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Parenting Your Adult Children

Get guidance on getting along with your kids after they're grown up – from staying connected, offering advice and dealing with in-laws.

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Illustration by Sarah Kovelle

Annie Derbabian remembers the first day she felt grown up. She was 17 and had come home from vacation to find a car her parents bought her sitting in the driveway waiting for her. On the hood was a box containing the keys. There was, however, a catch.

“My mom cleverly put pieces of string on it, so the keys came with strings attached,” the 24-year-old Harrison Township resident says. Her mom told her that before she could drive the car, she’d have to find a job to pay for the insurance and gas.

“This was the first foray into adulthood,” she says. She’s grateful, she says, to her parents, though, for making her work hard for what she wanted. “That’s really when I started sort of doing things for myself,” she says. “They’ve instilled in me a sense of independence.”

As children grow older and mature into adults, parents find themselves having to make a transition from raising a dependent child to being a parent to an independent adult. As the years pass, children go from facing small-time challenges like, ‘What should I wear today?’ ‘How do I tie my shoes?’ and ‘Which instrument should I play in band?’ to huge choices that can affect the way the rest of their lives turn out: ‘Which job should I take?’ ‘Should I go back to school?’ or ‘Am I choosing the right person to spend the rest my life with?’

“It’s letting go,” says Michele Wloch, a Brownstown mother of three. “As they get older and they’re living at home, you have a little bit of letting go. When they first get their driver’s permit and they’re out driving around, there’s gradual letting go, but when they actually move out of the house, I think it’s complete letting go. Everything is theirs now, and you don’t play an active role, really, in that anymore.” When children are young, there’s lots of books telling us what to expect at different age milestones, “but when our children grow up, issues and problems arise that we never ever anticipated, never even thought of,” says Southfield psychologist Loretta Polish, who teaches a class on parenting adult children.

Parents will always be there for their children through thick and thin, but there’s a definite shift in parenting style as their children become adults.

Offering advice and guidance

Perhaps one of the hardest parts for the parents of adult children is to know when to share words of wisdom and when to keep quiet.  

Jolene Philo was thrilled during the preparations for her daughter Anne’s wedding. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, except for Mother Nature. While Anne and her fiancé wanted to get married in the backyard of Anne’s family’s home, Philo and her husband wanted them to use a pavilion in a nearby park to avoid the oncoming rain.

“We were thinking, ‘It would really be nice if we had this at the pavilion,’” to avoid the hassle and worry of possibly having a rained-out wedding, she says, but ultimately, they let the bride and groom decide. While they ultimately chose to get married in the pavilion, Philo says the “change in leadership” was the right way to start things off. “If we had insisted on (the pavilion), there could have been some resentment there,” says the Iowa mom.

Today, Philo says, her children willingly come to ask for advice.

“They know we’re not going to make the decision for them,” she says. “If we think it’s a wrong decision to make, we’ll tell them that, but it’s their choice to make.”

For unsolicited advice, however, Polish says it’s best if parents keep mum.

“You swallow it, and you say nothing,” she says. Being on the receiving end of unwanted advice may cause resentment in the adult child, and it could ultimately hurt your relationship.

Of course, there are going to be times when parents and their grown-up children don’t see eye to eye on certain issues. When that happens, Polish says, it’s best to take a deep breath and walk away, taking time to consider a response before blurting out whatever comes to mind.

“We need to choose our words carefully and think in advance about the reaction our response might get,” she says. “This is not ‘You can have a cookie’ or ‘You can’t have a cookie.’ This is walking a very fine line and choosing your words carefully when inside of you, a voice is screaming, ‘What, are you kidding me? No way!’”

Still, parents agree that it can be hard to turn off the urge to tell children what’s best for them to do.

“It’s hard for a parent to shut it off. You don’t do it for 18 years … or 21 years (and say), ‘There you go, you’re on your own. I’m done,’” says Brenda Brissette-Mata, a mother of three adult sons.

Brissette-Mata says it’s nearly impossible for parents to coerce their adult children into doing something the parent thinks they should.

“It’s not like you can ground them, you know. You can’t take away their license, and they don’t even live here anymore.”

She says she sometimes uses guilt to urge her sons to do something like call their grandmother, but she realizes that her sons are independent beings.

“You have to learn how to parent in a different way,” she says. “They have to make their own choices, but there’s still things that you do to help them out.”

Wloch says resisting giving advice is “the toughest thing of all” because all parents want to help their children. 

“I know a few times I’ve contributed advice when I shouldn’t have, too. It’s a continual battle, it really is,” she says.

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