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6 Ways to Minimize Adult Child-Parent Tensions

It's important to be clear-eyed, even when you basically get along.

Key points

  • Boundaries remain important even though a parent may be heavily involved in an adult child's life.
  • Money and the exchange of it can be symbolically charged and needs to be handled carefully and with attention.
  • Differences in opinion about childrearing are a hot-button issue for many adult children and their parents.
  • Favoritism remains an especially thorny issue in many families and needs to be addressed squarely.
Photograph by Phillip Goldsberry. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Phillip Goldsberry. Copyright free. Unsplash

As I wrote in an earlier piece, studies show that parents are more involved in their adult children’s lives than they were in previous generations; they are often a source of financial support, childcare, and more. (This piece is aimed at adult children who are living independently, and not those still under your roof. It also doesn’t apply to adult children who are struggling with addiction or mental illness, diagnosed or not.) That said, there are, inevitably, sources of tension between the households but there are also ways of troubleshooting potential problems.

It's worth saying, however, that when the parent-child relationship has weak historical underpinnings, tensions can increase significantly. Yes, sometimes, family ties erode to a point of no return.

Parenting Styles and the Need to Pivot, Even Now

What makes it hard to parent well is that your style of parenting has to evolve to meet your child’s needs; it’s one thing to deal with a rambunctious toddler and quite another to help a teenager who’s trying to find his or her path. Experts single out the authoritative parenting style—one in which the child is permitted to make choices (and mistakes), while receiving guidance—as the best, compared to an authoritarian style (“My way or the highway”), a permissive one (basically absentee, with no expectations of the child’s behaviors and no rules or boundaries), or a neglectful approach (“You figure it out”).

But being the parent of an adult child has its own trickiness and an authoritative parent may find it hard to negotiate the new parameters which may include the child’s spouse or partner and, of course, another set of parents. You may not love that spouse or partner in the ways you hoped you would, for example, and you may find it hard to keep your mouth shut about that but, the reality is that unless you believe that the partner is actively abusing your child, silence is golden.

The higher in control you are by nature, the harder it’s going to be. The more rigid your expectations about what your relationship to your adult child “should” look like, the bumpier it will get. No, I am not saying become a doormat, but being flexible is key.

What follows are some tips, drawn from interviews and comments by readers, as well as my own experience as the mother of an adult child.

6 Tactics to Minimize Stress

This isn’t a comprehensive list but it is aimed at the most common sources of tension.

1. Don’t Offer Advice Unless You’re Asked

This is a general rule, of course, and I firmly believe in having duct tape at the ready if you are tempted especially if you think your child’s decision is a mistake. But if that mistake is deciding to buy a house you would never think of buying or making a career decision that runs counter to how you would have done it, ixnay on the commentary unless you are specifically asked. My daughter lived in an apartment—a five-story-walk-up—that I would not have lived in but she loved it and I said nary a word except to admire the exposed brick. The truth was that I didn’t have to live there and she did and so what I thought was irrelevant.

This becomes very tricky when the adult child makes important financial decisions which you have good reason to believe are wrong but, again, I would counsel tact. And don’t take it personally if your unasked-for-advice is completely ignored. He or she is an adult.

If you are asked for advice, don’t be surprised if your thoughts aren’t always welcomed. That’s okay; adults are allowed to disagree and whatever you do, do not take it personally.

2. Be Crystal Clear About Financial Help

If the help comes with strings attached, say so outright and don’t presume that your adult child will necessarily intuit that the money you are giving him or her means that you will have some say in how it is used. I personally think that gifts should be string-free but many people don’t and it has caused havoc in families when the terms of the gift have not been made crystalline. One adult child gave her parents the money back after the terms they imposed on the supposed “gift” of money for the downpayment on a house included parental approval of both the house and the neighborhood. Their relationship has not recovered.

If you are loaning your adult child money, do draw up papers detailing how and when you expect the loan to be repaid. The point here is making sure that there is no misunderstanding. If a very large sum of money is involved—a loan large enough that you could not afford to forgive it—you may want to talk to a lawyer. Yes, that sounds draconian, but if you have heard as many stories about familial estrangement as I have, it’s good to be forewarned.

3. Follow Your Adult Child’s “Rules of the House”

A reliable source of stress between adult children and their parents is often about childrearing and that’s especially likely to rise to the top if the parent is actively caretaking the grandchildren. If you don’t agree with your son or daughter’s approach, do not undercut them in front of their children; that is a private conversation that needs to be handled with delicacy, if at all. Perhaps most important, do not assume that your babysitting his or her children gives you special authority or that there are strings attached to what you are doing for them. You should be doing it because you want to. Period.

4. Respect Boundaries: Yours and Theirs

Healthy boundaries are part of every relationship and that includes the one between the adult child and his or her parent. Just as you don’t expect your adult child to show up at your door unannounced (unless it’s for a special surprise), respect your adult child’s privacy as well, whether or not you happen to have keys or access. Don’t insinuate yourself into family discussions or disagreements unless you are specifically asked to; if someone wants your opinion, he or she will ask.

5. Avoid Favoritism (Always)

No one willingly admits to having a “favorite” kid—the mantra is “I love all my children equally”—but it’s so commonplace that it has been extensively researched and even has a fancy name which is Parental Differential Treatment or PDT, for short. Children—even adult children—are rightly sensitive to PDT, especially if the pattern echoes that of their childhood.

Be consciously aware of what you offer to whom; yes, it’s possible that one adult child needs your help more than another or welcomes your involvement more but try to be even-handed. Gifting a child “who needs it” while skipping the one who doesn’t will rightly cause friction. Make sure, too, that you are treating your grandchildren without playing favorites; seeing a pattern of favoritism carried over to the next generation is frequently cited as a cause of adult child-parent estrangement.

6. Tolerate Polite Disagreement and Contention

There are inevitable disagreements among and between people in any relationship but the parent-adult child disagreement may seem more freighted because parents sometimes feel their word is the last one. That's going to be very true for a parent who needs to be "right" all the time.

It’s not whether you argue but how you argue that matters, as psychologist John Gottman has pointed out. There is nothing inherently “disrespectful” about adult children expressing disagreement, as long as it’s done politely. When you gather four or more adults together—whether they are children and parents or not—it’s unlikely that there’s always going to be a consensus, much less a meeting of the minds.

There is little more satisfying than seeing your relationship with your adult child evolve and thrive.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2023

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