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7 Strategies to Improve Relationships with Grown Kids

They followed your rules for years. It's time to let them make their own.

Key points

  • It's hard to break the habit of enmeshed boundaries with grown kids, but detaching with love is essential.
  • Who they are is not just or even a reflection of you, and it disrespects them to be treated that way.
  • Move beyond being the central figure in their lives so they can find love on their own terms.
  • It is a loving act to want your children to lead their own lives. Criticizing their decisions isn't helpful.

News flash: We’re all grown-ups here. Our kids are adults now. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real conversation with them? Keeping the lines open between the generations is a challenge. They’re busy with their lives, and opportunities for real communication may be limited by time, distance or unfinished business between you.

But there are some strategies to strengthen the ties that bind.

1. See them as they really are, not as you want them to be. Separating the children they were from the adults they’ve become is like wearing bifocals; you have to view them close up and from a distance at the same time. Sometimes it’s hard to realize they’ve had experiences you don’t understand or faced problems you’ve never had to deal with. When the six-footer you remember as a tiny infant says, "You don’t really know me at all," he’s at least partly right. And he wants to be seen as an individual, not as just an extension of you.

2. Let them dream their own dreams. What they want for themselves may differ from what you want from them, but they’re adults now, with the right to make their own decisions. Acting on their own goals isn’t a rejection of you, just an expression of their own uniqueness. If you insist that they follow a path you laid out for them they’ll go their own way and they may not leave a forwarding address. Remember, it’s a loving act to want your children to lead their own lives.

3. Avoid saying I told you so. Because your grown kids made some bad choices—a failed marriage, a business that went belly-up—doesn’t mean they can’t or haven’t made good ones. Remind them of those instead of harping on their failures, and don’t try to substitute your judgment for theirs when they’re at a crossroad.

4. Accept their claim to a life of their own. While they may seek your approval of their chosen life, it’s not essential to their happiness. If you withhold your acceptance, it’ll make much less difference to them than it will to you. They have to live with their spouse, you don’t, but you do have to resist prying into the privacy of their union.

5. Stay out of their quarrels with each other. When your kids don’t get along, your role is in the audience, not on stage. Let them negotiate their own relationship; don’t get in the middle by allowing them to communicate through you. And don’t speak to one sibling through the other, i.e., “Why doesn’t your brother call me?”

6. Listen, acknowledge, and accept. This may be the toughest one of all, but it can also be the most rewarding. Don’t argue, rationalize, or defend yourself when your kids carry grudges from the past, real or imagined. Heal old wounds by agreeing that either or both of you may have done things that contributed to the breakdown and by expressing your genuine regret that this happened, rather than trying to gaslight them. Make it safe for them to share their feelings, even if it’s painful to hear them; treat the information as useful feedback, not as an attack. You don’t have to agree with their version of the past, but you do have to hear it and accept that it is true for them.

7. Talk and listen as if they were your friends, not your children. If you show your grown kids the same tact and respect you show your chums, that’s what they’ll be. Instead of saying, "I don’t know what you see in that loser," when your daughter lets her boyfriend walk all over her, say, “Tell me what you love about him.” Rather than criticize your son for quitting one job before he has another, ask him to describe the ideal new one. Careful listening will tell you what they really want—support, empathy, a sounding board, or even a loan. Finally, don’t assume they’ll automatically know what you think, need, or expect. They can’t read your mind, even if you’re still their mother.

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