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How I Finally Learned to Get Along With My Adult Children

Doing this one thing is key.

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illustration of adult child laying in baby stroller in front of judge
Elia Barbieri
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Anyone who has seen season two of The Bear on Hulu knows that Jamie Lee Curtis portrays the most toxic mom of adult children ever.

Curtis’ character, Donna Berzatto, the highly erratic matriarch of a highly dysfunctional family, is a fireworks display of parenting danger spreading seeds for trauma and discord to her grown children.

For generations, pop culture has served up mothers — and fathers — who embody the worst of parenting. Consider curmudgeon Archie Bunker in the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, a newly sober mom in CBS' Mom from 2013-2021, and the truly Wild West patriarch John Dutton III in Yellowstone.

We can see who not to be. We can also choose how best to be with our kids who are no longer kids.

I am not a perfect mother to my sons, 35, 33 and 30. But I strive to be someone whom they will randomly call to go out to brunch. Decades after doing their laundry and shuttling them to practices, interactions can be tricky. I avoid adding my "two cents" and let them steer the conversations without critique.

"Be careful to keep judgmental statements out of the relationship with your adult child," says Heidi Berr, LCSWR, a clinical social worker and author of Building a Healthy, Rewarding Relationship with Your Adult Child: Successful Expectations, Strategies, and Self-Care for Parents. "Words do sting and may have a lasting impact."

At 58, with two sons ages 30 and 27, Berr describes what she has seen in her therapeutic practice: parents who offer a hollow apology to adult children who feel wronged. Instead, a sincere apology shows them you are willing to acknowledge your actions. It paves the way for open discussion.

When offering feedback on their work lives, friendships, partner choices or how they present themselves in the world, find the positive in your adult progeny.

"Focus on attributes of your child that you like and admire," Berr says. “Compose a list of your child’s virtues, assets and accomplishments." This is even if you are frustrated or disappointed when it comes to their careers and significant others. (And, resist asking the question many wanna-be grandmothers ask: "So, are you planning to have kids soon?")

Berr adds, "Refrain from offering advice. It can trigger old feelings about a parent/adolescent conflict."

I have been there and unfortunately done that. Encounters are way more enjoyable if we steer clear of analyzing the past because everyone has their own version of history.

These bonds are complicated by the reality that during the pandemic, millions of adult children moved back home, making the empty nest full again. According to the Pew Research Center, in July 2020, 26.6 million young adults, or 52 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29, were living at their parents’ homes. This was the largest number of adult children living at home since the Great Depression.

But this is not nearly the percentage of adult children living with their parents in Europe, Pew Research Center reports. Croatia has a rate of 76 percent of children aged 18 to 34 living in their parents' homes, with Italy at 70.5 percent of adult children living at home.

Newer research from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University shows many in the U.S. have moved out of their parents’ homes. Yet the tendency for parents to discard boundaries to take care of adult children physically, emotionally and financially is still common.

"A lot of well-intended parents are trying to support their kids and do too much for them," says Barbara Best, principal and co-founder of CAP STRAT and co-leader of the CAP STRAT Women’s Forum.

Supporting client relationships and business development for the wealth management, investment advisory and asset management firm, Best says she has seen some parents spend their retirement funds — putting their own finances at risk — when helping their grown children. Setting financial limits and establishing an exit strategy to cut the strings is crucial.

"If your kids are struggling and come home to live with you, charge them rent," says Best, 64, mother of 22-year-old Cate. "When you give them too much, you’re not helping them."

Starting when her daughter was four, Best created the practice of asking Cate to place money she earned or monetary gifts into three jars marked "save, spend and share." It was a way of sharing her values around money.

Of course, staying close with your grown children is about much more than money matters. It’s about being a role model and someone who listens.

Norma Rixter, 68, is a fan of listening. The former business consultant and fitness trainer, now a contract substitute teacher for her local suburban K-8 public schools, says she uses the three words, "suggest, recommend and encourage" in conversations with her son, 38, and daughter, 35.

"I provide that listening platform, that safety zone," says Rixter. "My kids refer to me as their best friend." That’s the relationship she had with her late mother and something she aspired to have with her own children.

"It’s a tightrope we walk as parents," Rixter adds. "You don’t want to be restrictive, but give them enough latitude where they can gain confidence. Let them know you believe they’ve got this. I don’t feel the need to always be right with my children."

Also acknowledging that this generation has different goals and expectations than many of us had at their age is key to minimizing conflict.

In his 2014 book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, author Jeffrey Jensen Arnett writes, "To be a young American today is to experience both excitement and uneasiness, wide-open possibility and confusion, new freedoms and new fails."

While many of us perhaps were married, had long careers in one field and families before we turned 35, projecting a life that mimics those paths onto our adult children can tarnish the relationship.

"Don’t expect your adult child to meet the developmental milestones and achievements at the same age as you did," says clinical social worker Berr. "If parents accept that, they’re going to freak out a lot less."

Yes, you can disagree, just don’t preach. In the end, the key is creating a judgment-free zone.

What kind of relationship do you have with your grown kids? Let us know in the comments below.

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