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Are You a Good Friend to Your Grown-up Kid?

5 tips for relating to your now-adult child

En español | When your children reach their 20s, the balance of connection between you and them seesaws. The challenge becomes how to find common ground without overstepping the comfortable boundaries between you. The issues become how much time to spend together and how to spend it, how much information to share and about what, which battles to fight and when to turn the other cheek, what advice to give and when silence is golden.

Father and adult son hugging, Friends with your grown up kid

In your new relationship with your adult child, listen more than you talk and keep doing what you love together. — Todd Wright/Blend Images/Getty Images

In interviews for our forthcoming book, When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?, 75 percent of parents said that their current relationship with their adult children was better now than the relationship they had when their kids were 15. The best part, most agreed, is "the friendship that emerges along with the adult."

But even a good relationship with grown kids may have its pitfalls. Parents still may be tempted to give unsolicited advice, do whatever's needed to protect kids from harm — and remind them to get car insurance. And grown kids may be frustrating friends who don't return parents' calls, cancel dates at the last minute or text their buddies while dining with the family. Just when you think you're dealing with an equal, you may be brought up short.

Forgiveness is the name of the game, but don't be afraid to set some ground rules— such as no cellphones at the dinner table, or asking that they return a text from you that begins, URGNT.

Emerging adults need a different kind of closeness than when they were young. They need emotional support that helps boost, not stifle, their confidence in their own coping skills, and they need parents to bear witness to their increasing capacity to take on responsibilities, even if there are setbacks or mishaps along the way.

Here are five strategies to nurture the friendship during your kids' 20s and beyond:

1. Observe respectful boundaries

For emerging adults, keeping a privacy buffer is a crucial part of defining a separate identity, building confidence in making decisions, and learning to stand on their own. Parents who have cherished a close relationship when their children were younger may feel hurt if they sense their grown kids pulling away. Suddenly kids are balking at coming home during their vacations or are no longer available for lengthy phone chats. While it's natural to miss the former intimacy, it helps to understand their increased need for distance is appropriate for this stage of their lives and not to take it as a personal affront.

2. Listen more than you talk

Restraint is the elusive virtue now required of you, to keep from giving too much unwelcome advice or asking too many nosy questions. After years of hands-on parenting, you may bristle at how often you must bite your tongue as your children make both smart and foolish decisions. You may struggle with the want-to-fix-its, but if you jump in too quickly to unravel grown kids' dilemmas, their important problem-solving muscles won't have a chance to develop.

That said, there are still times during your kids' 20s when you do have to voice your concerns and get involved even if your kids don't want you to (and even if you aren't happy stepping in yourself). If you're wondering about whether to say something, ask yourself if the behavior that's bothering you is serious, dangerous or simply unpleasant. For instance: If your son appears unshaven and scruffy for the family reunion, well, that may not be pretty, but it's not life-threatening. But if your daughter shows signs that she's smoking pot on a daily basis, that habit can be harmful. You need to address it directly with her and be ready with resources of outside professional help.

Next page: Dealing with arguments and getting along with your child's significant other. »

3. Do what you love together and intimacy will follow

When kids were young, family time happened inevitably. But now to hang out with your cooking-on-all-burners 20-somethings, you need to get creative.

Many parents will go to great lengths to carve out time and activities that work for their grown children. Hard-to-get baseball tickets or dinner reservations, biking, skiing, even training for a marathon, like one gutsy, 64-year-old mother of two agile sons. Her report: "My knees hurt, but I learned so much about them."

Jigsaw puzzles work for the less athletic, according to another mother of three sons ages 18 to 25. Heart-to-hearts follow their shared searches for matching pieces. "I take what's offered, I'm never down their throats about anything, and I very rarely raise a subject they mentioned once in another conversation." Plus, she respects her guys' conversational styles. "They keep it short and sweet. A long discussion is 60 to 90 seconds."

4. Set ground rules for how to disagree

Many of the benefits parents reap at this stage result from the kids' more sharply honed communication skills. Compared with their younger selves, emerging adults are more likely to talk things over with their parents and peaceably process disagreements. Plus, they're better able to see the other person's point of view. Their frontal cortex is ripening like fine wine, and that means improved judgment, less impulsivity and a greater likelihood they'll think before they speak.

If conflict does start to escalate, dial it down by listening to them without interrupting and then commenting in a neutral tone. When that's not possible, taking a time-out for both sides to calm down is as useful at this stage as it was during their toddler years. Sleeping on it or letting heated emotions cool is also as good a strategy to use with grown children as it is for any couple or close friends.

5. Make room for the significant others in their lives

Maybe you wish that your son's girlfriend had fewer tattoos or that your daughter's boyfriend had a better job. But unless you notice behavior that's seriously disturbing, do your best to embrace the people your grown kids love. And when they do settle on a partner, accept that it follows naturally for them to put that person first. When it comes to big decisions, plans or handling hardships, even the most dutiful grown children will shift their primary attachment to their mate. If they don't, watch out: Marital trouble may follow.

As parents, you're in the business of putting yourselves out of a job when your kids grow up, so nurture your own dreams while continuing to cultivate a close friendship with them.

Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Jensen Arnett are coauthors of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult to be published by Workman in May. Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer specializing in family issues and is the author of four nonfiction books. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is a leading expert on emerging adulthood.

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