Many of us have those moments when we say something we instantly regret. But some parents seem unable to hear themselves and then wonder why their adult children are keeping a distance.
Not long ago, I saw a reality t.v. performance by a mother that defied even the sometimes outrageous reality t.v. norm.
It was on an HDTV house hunting show. A young couple had made the decision to use their relatively modest lottery windfall to buy a house for the young man's mother and stepfather (who were renting a tiny apartment). This young couple, by the way, was living in very modest circumstances and expecting a baby within the next month.
The mother/mother-in-law's behavior during house-hunting made for provocative reality television, but was Exhibit A of the kind of older parent who tends to drive adult children away. There appeared to be little gratitude for the sacrifice the young people were making. The mother simply accepted their generosity as her due and challenged their request to keep the price of the selected home under $300,000 with "Don't you care about your mother that I shouldn't get what I want?" What she wanted was a house that cost more than $500,000.
When her son politely reminded her of their financial limits, she urged him to "be a man" and to stand up to his wife, the person she was convinced was standing between her and her dream home. She threw in a number of divisive comments about her daughter-in-law, questioning her authority to have any kind of a say in this matter ("Because, after all, I'm your MOTHER!"), diminishing her spirit of family and generosity by waving away reminders that this young couple was choosing to do without so that she could own her first home.
It was obvious that this woman viewed herself and her son as family, her daughter-in-law as an interloper and her second husband as someone somewhat in between. She felt her son owed her big time and scoffed at the notion of gratitude. It was only after her husband finally intervened and reminded her that she was, indeed, blessed with a son and daughter-in-law who would give her such a gift that she decided on a perfectly acceptable $264,000 house that she had rejected previously and, somewhat subdued, thanked the young couple.
It made me wonder what she would have to say when something went wrong, when the first house repair came up? Would this be "the house that selfish wife of yours forced me to take!" or will she remain grateful, counting her considerable blessings?
But this show reminded me of the many times I have heard parents speak to their adult children with words unfiltered by present realities.
So many times parents -- often unwittingly -- speak before they edit themselves, revealing troubling feelings of ownership, of primacy, of betrayal in their relationships with adult children.
What about the words of a mother to her just-married daughter ready to leave for a Hawaiian honeymoon: "You always said you'd take ME to Hawaii! Seems you've forgotten..."
Another mother to her son while making Christmas plans meant to leave his wife of two years completely out of the family celebration: "Let's have a holiday with just us...just family... doesn't SHE have a family to go visit?"
Yet another mother to an adult son, disappointed that he and his live-in fiancee are busy decorating their new condo to their taste: "But I expected you'd have ME decorate your place. After all, I'm your mother!"
And, finally, a father speaking to a young adult child: "You're making so many stupid mistakes and here's why and here's what you should do."
Some parents feel that their role entitles them to a lifetime of telling it like it is and sharing unfiltered thoughts with their adult children. While it can be a comfort and a blessing to be authentic with each other over the years, there are limits when it comes to adult children. Speaking without thinking, without being sensitive to the realities of their lives, can build barriers instead of continuing warm ties between you and your adult children. What may make perfect sense to you may sound and feel outrageous and insensitive to your adult child.
So how can you be yourself without offending?
1. Think before you speak: What will the words you're planning to say accomplish? What are your intentions? Do you want to be helpful -- or are you looking to hold onto the power in your relationship?
My friend Jan has difficulty stopping herself from giving her 28-year-old daughter Amelia, whose tastes are much more casual than her mother's, fashion and grooming advice. "It's just that she would be so pretty with just a little effort," she protests while bemoaning her daughter's emotional distancing tactics. We discussed the fact that Amelia has different priorities, that continuing to focus on her physical appearance simply perpetuates a years-long conflict between mother and daughter. Jan sighed. "I know," she said. "It's a conflict between what I want for her and what she wants for herself. She wants to be seen as intelligent and accomplished. Whenever I forget what she wants and think about what I'd like to see, my words come between us. I mean, in some ways, just fixing her hair seems like such a small thing. But coming from me...the way she hears it is no small thing. Most of the time, I catch myself. But sometimes I slip and I always regret it."
I nodded with understanding. It's so easy to forget and, with all the best of intentions, to say something that feels offensive or intrusive to a young adult.
