3 Tips to Make Parenting an Adult a Little Easier

Sometimes the best way to help our kids is to not help them. – Kristen Welch

So your child’s just recently become an adult, and things have suddenly changed, haven’t they? They’re not interested in advice or guidance anymore, and as for your ability to control what they do – that’s gone.

Sound familiar?

This time period – the transition from child to adult in the child – is mirrored for the parent, as they transition from parent of a child to parent of an adult. And it’s one of those time periods that can feel very rocky, uncertain, and anxiety-producing for parents, especially if they’ve been a deeply involved parent for the first 18 years of their child’s life.

Here’s three things you can do to make this time period a little easier – both for yourself and for your adult child.

1. Listen

Listening is one of the most important things a parent can do when their child is an adult. One caution: listening, when your child is an adult, doesn’t mean “listen and solve the problem,” or “listen and give advice.” It means exactly what it says: listen.

New adults have a deep need to be seen, heard, and recognized as adults. When another adult (parent, boss, teacher) listens only to “fix” or to tell them what to do, it makes them feel unheard at best, and seen as an incompetent child at worst. I’m sure I don’t need to go into what this will do to connection, right?

Instead, listen so that your adult child feels heard. A great trick for this is to practice active listening: try to hear every single word they say. If you find yourself getting distracted by thoughts of the advice you’ll give or the way you’ll fix their problem, pull your attention back to what they’re saying, and do your best to hear every word they say.

When they wind down, you can paraphrase back to them what you think they said (and you should; this makes them feel heard and understood), but don’t offer advice, and don’t try to solve the problem for them. Just listen.

2. Treat Them Like Your Neighbor

A lot of parents of new adults really struggle with how to treat their adult child. Yes, they’re an adult (technically), but when you look at them all you can see is that sweet toddler who brought you a flower without a stem, or the nine-year-old who sang a solo in the school choir concert, or the 14-year-old who had earned all their camping-related badges in Scouts. You can’t quite see them as an adult, even though they are – and sadly, when you can’t see them as an adult, you probably won’t be able to treat them line one either… which takes us back to the feeling they get – they think that you think of them as an incompetent child.

Part of the reason for that feeling is that the boundaries between a parent and a not-yet-adult child, or young child, are different than the boundaries between an adult and another adult, no matter what their relationship is. Boundaries, and having respect for them, are one of the main things that define how we treat each other.

So for now, to get used to treating your adult child as an adult, start treating them the way you would treat your next-door neighbor. If the topic you want to talk about isn’t one you’d bring up with your neighbor, don’t bring it up with your adult child instead. If you want to guide, control, or protect your adult child – don’t. You wouldn’t do that for your next-door neighbor, right?

3. Let Them Fail

For many parents, it’s really hard to let their child fail. The idea that parents should protect their children from pain is a strong one, and hard to shake.

But let’s be honest. If your adult child never fails at anything, then they never develop the important feeling of competency. And competency is critical to being an adult and managing your life – if you always feel incompetent, you will never be able to do that.

Many parents, with the best of intentions, try to save their children from making mistakes, failing, or getting hurt. But as tough as it seems, it’s important to let them fail. You can be there for them to vent to (see “Listen”, above), but it’s really important that you let them go through the process of failing, trying again, and succeeding on their own, without someone else doing it for them.

In Summary

Many parents want to solve problems for, guide, and protect their children. That’s fine – until the child is an adult. But once they’re an adult, they have to learn how to do it on their own, to build competence and confidence – which are important qualities in an adult. So as hard as it might be, make sure that you listen actively, treat them like your next-door neighbor, and let them fail sometimes. They’ll thank you later!

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