan, and what’s the repayment schedule—so you don’t enable unhealthy behavior regarding finances.
- Is it OK for your adult child to move home, and what does this look like? If your child needs a space to land, be clear about your expectations—what is the timeline, will they contribute to household finances, what household rules will be in place, etc.—so you don’t enable them to the point of “failure to launch.” A lack of clarity in boundaries regarding finances and moving home can create loads of tension.
6. Know mistakes will happen.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” —C.S. Lewis
Watching your adult child make decisions you believe are foolish or frightening is among the most challenging parts of your new role. Mistakes are not only possible, they’re inevitable. To truly be of help, it’s important to let your child make their own choices and allow them to work their way through the consequences. Doing your best to be a cheerleader rather than a coach can keep the lines of communication open and help them see you as a safe space rather than a judge.
While these tips include some cautions and possibly new habits, remember you’re making choices to build a strong, healthy relationship with your adult child. Enjoy this new stage! At the end of the day, they’re still your kid, so make time for fun. Treat them to dinner at a restaurant of their choice, host a throwback game night featuring games you played when they were little, or meet up for a quick cup of coffee to check in and say hello. With a little planning and patience, you can enter the “parenting adult children” phase confidently and compassionately. And while you watch your adult child change, grow, and become their own person, you’ll also be constructing a new friendship with them in the process—one you can enjoy for the rest of your life!