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Mothering (Not Smothering) Adult Children

How to transition and what to avoid in your new parenting role.

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illustration of a daughter walking away from smothering mother trying to get her attention
Oscar Bolton Green
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After birthing, nursing, soothing, protecting and cheering every milestone, how do you let go when your kids reach adulthood? My epiphany arrived via an avocado, as I tried to encourage my 27-year-old daughter to take one perfectly ripe one from our home to her apartment, even though I knew her fridge was bursting with groceries.

Other than signing in to our Netflix account, she was financially independent. She could buy a case of avocados, but I still needed to give her things. Was it a symbol of my enduring love for her? I didn’t want to—and couldn’t—stop mothering her.      

The next week she sent me a TikTok, and I felt cool that she didn’t dismiss me as too clueless to enjoy the latest social media craze. This hilarious video featured comedian Leah Rudick as a satirical mom of an adult daughter before she flies away on a trip.      

“Here’s some fruit,” she begins, “take the whole bowl.” Out come leftovers: “We’ll never eat them!” Next a huge tin of coffee, and she even pushes forward the coffeemaker: “We’ll never use it again.” By the time she was foisting 12 bottles of water and a suitcase of canned goods—in case the apocalypse arrived thousands of miles in the air—I wasn’t laughing anymore. “That’s you, Mom,” my daughter texted.

I keep wanting to give. Increasingly, she needs not to receive.      

Transitioning from being a mother of young children to grown ones is a challenge. Legally, our children are adults when they reach their 18th birthday. Yet full brain maturity often doesn’t occur until age 25, according to current research, cited by Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist and coauthor of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. Unlike our grandparents’ generation, our kids become adults much later.

For perhaps the first time in history, we’ve raised “boomerang children,” many of whom return home after a period of independence. Millennials living at home soared from 15 percent in 2016 to 52 percent in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. This may be due to economic necessity, especially prevalent during the first year of the pandemic.      

Eventually—we hope—they return their keys and go off on their own again. But even if your kids haven’t boomeranged back into your kitchen full-time, emerging adulthood is an in-between developmental stage of personal identity from age 18 to 29. The term was coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, senior research scholar at Clark University in Massachusetts.

No wonder it’s so hard to let go!

As parents of young children, we are in charge of deciding where our kids will go to school, whom they’ll play with, which summer activities they’ll participate in. By adolescence, they have more power over certain choices, but parents still control much of what they do. In emerging adulthood, there is less that parents can control—other than paying for college, for example. Once our children become financially independent, there is a big shift.

“The older they get, the less you determine the nature of the relationship and the more they determine it,” Arnett told me in an interview. “They will be very intent on deciding for themselves where to live, how they will live and how often they’ll have contact with you. They know what’s no longer in your control, and they like it that way.”

This shift of control is the key change in dynamics between parents and children when they reach adulthood—and the most challenging part for parents. Even if you think you have the wisest advice to offer, your kids may not want to listen. Sure, you have experienced more of the complexities and pitfalls of life, and you only want the best for them. But by their mid-20s, adult children are determined to make their own decisions, from education to job choices to romantic partners. And they may conceal certain parts of their lives if they’re afraid we may not approve.

“We have to let go of the control, even if we don’t want to, even when we think their decisions are not good ideas,” Arnett advises.

Romantic partnerships are the least likely subject that adult children are willing to discuss with parents. “The harder you push, the less they want to hear,” Arnett says. “You don’t have a choice to give up control. You only have a choice on how to respond to it.”

It’s tough to pull back after all those years of nurturing your children. An exception is if you think there is anything unhealthy or abusive going on in their lives or relationships. At those critical times, they’re more apt to listen, Arnett says, “if you haven’t previously intruded in things that are none of your business.”

Fortunately, many decisions that parents may want to control and that may result in tension—like what kind of car to buy—won’t matter much later on. “You’ll be laughing about them years later because they’re so overblown,” Arnett predicts with a chuckle.

I’ve learned to stop trying to send my daughter home with avocados. She knows I love her. I want to show her that I respect her ability to thrive on her own. Recently, we went out for ice cream and started wrestling over who should pay. She pulled out her phone more quickly than I could mine, pushing me aside and clicking “pay” for both of us.

She’s not a little kid whom I’m treating to ice cream anymore, even though I’ll always remember her that way. Her small gesture is a huge display of her independence and maturity. I let her control it and admire her for it. Off we go on a stroll, savoring our cones, chatting like the two adults we are.

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