Though I have no children of my own, I love some of the children of close friends unconditionally and intensely. One of my most beloved, the daughter of my best friend from college, is in her late thirties and giving a lot of thought to the directions she would like her life to take both personally and professionally. Several years ago, I remember her asking me how I felt about being childless. It's not an easy question to answer since being childless was not a life goal for me but something that simply evolved over time due to a number of choices I made in my thirties. I told her that, from my current perspective, I regretted being childless very much and that I sometimes felt that I had made a critical mistake in putting my career first and foremost when I was young. Several years later, as we were talking about her sisters who have started families and the joys of being an involved auntie, I heard myself asking her if being an auntie would be enough or if she might be thinking of starting a family of her own. There was a fleeting look of shock and pain in her eyes and I realized that my question was unintentionally intrusive. It's one thing to ask about past decisions as she had and quite another to ask about future plans. I apologized and explained that I asked only because she had seemed curious about the experience of not having children. She smiled. We were back on track. She said "I'd like to have a child. Or to adopt. Or both. And I love being an aunt. That's enough for now. If anything changes, I'll let you know right away!" Our eyes met. We smiled warmly, fondly at each other. And I knew that, while I would be happy to hear any news or insights she has in the future about having children or not, I would never again initiate a discussion of this topic with her.
2. Let go of being central: When your child was little and dependent, you were the center of his or her universe. But your child grew up -- just as he or she was meant to -- and now things have shifted. And so many conflicts can come from forgetting this reality and assuming that nothing has changed.
Feeling the need to be central, you might hear yourself giving unasked for advice or making critical comments about an adult child's significant other in a conspiratorial tone. You might make assumptions that are no longer valid: planning trips for just the two of you when your adult child's life has expanded to include a spouse; demanding time and attention that your adult child, who has grown into new roles and commitments, can no longer give.
While some parents bemoan no longer being central as being relegated to the sidelines, it's more constructive to look at this another way: as having a front row seat to cheer your son or daughter on.
3. Edit your comments and soften your approach. You feel you really need to say something before your adult child makes a terrible mistake -- whether he or she is planning a romantic commitment or preparing for an important job interview. You may be tempted to scream "Nooooo! Don't do it!!!" or to say "You're going to say what if your interviewer asks you about your previous job experience?" Think about how such expressions of maternal or paternal concern will be heard. You may make more of an impression -- or find a way to reassure yourself -- with a quieter approach. Ask a question like "I'd really like to get a feeling for Jake from your point of view. What do you enjoy most about him? What do you imagine he'll be like in ten years or twenty? When you dream of a future together, what is it like?" Or if you feel compelled to give advice, ask first. Ask "Would you like some advice for your interview or do you feel pretty confident that you're well prepared?" And if you do give advice, make it a quiet suggestion, building on your adult child's ideas, rather a than mandate for action from your point of view.
4. Keep quiet. Sometimes the wisest of parents keep quiet, while crossing their fingers that all will go well with a beloved adult child.
"My advice to other mothers of adult children?" smiles Kim, a friend with two grown daughters. "Shut up and pray! You can't help but worry and want to intervene in all that concerns them. But nine times out of ten, it's best to step back and simply hope and pray for the best. They have to make their own mistakes and find their own way -- just as you did!"
My friend Tim looked surprised when asked if he had offered any career management advice to one of his daughters. "Oh, no," he said. "I have confidence that she will make wise decisions and that if she makes a mistake, she'll learn from it. I would only give advice if she specifically asked for it. There is great value in working her career issues out in her own way and in her own timeframe." This father, by the way, enjoys excellent relationships with his adult children.
5. Apologize for verbal transgressions. Love of any kind means saying you're sorry - over and over. So when you upset an adult child with an off-the-cuff comment or unasked for advice, apologize. Making excuses like "A mother should be able to say anything to her child!" or "I'm your mother. Who else is going to tell you the truth?" can only escalate the conflict. Sometimes you need to go beyond a simple "I'm sorry!"
A few years ago, my husband Bob and our beloved "surrogate son" Ryan, who came into our lives as Bob's Little Brother in the Big Brother's program when he was nine years old and who has become like a son to us in the years since, was visiting us from California when he and Bob got into a heated conflict. It began with Ryan telling a story about a parking ticket. Bob jumped on him about his need to take more responsibility and continued to nag him about some work decisions and lifestyle choices. Too stung to engage in further conversation,Ryan went to bed early. The next morning, as he was getting ready to fly home, he joked about their conflict and the fact that they had only clashed once in the three day visit. But I could see sadness and pain in his eyes. So could Bob. He told him that he was sorry. But that didn't seem to be enough. After Ryan left, Bob sat down and wrote him a heartfelt email, apologizing further, expressing his love and his confidence in Ryan as a young adult excelling in a difficult field and facing several significant life challenges at the time. Ryan called him as soon as he read it, telling him how much his opinions mattered, how deep his hurt had been and his joy in seeing Bob's love and vote of confidence for him in the email. Don't ever assume that your child just knows you love him or admire her achievements. Let him or her know. And when there is conflict, be the first to apologize, even if you're convinced that what you said was right.
It's important for your adult child to know that your words come from love...and that conflicts are resolved with love. There are so many ways to show this love. Sometimes, a well-thought out comment is the loving thing. Other times, you can show your love most by keeping quiet, by ceding the spotlight, and by recognizing your adult child's growing competence and power over his or her own life.