Making Peace with Your Adult Children

The hidden health benefits.

Posted Jun 22, 2017

There are many reasons that Mark might be having health problems. He recently ended his marriage of more than forty years. He has a high-stress job and sometimes works seven days a week. Maintaining two households has tightened his budget considerably. His lifestyle has changed dramatically as he moved from a large suburban home to a tiny urban apartment and, since his former wife claimed the family car, he bicycles or walks to work. But despite what one might expect, Mark is thriving and is enjoying his best health in years.

While there are several factors in his robust good health such as relief at escaping a stressful home environment and better health habits including daily exercise, the most positive aspect of his life is the warm connection he maintains with his four adult children.

“They are truly the sunshine of my life,” he says. “It’s not that I see them a lot. Two live out of state and even the son and daughter who live locally are frantically busy with their own careers, with parenting young children, and all the other things that go along with being young adults. But there is a warm connection between us. When we do get together, it is wonderful. Perhaps most important, we express our love in many ways and we know we can count on each other.”

Having positive relationships with family members, especially with adult children, can be critical to good health. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease on May 2, 2017, found that those who have loving relationships with their adult children are less likely to develop dementia later on than those who have negative relationships.

This study analyzed data collected over a ten-year period from more than 10,000 healthy adults who were at least fifty years old. The participants were rated on levels of social support and researchers found that for every one-point increase in positive support, there was a decrease of 17 percent in the risk for dementia. The flip side of that—for each one-point increase in negative relationships with close family members—resulted in a 33 percent increase in dementia risk.

While the reasons for such results aren’t totally understood at this time, social support is always beneficial, particularly as we age. Those who feel unloved by their adult children and very much alone may be less likely to have a healthy lifestyle—filled with exercise, healthy eating, pleasurable pursuits, and warm connections with others.

“It’s the shame, discouragement, and depression that keep me at home with the blinds drawn,” a client I’ll call Sheila once told me. “I know I should be taking better care of myself. But I keep thinking ‘Why bother?’ When I don’t feel loved by my children, it’s hard to love myself very much.”

If, like Sheila, you are distressed about the distance and pain between you and an adult child, there are some steps you can take to help improve your relationship.

  1. Be the first to say “I’m sorry.”  Even if you’re convinced that you’re the wronged party, that your adult child owes you an apology, taking that first step to resolve any hurt or misunderstandings can mean so much. It takes tremendous love and commitment to step back and to look at the whole picture of what has happened between you and your adult child and to consider and apologize for your role in creating the distance between you.
  2. Accept changing roles and the realities of today.  You can’t always be central in your adult child’s life as he or she marries and has children of his or her own. Embrace the new people in your child’s life, cheer him on as he builds his independent adult life instead of hanging on, longing for what once was. You might wish you could see more of her, but rejoicing in what’s possible right now can help keep things positive between you.
  3. Respect your adult child’s autonomy.  Don’t intrude with unsolicited advice, opinions, or criticisms.
  4. Avoid power plays. Stepping in with money and expecting that to give you a major say in how your adult child lives her life can create resentment, anger, and distance. So can ultimatums.
  5. Realize that some emotional distance can improve your relationship. Research has found that a little distance can be a good thing. When parents stop trying to direct their adult children’s lives and when the grown children protect their parents from worry by being selective in discussing their problems, the parent-adult child relationships often improve.

What can you do if there’s nothing to be done to improve your relationship with a distant adult child?

Whether or not you have social support from your children, take good care of yourself. Get some form of exercise every day. Prepare healthy, delicious meals, even (or especially) if it’s just for you. Do things you truly enjoy. Build warm connections with other family members, with neighbors and with dear friends. You’re well worth the effort!

References

Khondoker, Mizanur; Rafnsson, Snorri Bjon; Morris, Stephen; Orrell, Martin; Steptoe, Andrew. Positive and negative experiences of social support and risk of dementia in later life: an investigation using the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. The Journal of Alzheimers Disease, vol 58, No. 1, pp 99-108, May 2, 2017.

Fingerman, K.L. “Sources of Tension in the Aging Mother-Adult Daughter Relationship”, Psychology and Aging, 11: 591-606, 1996.