Sunday, February 26, 2017

Parents of Adult Children: Can You Hear Yourself?

Have you ever heard yourself saying something to your adult child that sounded alarmingly like your mother? Or a cringe-worthy comment that seemed to come out of nowhere? Or something that sprang from hurt feelings to your lips without thought or filter?

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?

Who knows?

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.


  1. Interesting....I think that parenting ADULT children is harder than when they are kids... I am too much the other way... I don't want to 'burden' my sons and because of that, I don't contact them as much as maybe I should... I remember my mother calling us EVERY Saturday morning (driving me crazy) when my kids were little. Even though I loved her dearly (and miss her) I was determined NOT to call my busy sons like that... For that reason, I may have backed off too much --which made them feel as if I didn't care. I always said that I wanted to hear from them --at their convenience... One of my sons is really good to call quite often --but the other two are not... Wish I knew the BALANCE when it comes to communication.... I do love them --and miss them. Recently, when I was so sick, I really wanted to hear from them --but didn't... It's not always easy knowing what to do. BUT--overall, I do have a good relationship with all three sons. Thanks for an interesting post.


    1. You bring up an interesting point, Betsy: that parenting adult children can be harder than parenting young children! The challenges differ, but are significant as children become adults.

  2. This is a very helpful piece for those parents who really love their children.

    The sad truth is, not all mothers, or fathers for that matter, wanted to be parents. The Government forced mothers to be parents. Since the seventies, that became a choice.

    When I hear comments that all mothers and fathers love their children, I shake my head. I know they don't. They absolutely hated having to have children, taking it out on the children, making them pay for the rest of their lives. Or, until they are old and need them. The father, of course, gets to leave. The mothers usually stay, but not all of them. A child is lucky if one parent loves them who stays to nurture him or her.

    When a parent berates an adult child, he or she needs to ask what are their true intentions. Maybe they really intended to hurt the adult child. Whether from having to play a role they never really wanted, or from jealousy that their child was prettier, smarter, or getting the attention they always craved.

    1. It's so sad and so true. Thanks for raising this important point.

  3. I need to share this on a FB group I'm in that's filled with empty nesters. I can't believe what some of those mothers say about their adult children and/or their sons/daughters-in-law. My own mother is a bit of a manipulator but, after reading this post, not as bad as I thought. LOL I make sure I do not manipulate my 4 daughters. They live their lives but we are all still close with each other. I can't imagine being like one of the examples you used. And I bet, if I tried to be that way, my girls would stand right up and tell me a thing or two. :)

    1. Well, good for them! Yes, the examples were pretty extreme, weren't they? They were a combination of remarks overhead and one said to me (the one about "You always said you'd take ME to Hawaii!" as Bob and I were leaving on our honeymoon). The HGTV lady wins the prize, however. I watched that show while I was at the gym a while back and was so blown away, I made notes on what she was saying because I knew it had to be in a blog post!

    2. The women in the Empty Nest group I mentioned are seriously starting to worry me. It's like they cannot function without their kids around. One has even admitted to thoughts of ending it all. We've all mentioned seeking therapy but, it's scary.

  4. If I have an opinion on something pertaining to my adult kids, I say, "I have an opinion on that. Let me know if you'd like to hear it." They RARELY do.

    I have watched them all make mistakes. But they are grownups now, living their own lives. I will support their choices, for better or for worse. My mother was difficult. I tried to please her until I was 50. Never did. I don't want my children to carry that same burden.

    1. Good for you, Linda! It's tough to step back and watch them make mistakes, but so necessary.

  5. All good advice. I have a particular problem with # 2 because, try as I might, I still refuse to believe that my kids have grown up, and I think of my 33 y/o daughter like she's still 18 ... actually about 16. No, really about 14. And my 30 yo son is 10.

    1. Yes, isn't it alarming how quickly they grow up? My best friend has a daughter who will be 42 tomorrow and it boggles my mind. I remember so clearly when her Dad called me to tell me she had arrived and when she was a tiny infant. Her age and her accomplishments all make me shake my head in wonder!

  6. SO true and SO hard sometimes but we are quite proud of the way we make every effort to keep from interfering with our adult children's lives. A long time ago we weren't quite so good all of the time. Your blog is a nice reminder!

    1. Thanks so much! Learning when to bite one's tongue and keep quiet is an acquired skill for sure!

  7. This is just excellent, Kathy, and if it is similar to your upcoming book, it will be a best seller. It's a growing process, I know. More than once I've had to bite my tongue and I'm not even the direct parent! But you do, or at least you try. (There are times we have to try very, very hard!)

    I hate to say it but had I been the one on the HGTV show buying the house for Mom -- I would have walked. They are far better people than I am.

    1. Oh, thank you, Jeanie! Yes, this is somewhat similar to my upcoming book -- which was inspired by reader response to my blog posts about parents and adult children! The book is called "We Don't Talk Anymore" and will be published by Sourcebooks in October. I know what you mean about the HGTV mother! I think I would have walked, too! I was amazed at how patient the kids were with her.

  8. Thank you Dr. McCoy for this article. I happened upon your site today, by typing in that I felt unappreciated by my adult daughter! Reading this article has been so helpful. She has a boyfriend that I can't stand and doesn't appear to be going anywhere in life - but - that's her choice. She's been raised in love and I have to trust her to make the best decisions for herself. Plus its exhausting! Peggy