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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.

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.

 

Dealing with significant others

As your child enters adulthood, he or she will more than likely enter serious romantic relationships with someone else. He or she might even decide that they want to spend forever with that person. While this can be a joyous occasion, it can also present parents with a tough situation. Marriage brings new additions to the family: in-laws.

“All of a sudden, you’re instant family – or supposed to be instant family – with people  who really are strangers to you,” says Polish, who has two adult sons and three grandchildren.

Philo says she and her husband were happy to have new additions to their family when their two adult children got married. 

“We made a real conscious effort to welcome them into our family, so that now we have four children,” not two children and two in-laws, she says.

Part of helping the spouses feel welcomed into the family included not requiring them to call Philo and her husband “Mom” or “Dad,” instantly, but rather, encouraging them to do whatever made them feel comfortable. As far as dealing with the spouses’ families, she says, being open is the most important thing.

“You just have to kind of realize that … we have different family cultures, and that doesn’t make one bad and one good or one wrong and one right. It just means that we need to be willing to adjust and respect and even change sometimes, which can always be kind of scary,” she says.

While this can be stressful, even dating relationships can be tough on parents if they dislike the person their son or daughter brings home. Derbabian once had an experience where her parents highly disapproved of her boyfriend, who was nine years older than her and had a child.

“They were very leery of that relationship,” she says. “They were like, ‘Why does a 27-year-old man want to date an 18-year-old girl?’

Even when parents do like the significant other, though, having to share children with the other family during holidays can be challenging.

Courtney Love, a 20-year-old student at Wayne State University, found a way to solve this problem with her boyfriend at the time. Both of them wanted to spend Thanksgiving with their own families, so they ate dinner at her house first, then went over to his family’s house afterward.

“I stayed at my house most of Thanksgiving until right before dinner at his aunt’s house. It was more about making a compromise than making one of us very unhappy,” she says.

Another solution, used by Philo and her family, is to be flexible in the date when holding family holiday get-togethers.

“We’ve never made a big deal of it being on Christmas or on Thanksgiving or whatever,” she says. “When we get together during the Christmas season as a family, that’s our Christmas.

“You just try and be flexible, and you try to make the gathering together the important part of the holiday rather than the date.”

Polish says it’s important for parents of married couples to let them work out their own holiday and visitation schedules themselves.

Although parents may not always like the outcome, Polish says the hands-off approach is the best approach.

“There’s not too much you can do about it,” she says. “Sometimes, to use a popular, current phrase, you have to suck it up.”

Keeping the bond while far apart

As adults, children may decide to move far from Mom and Dad, for reasons work-related, personal or otherwise. The tough economy lately isn’t helping, either. According to Internal Revenue Service records from 2009, the number of people leaving Michigan increased by 25 percent from 2001-2007. That trend of losing residents, especially young college graduates, doesn’t seem like it’s ending. The result is that parents must figure out how to maintain the relationship with their children while being miles apart.

“That’s just the way it is now, though. You’re just so thrilled when your kids get a job that even if it is out of state, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s just the situation,’” says Wloch, a Brownstown resident.

While Brissette-Mata lives in Flint, her sons are spread around the state in Utica, Ann Arbor and Lansing.

“It’s a little hard not having them around all the time,” she says. “It was hard for a while, and there are times when I really, really miss them, but then they only have to be home for a couple of hours that I remember what it’s like to have a quiet house.”

While in other cultures around the world, adult children often live with or near their parents for some time, “the physical separation in our culture comes pretty early,” Polish says. “Our culture puts a high premium on independence.”

Brissette-Mata agrees. “I think it’s a parent’s goal, or at least it should be, to want to prepare your kids to have a successful life on their own,” she says.

Email and phone calls are the methods of choice for parents who want to keep in touch with their offspring from afar.

For Love, speaking to her parents over the phone during the week is important, especially because her parents were initially not thrilled about the idea of her living on WSU’s campus near downtown Detroit.

“My dad didn’t have it,” she says. “He didn’t want me to live down here. He thought it was dangerous.”

Although she did end up living on campus, an even bigger transition came when she accepted a Residential Advisor position for the summer, meaning that she would not be coming home during the summer.

“That was a big shocker because they thought I was going to be home until the middle of April when I said, ‘Oh, no, I applied for this job, and I got it, so I’m not coming home. That was rough because they both didn’t want me to do that, at first,” she says.

For some parents, moving out to join their children might be a solution to being able to see more of them. Philo’s son wants to open an organic farm, and he and his wife have urged Philo and her husband to move to the farm to join them. She says she’s considering it in order to be able to see more of her children and grandchildren.

“If we would need to move and do that, we’re ready to do it,” she says.

Perennial parenting

No matter how old an adult is, they’ll always be their parents’ kids. Parenting doesn’t end when a child turns 18 or moves out. Instead, it transitions into a new relationship that trusts that the child has learned while growing up and now knows enough to make the right choices.

Philo, who taught for 25 years, says that she used to look at new teachers who were coming in and realize that they were around her daughter’s age.

“How did I treat my co-workers at that age? I need to at least be treating my children with that same level of respect,” she says.

“It’s neat to see the decisions and their thought process and what they do, and you see this person that you’ve created,” Wloch says. “It’s complete. That lifelong thing … they are the person they are.”

However, reaching adulthood does not mean the termination of a loving, good relationship with the people who raised their baby from diapers to diplomas. No one is static; everyone continues to learn and develop over time, parents and children alike.

“I wasn’t perfectly formed at age 23 or 25 or 27, and you grow and change a lot,” Philo says. “This is just part of the story. It’s not the end of it.”

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