During the first year of a childs life, most parents are overwhelmed by the
physical demands and the sheer beauty of watching an infant develop day-by-day. By the
time the terrible twos roll around, many parents develop a confidence which continues to
build and even carry them through the emotional storms of their childs adolescence.
And all throughout these years, parents rely on friends, family, professionals, books and
magazines to help them sort things out, to become the best parents they can be.
No one ever says it's easy. But parents at least have resources to guide
themuntil the time their child becomes an adult, that is.
Learning to let go
Mary, a 47-year-old Aurora woman who is about to send 18-year-old Sarah off to college,
wistfully says, "Its so easy with my 8-year-old. She asks me what color
scrunchy to wear and I know exactly what to do. I pick the one that matches her outfit.
But the other day when Sarah asked me for advice in dealing with a love triangle, I
didnt have any answers. "
Thats uncomfortable and unfamiliar to a mother who has guided her daughter day
and night for 18 years. It's certainly normal to have some difficulty in letting an adult
child go. According to Nancy Brody, Ph.D., a psychologist in Scottsdale, AZ, who has
started a discussion group for parents of adult children, many parents of adult children
could use some help.
"Parents of adult children are pretty much left on their own, and years of raising
younger children make the transition to relating to adult offspring difficult to make. We
do not stop being parents as soon as our children reach adulthood, but how we parent
should change," says Brody.
She adds that, "One of the main deterrents to good parent-adult children
relationships is the Father (or Mother) knows best syndrome: parents insisting
they have all the answers. All adults, including our own adult children, are entitled to
make their own decisions, even if they are contrary to those we parents might wish them to
make. We must learn, as with other adult-adult relationships, not to offer unsolicited
advice. Even when we are asked, we are frequently better off saying something such as,
Im sure youll make the right decision, rather than sharing our own
opinions. Stepping back and not being too invested in each of your adult childrens
decisions will go a long way in solidifying good relationships with them."
Distancing himself from his 20-year-old son has paid off for Robert, 44. "My
relationship with Steven is much better now that hes not living at home. Im
not in the position of imposing my rules on him and Im more accepting of who he is.
Consequently, hes less rebellious. And since hes out of the house, he
appreciates our family more. Hes more conscious of what it takes to have food on the
table, and what it takes to run a home," Robert says.
Steven agrees. "We do get along better since I moved out," he says. "You
get to know what pushes a persons buttons when youre living with them, but you
can see the whole picture from a distance. I have a different attitude about maintaining a
home, since Im on my own and am responsible for myself. Now I know why Mom always
wanted the house clean and why she was always after me to do chores," Steven says.
"Now when I go home we can all talk without hassling about everyday problems."
Anna, a 69-year-old former Denver school psychologist, raised two sonsnow both in
their 30salone. She says the hardest lesson shes had to learn as a parent is
to let go. "I began to learn that when my boys were in their teens," she says.
"Allowing them to take responsibility for their own actions and still wanting to help
and guide them was very hard. I always felt like I was walking a fine line."
She has these words of advice for parents: "Sometimes we try so hard to be useful
when what is needed is to let the child be independent, make mistakes and allow them to
develop a sense of good judgment. Being too helpful isnt helpful. A wise friend once
told me, Let them make mistakes in high school. Those mistakes can be remedied more
easily than later when they have bigger problems. And its much easier for them to
learn early on how to solve problems independently, while a parent is there to give their
support," Anna says.
Jeff, her 32-year-old son, says that Anna was a good parent who "made
things easy for me." And both Anna and Jeff agree that the key to a good
parent/adult child relationship is communication. Jeff laughs when describing a recent
conflict. "Two years ago when my brother and I were visiting Mother, Martin said to
me, How can you stand the way shes always asking detailed questions like,
What are you doing today? How do you feel? Those kinds of things have always
gotten on his nerves, but theyve never bothered me. But the last time I visited I
got really annoyed when she kept asking me what I wanted for breakfast. I was just in a
finicky mood, but it really bugged me and was interfering with my ability to relate.
"I think those are just little pet peeves from childhood. The source of the
conflict is trivial, but it represents a deeper conflict," continues Jeff. "If
theres a history of conflict you have to break through the past to get to the
present. So we sat down and had an open discussion about it and Mother said,
Im so glad you told me about it. I used to hate it when my mother would do
Jeff ends by saying that open communication is the key to having a good relationship
with your parents, no matter how old you are or what stage of life youre in.
"After all, were all in this together and we might as well make it work by
supporting each other and talking things out."
