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Parenting After the Adolescent Becomes Adult

After adolescence, parenting adult children remains challenging and complex.

There's one thing about parenting; it never stops. Once you become a parent you remain a parent the rest of your life.

So the end of your child's adolescence is not the end of parenting; it only marks the transition to a new set of changes and challenges. But when is adolescence over, and what comes next? And how does parenting alter?

Adolescence ends in the early to mid twenties when a young person becomes psychologically, socially, and economically independent.

Psychologically, there is an authentic sense of individual identity - assuming one's fitting definition of self. Socially, there is a sense of autonomy - determination to adhere to one's own beliefs and follow one's own agenda. And economically there is the reliance on financial self-support - commitment to earn one's way without the need for parental assistance.

When adolescence is over, then young adulthood begins. Roughly spanning the early twenties to about thirty, this period ends when the young person becomes anchored in adulthood in at least three ways. He or she has played with enough independent freedom to want to settle down. There is an emerging sense of occupational or career future to work for. And there can be, but doesn't have to be, the desire to find a committed partner with who to share the journey of adulthood.

No matter how grown up, how much older they become, these adult offspring forever remain your children just as you forever remain their parent. And the relationship is always challenging because, like the rest of life, parenting demands constant change and accommodation.

What makes this accommodation hard for parents are several adjustments they must make: to tolerance, to reversal, and to demotion.

Start with TOLERANCE. If you are in "the sandwich generation," positioned between having older parents and adult children, you can understand how your children sometimes still struggle to get along with you by how you sometimes still struggle to get along with your parents.

You can see from getting impatient with your parents' irritating ways how your adult children can get impatient with yours. You can recognize that when the values of one generation (like church going, for example) are discarded by the next inevitable incompatibilities, conflict, and even estrangement can ensue. Intergenerational differences in adulthood can be difficult.

Bridging these differences with acceptance, like you have learned to do with your parents, is what you must learn to do with your grown children and they must learn to do with you. So you accept that you did not have perfect parents, that you were not perfect parents your selves, and that your grown children were not and are not perfect either.

You accept that just as you grew up in spite of as well of because of the parenting you received, the same that can be said for your children. And you can hope they come to accept the imperfections in you. After all, no matter how hard everybody tried, they all had failings and failures because at our best all of us are only human. So we must tolerate not only each other but ourselves.

Adjusting to REVERSAL can be challenging as well. When our children are young, our task is to get them to fit into our lives, to learn what we think is important, and to fulfil our agenda for what needs to happen. When they become adults, however, to a significant degree our roles reverse. Now our task as parents is to fit more into their lives, to understand what they believe is important in their lives, and to respect their agenda for what needs to happen in their lives.

Loss of traditional influence can be hard for some parents. When they still domineer adult children who still consent to submit to this dominance, not daring to displease or challenge parental authority, it often takes bold acts of independence, sometimes waiting until the young person's thirties, to break this dependency.

Then the adult child stubbornly embraces a new life path, adopts a new lifestyle, or selects a new life partner that parents disapprove. And when they question, criticize, or oppose this decision, the young person finally stands up for herself with a defiant statement of independence: "It's my life and I will live it as I please!"

And now that old observation rings true: ‘In the struggle over independence, parents never defeat their grown children; grown children always defeat their parents.'

The last reversal of the adult child/parent relationship plays out during the parents' older age when responsibility is dramatically shifted, when dependency is reversed. At the beginning of childhood, the old care-take and take charge of the young; but at the end of parental lives, the young care-take and take charge of their old.

Finally, there is DEMOTION for parents to get used to. When your adult child becomes established in the world, preoccupation with managing this separate life can take precedence over involvement in the lives of parents.

When the adult child marries, you become less important than this new partner. And when adult child and partner become parents, you become less important than this new child. Less important doesn't mean less loved, only less of a priority.

Then there can be the demotion from devoted to dutiful attention, when the weekly phone calls or occasional visits or remembering special occasions from an independent adult child sometimes feel more obligatory than heartfelt. But as one mother put it: "If dutiful is the best I can get, then I'll take it. Lesser caring is caring none-the-less."

It is the blessing and the curse of doing their job well: when parents succeed in growing their children to independence, now these adults will act more independently of them.

So does parenting end with parents not mattering? Not at all, if parents remain mindful of their primal roles. Remember how the little child called "Watch me!" "Listen to me!" "See what I can do!" "Let me tell you what I did!" What was it the little child wanted? The answer is parental attention, interest, and approval, needs the adult child never really outgrows.

So when parents continue their roles as emotional supporter, as rapt audience, and as tireless cheerleader, what they have to offer their adult children never goes out of style, never loses lasting value.

Perhaps the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke described the optimal relationship between parents and adult child when he wrote: "Once the realization that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky."

(Thanks to blogger Mary Quigley for chasing down this quote.)

For more about parenting adolesents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the tyranny of extremes.

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