Parenting an Adult: Being the Preferred Provider of Particular Things

When parents of children become the parents of adults, a lot of things suddenly shift under their feet. It’s kind of like experiencing an earthquake that didn’t quite knock your house down – but still put all the doors a little out of true. You go to close the kitchen door, and realize it’s bouncing back off of the doorframe. You try to open the bedroom door, and realize it sticks now, when it never used to. 

Parents who are going through the experience of their child becoming an adult often find that the most difficult thing to deal with is how the relationship changes. As the parent of a child, responsibilities were pretty clear: your job was to be the primary (or only) source of all of their needs. Whether those were needs for guidance, advice, protection, or rescue, it was your job to provide them. You did it every day, every week, for around 18 years. And after 18 years or so of providing them, not providing them seems strange and weird – even un-parental. 

Like dealing with a sticky door that never stuck before, you now have to think about what your child needs, now that they’re an adult. For some parents, it seems nearly impossible to see themselves as something other than provider, protector, rescuer, and advisor. They’ve trained in that for 18 years; they’re good at it. 

But now, their adult child pushes away their attempts to provide, protect, rescue, and advise. These kids! What do they want instead?

What your child’s needs are, and how you can meet them, is one of the areas where parents seem to have the most trouble adjusting when their child becomes an adult. Renate Fester, a writer on Quora (, called this the shift from being “the sole source of everything,” to “the preferred source of specific things.” Her labeling gives us a clue about how parents can solve this dilemma, without alienating their adult kids in the process.

First, parents have to let go of their old ways of parenting. Work on understanding that protecting, providing, guiding and advising are now going to be needs your child only has occasionally, not constantly. Most of the time, as an adult, they need to be able to protect themselves, provide for themselves, figure out their own next actions, and make their own decisions. Supporting them in this, instead of doing it for them, is going to be a big step that you’ll have to take, now your child’s an adult. 

Second, parents have to develop some new skills to support their child, instead of doing things for them. The first, and probably the most important, is active listening. In active listening, do your best to hear every word your child says. Focus on that. Don’t focus on what you’re going to say or advice or criticize. Just focus on the words they’re saying, and paraphrase it back to them: “So what I hear you saying is, you’re stressed out, because your workplace scheduled you to work on the same day as the final exam in your statistics class. Is that right?” Resist the urge to say “I’ll call your boss and make him understand that he has to give you that day off!” 

The second skill is guided asking. In guided asking, ask your adult child questions that help them work out their own solutions. Some examples of guided asking include: “How did your friend Joe deal with that situation with their boss? Do you remember?” or “What are a few things you could try to do that might fix this?” or “If you were going to give a friend advice on a situation like this, what would you tell them?” Instead of providing solutions, let them find their own – with your support.

Practice these two skills. Get good at them. Like anything new, it will feel strange at first. Keep doing them. Your adult child will take them as a signal: you trust them to manage as an adult, and you are always willing to be a listening ear if they need one. That builds trust like nothing else can with new adults. 

You’ll begin to find your adult child coming to you for specific things they still want your protection, provision, guidance or advice about – not everything, but specific things. Maybe your daughter still wants your advice on her love life. Maybe your son is still okay with you texting him to see how he’s doing every day or two. Find those particular things that your adult children want you to provide, and take pride in knowing that you’re the one who provides them. 

Adjusting to the role of “parent of an adult” can be tough, no question. But if you follow these simple steps, you’ll weather the earthquake and come out fine on the other side – even if your home now has some sticky doors. 

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