When an adult child first becomes an adult, many parents have difficulty coping with it. But how they cope with it matters – both in the moment, and in the effects it can have on a future relationship with their adult child.
Some parents look at their adult child, nod, smile wistfully, and move on. They may feel some pain, but it’s manageable. They may miss the time when their child still needed them, but they know that it’s not the end of the relationship, even though it’s changing. Mixed in with the pain of the changing relationship is pride that they made it this far – and so did their adult child.
That’s pretty normal. Occasional sadness, occasional nostalgia for how things used to be, occasional loneliness – that’s normal with any change, including this one.
Other parents, however, tend to see their child’s adulthood as the end of the world. They feel intense grief and loss, and they can’t stop thinking about how life was when their child was younger. It can be debilitating. Many of these parents end up in a depressive slump, and feel like they’ll never get out of it.
That level of reaction to your child becoming an adult may be typical. We even have a term for it: Empty Nest Syndrome.
But it is not normal.
Often, this happens to the parents who weren’t really prepared for the reality of their child’s adulthood. They may be at a loss for what to do once their child, who’s been the focus of their life and their identity for 18 years or so, begins to do the things that adults do, and have to handle the realities that adults handle. Many of these parents struggle with the adjustment, because parenting a child and parenting an adult are not the same thing at all, and the only skill set they have is parenting a child.
One parent characterized her feelings as “I feel like my son’s broken up with me.” Another parent said it felt like her child had died. Yet another said that the extreme drop in contact and communication felt like her daughter was “ghosting” her.
On some level, these feelings seem to make sense. The child’s schedule no longer dictates yours. You may find that the friends you had, who were the parents of your child’s friends, really have nothing in common with you beyond being parents – and you drift apart. The endless piles of laundry disappear. You cook dinner and realize that one of the people you’re cooking for isn’t there for dinner anymore, so you always have leftovers. Phone calls are short, if they happen at all. Texts and voice mails go unanswered.
For a parent who was deeply involved in their child’s life, the distance that new adults demand can come as a shock that rivals a 7.0 Richter Scale earthquake. And for a parent who isn’t ready to adjust, it can feel like trying to rebuild a house after the earthquake hits. All you seem to see is rubble.
This adjustment is usually worse for these parents during the early years of the child’s adulthood. For the first six to eight years after the child turns 18, the parents will really have to curb their habitual impulses to fix, guide, protect, or give advice. After that, their adult child might come to them and ask for help and advice more, once they’ve settled into their adulthood and found their own identity as an adult.
But if the parents keep on parenting as if the adult child is still a child during these critical six to eight years (and many parents try to do this), there’s a good chance the adult child will experience it as an attempt to control them, as well as an indicator that their parents can’t respect their adulthood, and cut off contact to force the issue. And unfortunately, around 60% of adult children who estrange from their parents say they have no interest in reconnecting.
I’ve recently begun to study this more, because the parents of several of my undergraduate coaching clients had trouble making the transition from “parent of a child” to “parent of an adult,” and I ended up coaching them through part of that transition, so they had a better handle on what their adult children really needed. That’s why I created The Empty Nest School. I’ve put together a short class to help these parents learn some tools for the transition, and find a community of other parents who are going through the same process.
Parents often miss their adult children. It’s normal to miss them. But if it’s creating a situation where the parent is experiencing grief or depression, especially if it’s making it hard to live their day-to-day life, then I’d really recommend the parent seek out some help. You don’t have to go through this alone.