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Challenges with Grown Children

Challenges with Grown Children
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By Nina Malkin

When Julia Marshall* sees her daughter’s number on caller ID, the 62-year-old cannot help but wonder, “What now?” After all, it’s always something. Nothing tragic, nothing urgent—nothing, in fact, that her daughter couldn’t handle herself. But whether the young woman wants to track down her college transcript or research annuals for her garden or pull off perfect pesto for a party, she calls her mother. “She is busy,” Julia says, making allowances. “But sometimes I feel a little put out, like she only calls when she wants something.”

Plenty of fifty-plus parents can no doubt relate. While we come from the “Please, Mom, I’d rather do it myself!” generation, our kids are likely to be more dependent, whether for financial assistance or simply relying on us to “be there” for favors, errands and all-around counsel.  “Grown children today still think they’re the center of your world, and it can be hard to disabuse them of that notion, if you’ve given them the message that they are,” says psychologist Jane Adams, Ph.D., who specializes in coaching parents of grown children (www.janeadams.com).

An Immature Relationship 

Oftentimes, the relationship with adult offspring is an extension of the one you had when they were little. “The parent-child relationship is about power and control, and for many parents it unfortunately continues, with mom and/or dad trying to impose their will and their lifestyle on their grown children, make decisions for them and keep them in family roles they have perhaps outgrown,” says Adams, author of When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us. So how can we expect them to act like adults when we still behave like the great and powerful Oz?

Fear may also factor in. Parents may feel if they aren’t at their children’s beck and call, the kids may withhold love or limit interaction. As a father of a thirty-year-old told Fifty Is the New Fifty: “I stopped paying my son’s car insurance—and now he’s giving me the cold shoulder.”

Another common reason for coddling grown kids? Guilt! If we believe we could’ve been better parents, we may blame ourselves for less-than-perfect outcomes in their lives. “Guilt is natural, but is no reason for giving in,” Adams says, adding that we should remind ourselves that everything we did, we did out of love. “Make this a mantra when you feel guilt coloring how you treat your grown kids: ‘We did the best we could with the knowledge and assets we had at the time.’”

Growing for Balance

Fortunately, it’s possible to make the parent-child relationship more balanced. “How you get along with your kids in your third decade of parenting and their third decade of life is indicative of how you’ll get along for the rest of your lives,” says Adams. “But you can effectively change the dynamics at any age.” The key is not in refusing to help your children, but giving the type of help that will encourage them to be independent and responsible for their own choices.

“Start by changing your attitude toward them and the parenting you did,” Adams says. While you can’t change your kids, by altering how you respond to them you can help them choose to change—for the betterment of your whole family. Below, Adams’ strategies for handling common parent-child conundrums:

  • They expect you to “be there” 24/7.  Be specific about your schedule and insist that your kids respect it. For example, instead of saying, “I can baby-sit anytime,” tell them, “I’m not available to watch them on Tuesday and Thursday, and I’d appreciate at least two days notice, especially for the weekend.” If your children tend to call just to tell you their problems, set limits—listen sympathetically and offer advice if asked, but once their time is up, say, “I have to go now.”
  • They rely on you for money. You mustn’t let your kids threaten your financial security, especially if you’re on a fixed income. Whether you opt to be open about your money situation or keep the details private, let them know that you are their option of last resort financially. Explain that, since you don’t know when you’re going to die, you don’t know how much money you’ll need. Or simply answer their requests with a firm, “I’m sorry, but I cannot afford it.”
  • They try to get you to take sides against a sibling. When they were small, you might have stepped and decided disputes. Now, no matter who you think is right or wrong, the only way to win is to avoid triangulating. Tell whichever child you’re speaking to: “I love you both, but you’re grownups—fight your own battles and settle them yourselves.”

* Name has been changed.

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An all-around wordsmith, Nina Malkin is a journalist, novelist, copywriter and memoirist. She’s also an avid collector of lovely things from eras past—read her musings at http://www.vintagevirna.blogspot.com/