Communication leads to healing
Even though it may be painful, most therapists agree that parents and their adult
children gain tremendously when theyre willing to discuss whats working and
whats not in their relationship. Roberta Galler, a psychoanalyst and therapist in
New York City says, "It takes courage to speak ones mind and heart, but
its worth the effort, especially if you approach your parents with love, respect and
empathy. Making peace doesnt have to mean silencing your voice. Entering into
conflict often enables real intimacy and connection. If you bury serious conflict, you may
achieve a safe but false harmony."
But sometimes there is so much pain and conflict that no one is willing to talk about
it, and members within the family may stop communicating altogether. Quite often problems
arise between parents and their adult children when the child marries. A parent may not
get along with the childs spouse or vice versa.
According to Barbara Miller, a Boulder licensed clinical social worker, theres
always a strain when a child is moving away from home, marrying or expanding his or her
own family by having a baby. When theres tension between a parent and
daughter-in-law or son-in-law, it may be because the parent does not want to let go of
their child. Or, the daughter-in-law or son-in-law might be competing with the parents for
their spouses time and attention. To complicate matters even more, the child may
relish being the center of attention and conflict, and so contribute to it.
"Shifting to a larger system with variations on the original family is very
complicated," says Miller. "Its a matter of the child shifting his role to
adult, and having the parent relating to him as another adult with his own set of desires
and needs. Part of the parents developmental task is to let go and expand the
"Its actually a paradox, because as a parent, youre letting go and
gaining more and creating more. But you have to acknowledge that its a change and
that everyone must adapt to it. Then it can be a healthy resolution for the entire
family," she says.
"Its almost always in the best interest of the family to sit down and look
at the issues at hand," says Miller. "If the child has a distorted view or has
misinterpreted what has happened, then everyone needs to work through the problem and
clear up the distortions with the goal of forgiveness. But if the parents are shut down,
inflexible, and are unable to hear their child, then you get a recreation of the
frustrating cycle," she says.
Miller suggests that in this case, it might be helpful for the person with the
grievance to write a non-threatening letter or to send an e-mailand not even demand
or expect a reply. At the very least, it will help the person with the grievance unload
his or her frustrations.
"Its important to try to communicate whatever youre struggling
with," says Miller. "If the person you write to is too rigid to hear the
message, at least the letter is a beginning. Whats important is that you say what
youre concerned about without attacking the other person. Start out by saying,
Im trying to understand or I cant communicate my
feelings. The other person may or may not respond in the way you would like, but
theres always some hope that it will ameliorate the situationunless
theres total denial in a case like sexual abuse."
Psychologists David and Rebecca Grudermeyer, authors of the Mental Health Book of
the Year, Sensible Self-Help, say its important for adult children and their
parents to have detailed talks about how to upgrade their relationship. Their audiotape
set, "Outgrowing Parent-Child Roles: Relating to Each Other As Respectful
Adults," outlines a strategy for redesigning parent/adult child relationships through
a series of gentle-yet-honest discussions around three themes: Release, cleansing and
Grudermeyer explains the three themes and how to engage in discussion. "The goal
of release is to establish an interest and willingness to say good-bye to your old
relationship and make a commitment to redesigning the relationship in light of the present
circumstances whether the child is going off to college, getting married, having a baby,
etc. Each of these milestones necessitates a revisiting and revisioning of the
relationship," says Grudermeyer.
Historically, we didnt need to redesign the parent/child relationship because our
parents died much earlier, and we lived near them. The transitions were more natural and
gradual. Now we live apart and the transitions are more dramatic, he says.
"Cleansing involves discussing your appreciation of and learning from one another,
and also clearing unfinished business and fears concerning the future. That doesnt
happen enough," says Grudermeyer.
He suggests clearing up the past in a way so that World War III doesnt break out.
The child can bring gripes to the parents and the parents, instead of getting defensive,
may say, I hated having to learn this but Im better off, thanks. Or the child
might say, Im rebellious now but I appreciate you for... "
One way to do it is:
Have each person list their top three appreciations of and three learnings from
the other person.
List the top three self-regrets, what you wish you had or hadnt done. Base
them on the criterion that each is causing you to be walled off from that person.
Write the three most important changes you offer from those regrets.
Last, write down the three fears that you have about your future relationship
with the person, fears that hold back the relationship from evolving. For example, is your
fear of having your mother live with you sometime in the future blocking your relationship
with her? Grudermeyer says that its possible to have nothing on the list. In this
case you say to the person, Im not aware of any fears. Im thrilled to
tell you this. He adds that if you really have to think about it, the issues are
probably not a concern that you need to discuss at the moment.
