While there’s no universal how-to guide, there are things you can do to help you stay connected when the kids aren’t kids anymore
By Caroline Fortin
It’s something every parent must learn to do: let the children leave the nest. But once they’ve found their wings, how to you stay close to them without being invasive? The answers involve a little introspection and a lot of communication.
A prerequisite for creating a close relationship with your adult children is to relinquish the role of parent, says Sylvie Galland, a retired psychotherapist living in Switzerland and the author of a book on relationships between adults and their parents. “The goal with children is to make them independent,” she says. “When you’re overprotective or too directive, they feel like children and can become submissive or rebellious. That’s why it’s important to realize that once your children become adults, your role as a parent is obsolete. You have to let go of the position of teacher and transmitter of values that you occupied for the first 20 years of their lives. Your relationship must become adult to adult, person to person.”
This acceptance comes more easily to those who aren’t defined only by their role as parents, adds Nathalie Parent, a Quebec City psychologist and author. “If you’re invested in things beyond your children, if you’ve developed interests and passions, it’s easier to redefine yourself.”
You may be tempted to measure the quality of your relationship by how often you see or talk to your kids. “But quality has nothing to do with quantity,” Parent says. “Quality is found in the communication you have, in each person’s openness and ability to express what they’re feeling without making the other person feel guilty.”
Marjolaine Langlois, a 67-year-old retired teacher and the mother of three sons who are now 41, 43, and 45, says she and her husband fostered good communication intuitively. “My husband and I are very close to them, and I truly believe that it’s because from the time they were very young, we always encouraged communication,” she says. “We listened to them, we were attentive to their emotions, and we respected whatever they were going through, whatever their age. We never let problems escalate: we sat down and talked about them. I often say to my husband that we are lucky to have such a good relationship with our boys, who invite us to their birthday parties with their friends, to dinner or the theatre and who also invite themselves over for the weekend or for their holidays. But, in fact, it wasn’t luck—we worked on this over the years.”
Moreover, Langlois says she doesn’t mind if her sons don’t call every week. “I was never someone who called my mother every day, even though she would have liked that,” she says. “I didn’t feel the need. I’d rather my kids call me when they want to, and not out of obligation. And if I’m missing them, I call them.”
That’s exactly what we should do. “It irritates a lot of adult children to have parents who wait, hoping for any sign of life and suffering when they don’t get it,” Galland says. “It’s hard for them to be their parents’ primary focus. That’s why it’s important to be an individual, to have your own life. And if you want more contact, you need to talk to them about it instead of waiting for the phone to ring.”
In any case, a too-close relationship isn’t desirable, both experts say. “If a parent needs to talk to their adult child every day, or vice versa, there’s a dependency,” Parent says.
How can you be present in your children’s lives without being intrusive? “When you’re sensitive and empathetic, you pick up on the signals they send,” she says. “If they always have a good reason for saying no when you suggest a visit, that’s a sign that you may be asking for too much. You can step back a bit and let them come to you. But you can also talk about it, asking questions rather than making statements: ‘Is this a good time for you? Are you free to chat?’ or ‘Can we get together soon?’ And, of course, you should never drop by without a warning.”
Sometimes, it’s not a parent’s presence but his or her attitude that’s invasive. “My mother always sees the negative side of everything,” says Isabelle, 52, who understandably prefers not to give her last name. “She criticizes constantly, judging my life and other people’s. For years, I avoided her as much as possible: I saw her only on her birthday and at Christmas. I knew this made her unhappy, but she was draining all my energy. One day, I calmly confronted her. I asked her directly why she was like that. And I understood that she’d had a lot of unhappiness and was unconsciously burdening me with it. Clearing the air allowed us to have a much better relationship afterwards.”
When your interactions are tinged with conflict, it’s difficult to cultivate a satisfying relationship. “The greatest legacy parents can leave a child is to work on themselves, to attend to their own emotional experience; that frees adult children from responsibilities that don’t belong to them,” Parent says, adding that people should consider individual or family therapy when needed.
Cool Parenting 101
Just as communication and mutual respect promote close relationships, other behaviours can cause harm. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls:
– Offer a sympathetic ear. “Sometimes saying ‘You should’ is justified, but it’s always pointless,” Galland says. “Our children’s lives are their own.” Unless the kids ask for your opinion, don’t offer it. “If they’re going through a hard time, it’s better to offer a sympathetic ear and ask them what they need: ‘Would you like me to come over and spend time with you? Is there any way I can help you?’” Parent says. “If you’ve been through something similar, you can talk about how you got through it while avoiding saying things like ‘If I were you, I’d….’”
– Stay open. It’s not possible to always agree with your adult child or to have the same view of the world. “The goal is not to convince the other person at all costs but to accept that you disagree,” Galland says. Being open-minded is more likely to have good results than being rigid.
– Be discreet. “When you need to confide in someone, especially about very personal issues such as sexuality and marital problems, talk to your friends, not your children,” Parent says. “Even when they’re adults, this could put them in an awkward position in which their loyalties are divided.”
– Respect their emotional experience. “Parents can get so upset when adult children talk about childhood wounds that they can’t really hear them,” Galland observes. “They feel a need to defend themselves. If your child tells you they felt hurt, you can’t deny their feelings or justify yourself. The only way to alleviate their pain is to really hear them.”
– Intervene rarely. While you should resist the temptation to involve yourself in personal matters such as relationships with partners, it depends on the situation. “I wasn’t an ostrich mother who puts her head in the sand, so I won’t be an ostrich grandmother,” Langlois says. “I trust them, and I let them live their lives. But if I feel that one of my grandchildren could be in danger or if one of my sons were to become violent with one of my daughters-in-law—which would never happen—I would intervene. If something is worrying me, I try to look at the situation with what I know, and if I need information, I approach the subject by talking about my feelings: ‘This is worrying me, and I’d like to try and understand it better.’”
– Live and let live. For her book, Galland asked 16 participants to define what type of parents they would like to be. “Every single person mentioned not being judgmental,” she says. “Parents have a lot of work to do on themselves to let their children live the way they want. Being listened to by someone who wants the best for you feels good.”