How Do I Strengthen My Relationship With My Adult Children?

How Do I Strengthen My Relationship With My Adult Children?
Illustration: Vicky Leta

This is the Parental Advisory advice column, where we tackle your most pressing parenting dilemmas, one tantrum at a time. Email your kid-rearing questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line.

When our kids are young, it can feel as though they’ll stay young forever. But the end goal is to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted young adults who go off to live their own lives, often leaving their parents behind wondering, “So, now what?” While they’re still living under our roof, spending time together hopefully comes easily and naturally. But once they move out, what should the new structure of the relationship look like?

Navigating this transition can be especially hard if you didn’t have a solid model for what a healthy parent-and-adult-child relationship looks like with your own parents. One dad writes in to Parental Advisory:

My son graduated from college in May of 2020 and lives with his mum (my ex-wife) across town from me (it is a small town). He doesn’t stay with me — he used to stay with me every weekend, but it would seem odd to me to have a visitation schedule for an adult like one that exists for a child. So my first question is: How do I maintain a positive adult father/son relationship with him without it becoming a “my son is my friend” (no) or “Uncle Dad” relationship. Also, FWIW, my father died when I was young and my relationship with my mother has always been lousy, so I don’t really have anything to model it on. So part of the question is: What does that relationship even look like?

For a second question: My other son is a freshman at college in another state. We were close when he lived at home because we spent time together and were able to communicate while we did. Neither of us are immediately communicative on the phone — it takes some time to warm up the conversation and doing things together used to be that warm-up time (plus, you can discuss a lot of stuff sitting in a car not looking at each other). How do I maintain that same level of relationship and communication if we are both “how are you?/OK” communicators on the phone?

I want to start by saying I think it’s wonderful that you’re being so thoughtful about how to transition your relationship with your kids from one of a parent/child relationship to a one of an adult/adult relationship. The dynamics have certainly changed, as is inevitable with all of us who are parents; you’re not “raising” them anymore, but you still want to be a good dad to them, and that’s half the battle.

Because my son is only 10 years old and I don’t have experience making this transition myself, I reached out to Dr. Sam Goldstein, assistant clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine (with expertise in school psychology, child development, and neuropsychology), for his thoughts. He says the first place to start is by examining what your expectations are for the relationships with your kids — and then recognising that they will be the ones to define how these relationships function going forward.

How to define a relationship with your adult children

“He can’t define the basis for their relationship; that has to come from kids,” says Goldstein, co-author of the book Tenacity in Children: Nurturing the Seven Instincts for Lifetime Success. “He can make himself available and he can provide support … but he has to understand that his kids are now adults, and they will make decisions about the nature of the relationship — what they talk about, how in-depth they discuss things, how often they talk, and how often they see each other.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t have reasonable expectations for what your future relationship will look like, and voice those hopes and expectations to your sons. It sounds like the dynamics in your relationship with each young man are different, so the depth with which you communicate or the frequency with which you see them might be different for each, and that’s ok.

With the son who is at college, Goldstein says a weekly Zoom call might make sense, so you’ve got dedicated time to catch up on how school is going for him, what he and his friends have been up to, and what’s new at home with you. This might seem awkward at first — all Zoom calls are — but the regularity of it (without forcing it) can help you fall into a comfortable rhythm. You might even pick a time of the week to watch a favourite show together, to mimic that “hanging out side-by-side” mode that worked well for you both in the past and takes the pressure off the constant conversation.

With the son who is local, you could lean in on a hobby you both enjoy, whether that’s golfing, or going to see the latest movie, or even meeting for a weekly breakfast date at your favourite diner. Building in some structure or repetition to the time you spend together can mimic the old visitation schedule without it feeling forced.

At the same time, if they’re busy (and they very likely are), it’s important to be understanding and not push them to communicate more than they are — if your relationship is strong, they’ll come to you when they need you. Beyond that, Goldstein says your job right now — and from now on — is to practice what he calls the “three P’s.”

Pride, patience, and persistence

Goldstein has two biological children and three step children that he helped raise, and he says his relationship with each of them, and the regularity with which he communicates with or sees each of them, is different. And that’s ok — as long as you’re vocalizing your pride, you’re being patient, and you’re remaining persistent.

“He has to be proud of the accomplishments of his kids and let them know that,” he says. “He has to be patient as they negotiate transitioning into adulthood. And he has to be persistent — not a pain in the neck, but persistent — [assuring them] that, ‘I want to have a relationship with you.’”

In other words, be a rock. Support them and keep showing up when invited (and do some inviting yourself). Over time, the dynamics of your relationships will work themselves out.

Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Send your question in to [email protected] with the subject line “Parental Advisory,” and we’ll get you the answers — straight from the experts.

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