He adds, "We tell our clients to go rent a cabin together. Take a vacation and
give yourselves the time to talk in between playing, over a period of time. Talking about
these things scares people. Sometimes theres a blow-up, followed by a period of
contriteness and evaluation."
If one person doesnt want to participate, Grudermeyer says thats okay.
"The person who is willing will achieve resolution by acknowledging their own truth.
But theyll have to come to grips with the fact that theyre just not going to
get what they want from the other person. The relationship will change because it will
bring about a shift in the persons self-acceptance and theyll stop locking
horns with the other person."
Once youve cleared away the "dirt," you can enter into the rebirth to
create a shared vision of the kind of relationship you want to grow into together. Says
Grudermeyer, "You can say, How do I love you as an adult that feels like love
to you? If the person answers in a way that doesnt seem possible, or is
uncomfortable, its okay to say, I may not be the right person to do that. I
may not be able to do it to the extent you want me to. In the end, most parents and
their adult children are able to express their love differently.
Role reversal in the later years
In the later years, adult children and their parents often go through a role reversal,
says Sara Shuchter, a Boulder licensed clinical social worker. "Its an
opportunity for some healing of old wounds, especially if the child is taking care of the
parents," says Shuchter. ""A child may remember a parent not taking care of
them, which can lead them into a new stage."
Shuchter continues, "Once the parents begin losing their capacities, theres
a shift that takes place, forcing the adult child to take on the role of the elder, which
may bring up mortality issues. But the potential is there to bring everyone into the
present moment and let go of old hurts, angers and appreciate each other, which can lead
to more positive interactions."
On the other hand, says Shuchter, "If theres been a long history of
conflict, theres a possibility that negative feelings will stay unresolved, keeping
the schism going and ending in a downward spiral."
Many adult children go through an enormous shift when one parent dies, and they are
left to recreate their relationship with the surviving parent. When Marshas mother
died 10 years ago, she was forced to come to grips with the relationship she had with her
father. "Mom was the go-between in our relationship, and her death forced Dad to
become more intimate with us," the Arvada resident says.
Grace, who was 41 when her mother died in Denver, had a somewhat similar experience
with her father. "Im much more interactive with Dad now. Before, we would talk
briefly on the phone. Now we have frequent long talks about what Im doing and what
hes doing. I guess Im getting to know him as a person rather than just as my
father. Hes also not so much the fatherly figure anymore. I give him more advice now
about his own physical ailments. And recently when he was planning a trip, I advised him
to fly instead of drive because hes getting too old to handle the stress of driving
a long distance. Thats the kind of advice a parent would give a child," says
Grace began noticing a reversal in their roles during her mothers illness.
"When Mom was dying I was frustrated with Dad a lot. I felt he was not very competent
to make the decisions that needed to be made. He did his best, but he was so emotional and
upset, and he was showing signs of dementia. He just fell apart. I found myself feeling
angry that he couldnt be stronger, and I had to get directly involved with the
doctors. Now, of course, I realize his forgetfulness was due to grief," says Grace.
"Since hes remarried and gotten heavily involved in volunteer work, our
relationship is better than its ever been. Im very impressed by what hes
accomplished. I admire him tremendously."
The power of unconditional love
Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and an important contributor to our
understanding of human development, believed that the human life span consists of several
stages, and talked about a "cog wheeling of the life cycles."
He believes that during each stage, the individual faces a psychosocial task or
conflict, the resolution of which leads to a strengthening of self and an ability to
confront the next task. Society presents opportunities for these issues to be resolved at
each stage. Whether its facing your child leaving home, or the childs
marriage, the important thing is to lend support and unconditional love to the child.
"The most important thing is to love your child unconditionally, regardless of the
troubles they get into. No matter how much they rebel, they have absorbed the values you
inculcated in them when they were young. Even if they reject them, theyll come back
to them. Even in a state of intense rebellion, theyre just in conflict with those
values," says Anna, the mother of two grown sons.
Barbara Miller adds that loving a child unconditionally is the most important feature
of parenting. "You may not like your child, or their choices such as a job or spouse,
but love is the foundation of what were all about. Its the basis from which a
child grows, develops and experiences. Its important for parents to support their
childrens decisions and to not remove their love as a means to change or manipulate
"Its fine to say, I dont agree with you, but you have our love
and support. And its important to carry that out through life," says Miller.
"Most of the people I see in therapy are longing for love and