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The Thing Parents Do That Drives Adult Children Crazy

"No Dad, I'm not still into punk rock."

Key points

  • Some parents of adult children struggle to see their child as they are.
  • Some parents label their children in narrow, unkind ways, leaving the child trapped in a false description.
  • Some parents struggle to integrate new information into their understanding of their child.
Pexels: Andrea Piacquadio
Pexels: Andrea Piacquadio

Some parents struggle to maintain an updated template of who their children are. They remember their child’s interests, preferences, and values in childhood or as a teenager and map those onto their adult child. This dynamic creates friction. Adult children lament in session about their desire to be seen and understood for who they are, not for the version they once conveyed. They describe being held to opinions they no longer hold, told that they must still like a particular style, or be held responsible to a level of immaturity they outgrew. At its core, this struggle is about feeling seen. We want to be seen by the people in our lives and when those closest to us fail to see us for who we are, it creates emotional distance.

This dynamic wherein a parent does not know or internalize who their adult child is can occur for many reasons. At its most insidious, some parents slap a label on their child and reinforce it at every turn, failing to see nuance or growth in their child. This can sound like “Alice has always been dramatic” or “Cody is all about sports. Right Cody?” It may be comfortable for the parent to see their child in this one-dimensional way. Some parents don’t do any further work to update their description, add nuance, or change their description when their child’s interests and personality shift and grow. Parents may bring out these labels into adulthood and leave adult children feeling stifled, like wearing an outfit that never truly fit in the first place. In these instances, adult children feel misunderstood, forced into an archetype that either no longer or never fit, and willfully labeled against their will.

Still other parents benignly just get stuck and either do not work hard enough to update their template or find it sad to do so. These parents have seen or spoken to their child enough to know that they are no longer 15 years old but can't or won’t internalize new details about their child’s personality and preferences. Some parents may find it sad to lose the younger versions of their child, and try to hold onto them when the child has shed that version of themselves. Still other parents may just not think to make the effort, even when asked by their child to stop buying them cat statues based on their love of cats at age seven. This stuckness can feel alienating to children, who may feel frustrated offering frequent corrections to their parent or endure regular mischaracterization. Parents, in turn, may chafe at the insinuation that they do not know their children. Together, parents and children can work to shift this dynamic by being open with one another about what they need and how they wish to be described.

Other parents do not see or speak to their child enough to update their internal template. A sophomore in college may come home one winter break to find that their parent has no idea that they’ve adopted new political views and culinary preferences. Fair enough! When family members stop seeing each other all the time, it becomes easy to calcify the most recent version of them in their mind. Children may even do the same to their parents. Knowing their parent in a certain way their whole life, they, too may struggle to integrate new parts of their parents’ identity if the parent picks up a new hobby, gets a new job, or a new interest. This information gap can be filled if both parents and children stay curious and open with one another.

As children grow and change, they value and appreciate their parents noticing and acknowledging that growth. When a parent fails to notice that their child has matured, taken on new interests and identities, and emerged into a different version of themselves, children may feel disconnected from that parent. We all want to feel seen and known and perhaps never more so than with people as important as parents.

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