Adult Children and their Parents

Image by Tom the Photographer on Unsplash

Image by Tom the Photographer on Unsplash

On Wednesday, July 19, I (Jeremiah Gibson) will be hosting "After You've Left the Roost: How to Improve Communication Between Parents and Adult Children". I invite adults and their parents to discuss ways that they can have relationships with each other that reflect their actual stage of development, including having conversations about aging, setting appropriate boundaries, and acceptance for each person for where they're at.

Problems with families primarily happen because family members get stuck transitioning between developmental stages. How many of you have heard something from your mother along these lines: "No matter how old you are, you'll always be my baby." You want to respond with "Mom, I'm 29, I have a graduate degree, I've been paying my own student loans for 5 years, and I have a full-time job and career."

As young adults, we want so badly for our parents to see us in the current developmental stage we're in, but our desire to prove to our parents that we're capable of adulting keeps us stuck in ongoing negative interactions.

Mothers seem to specifically have a difficult time maintaining adult relationships with their adult children because so much about the gender norm of being a successful woman revolves around being a good mother and having successful children. For the 400 years of American society, women have been left with gendered expectations that sex is about procreation, not pleasure, and that they fulfill their gender duties by taking care of the house and rearing children.

We've also seen an advent of what I call "child-centric families", something expedited by the advent of marketing of toys and technology toward children (and really, their parents) and the pressures of children to attend universities, and thus accrue as many accomplishments as possible.

As a result, many adults build their identities around being a parent; they see themselves not as Jane or Joe, but as "Suzie's Mom/Dad." Their friends may be the parents of your friends. These identities are formed around being needed and wanted, the ability to shape and nurture, and being able to experience unconditional love.

Child-centric family goals are to see their children succeed, often through inserting their parental influence, rather than letting their children figure things out themselves. Many parents have challenges developing new social circles and activities that help them prioritize new identities after children leave the home.

I contributed to Carolyn Steber's article "11 Grown-Ass Strategies for Handling Your Mom if She's Toxic", which was published on Bustle's website on Friday, providing feedback that I'll share with attendees of After You've Left the Roost on July 19. (My specific feedback is at the bottom of the article.) I would add the following pieces of advice for people who have particularly challenging relationships with their parents/adult children.

  1. You are not responsible for the behaviors of your parents/adult children, but only your own emotions. Be curious about social activities, hobbies, and professional tasks that they're doing to take care of themselves after you leave the home, but don't force them to change. It is not your job to change your parents/adult children.

  2. Identify what an adult relationship with your parent/adult child looks like on your terms. It is not an appropriate expectation or goal that you should be your parent's best friend, confidant, or replacement partner. Make clear with your parent/adult child topics that are on-limits and off-limits. For instance, I tell all of my couples to avoid talking about their relationship with their parents; my line is: "Parents make great parents. They make shitty couples therapists." This boundary is true for parents as well; if they address a topic that you've defined is off-limits, tell them "I don't want to talk about that." Practice setting these boundaries with trusted friends. Limit your conversations to once or twice a week, for small periods of time.

  3. Notice the emotional responses that you come up for you in conversations with your parent/adult child. If you notice yourself raising your voice, be curious about what you were actually trying to communicate. For instance, you may be trying to communicate to them "I'm a grown-ass person." And then, ask yourself if it's appropriate to use that relationship to meet that particular need. Find other relationships and activities that represent the person that you're becoming. Adult children: Remember that your parents are grown-ass people as well, capable of making her own decisions.

  4. The only leverage that you have in a relationship with your parent is your presence. (This is Dan Savage's big line.) Be clear with your parent about what you will do if you experience criticism or guilt-trips from her. Remind him/her when they cross the boundary, and don't be afraid to hang up the phone or put a halt to the text conversation. Be clear when you'll continue the conversation--the next day, the next week. Regardless of whether or not you have a long-term partner, develop holiday traditions that don't involve your parents/adult children--only you and your partner or friends.

You can make reservations for this and other BCRE classes on our Eventbrite page. Classes are $45, and are limited to 15 people.

If you'd like to have an extensive conversation with your parent or adult child, give us a call at 617-750-0183, or schedule an appointment to speak with me or another one of our therapists by clicking the Book Online feature at the top of the page.

Jeremiah Gibson is a couples and family therapist at South Shore Family and co-founder of the Boston Center for Relationship Education.