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Six Strategies of Highly Successful Post-Parents

The basics of parenting adult children.

When my first child’s every accomplishment, from crawling to toilet training, was something to tell my mother (because who but a grandmother really, really cares?), I excitedly confided that he’d said the word “No” for the first time— “Dr. Spock says that’s the beginning of the ability to reason,” I said. “Yes, but did he happen to mention when they learn to say “Yes?” she asked with a chuckle.

As I was to learn, it took at least two decades, and even then, my kids used “No” more often—every time I gave them advice they hadn’t asked for, told them what to do and how to do it, trespassed on their boundaries without a second thought. Yes, my opinions mattered, but not as much as their own. A major step in the maturation process of our adult children is being free enough to live their lives without needing our approval; they may want it, but it isn’t actually necessary.

Distilled from the advice I give the parents of grown kids are these six keys to creating a mutual relationship, which is the only kind that will sustain your connection over time. And if your kids aren’t grown yet, you can’t start putting them into practice soon enough.

1. Focus your attention on their strengths rather than their shortcomings.

Harping on their faults will do nothing to fix them. Encouraging them by reminding them of their good qualities, admirable acts, traits or talents will do more than buoy their self-esteem—it will enhance the possibility of their self-improvement. And it will certainly make them glad to see or hear from you.

2. Respect the space between you.

The distance between autonomy and independence is a point on the boundary between separateness and togetherness. In every relationship, it’s the difference between where one person ends and the other begins. The infant doesn’t recognize that difference for at least three months; he is his mother and she is him. Lovers narrow that distance as much as they can: “Two hearts beating as one” is a nice sentiment, but then there’s only one person in the relationship, the other’s been smothered or extinguished. Post-parents usually want to be closer than their grown kids prefer. Instead of pulling or pushing, crossing lines and invading their boundary, let them establish the distance between you.

3. Honor their confidences.

Other people’s secrets can be a gift or a burden, and how you treat your grown kids’ confidences is often determined by how you view them. They’re a gift when they reveal important facts about their lives, their mental and physical health, their moods, struggles and challenges; telling you means they trust you.

Secrets feel like a burden when they require you to keep to yourself things about them that you’re eager to share with your other kids, your best friend, or your spouse. The most respectful way to handle such a situation is to ask your grown kid directly who you can tell and who you can’t. And then comply with the restrictions they’ve placed on you, even if you literally have to button your lip.

4. Let them love you their way.

Some adult kids are warm, demonstrative and appreciative, and rarely miss an opportunity to tell you how important you are to them. They remember birthdays, anniversaries, mother’s and father’s day, and sometimes they call just to hear your voice. (They’re also more likely to be daughters than sons). Others are less so. They aren’t good at marking occasions. They call when they have something to say or ask. They hug or even kiss when they arrive or depart, but it feels more like duty than love. They’ll do for you – she’ll drive you to the doctor or do your shopping, he’ll fix the leaky faucet or check the tread on your tires – and be there for you in the crunch, but they’re not big on the warm and fuzzies. Instead of trying to warm them up, thank them for what they do, tell them that their help and concern are loving gestures, and make sure they know you know how they really feel.

5. Allow them to have their own dreams.

Yours began the moment they were placed in your arms: He/she would find a cure for cancer, ascend to the highest office in the land, become a successful entrepreneur, and make a brilliant marriage. And when the haze of new parenthood wore off and they revealed themselves to be just ordinarily beautiful, smart, talented and lovable, you dreamed some new ones for them. He would take over his father’s business, she would gift you with grandchildren, and they would be happy, confident and capable adults.

Maybe they are. But it’s their dreams that matter, not yours—their careers, their marriages, their ambitions, and their goals. Letting go of our dreams for our kids is hard, especially if theirs seem as unrealistic or unattainable as the long-ago ones you had for them. As therapist Arthur Dobrin writes, “Dreams and desires are the beginning of better things. But they can also be the illusions of the young, wishful thinking. When dreams are merely figments of the imagination, they become impediments to the realization of those things that make life full and satisfying.”

6. Trust them with their lives.

The scene is indelible in memory: a woman with her grown daughter on family day at an expensive drug and alcohol rehab facility on Malibu’s Gold Coast. She’s punctuating her angry words to her 20-something addict with her index finger: “I nursed you for eight months even though it ruined my breasts! I fed you the right foods so you’d grow up strong and healthy! I put a speed regulator on your car so you wouldn’t have an accident! I got you braces and vaccinations and took the best care of you I could, and then you go and ruin that perfect, beautiful body I made with drugs? How could you?”

And then came the daughter’s reply, etched just as permanently in my memory: “You never trusted me with my life, Mom. Maybe that’s why I screwed it up.”

It’s very hard to trust our grown kids with their own lives. As I wrote once, “We raised them to be strong, competent, and independent, and spend the rest of our lives worrying while they’re doing it.” And like the young woman in that rehab, sometimes they’re not. But we don’t have a lien on their lives; we can’t take them back, after all. And we can’t—mustn’t—keep reminding them that it’s us they’ve let down, not themselves.