TO BE A PARENT is to be involved in our children’s lives—to wonder where they are, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling. Do they need help? Do they need space? And rarely do these questions go away when the children move away. As a Washington Post columnist recently wrote, your older children may have left your home, but they will never leave your heart.
Yet, the relationship between parents and children will change as children grow up and move away, graduate from college and find their first careers, or get married and start their own families. Of course, older children still need their parents’ involvement and support, but to a different extent and with different expectations.
In my psychotherapy practice, which specializes in repairing and enriching relationships, I often work with clients who are struggling to connect or communicate with their older children. For example, for one family, challenges arose when their middle son (late 20s) had a major disagreement with their youngest daughter’s new boyfriend (mid-20s) over Thanksgiving dinner. For another family, years of a conflict-ridden marriage culminated in the decision to divorce when the youngest child left for college. What often comes up in therapy sessions with families is teaching parents how to use new problem-solving skills and insights about young adult development to address the tricky issues that may arise when older children leave home.
Here are four situations I’ve encountered in my practice and how I’ve advised adjusting to changes in relationship.
Scenario 1: Moving away from their childhood home
After children have left home, many couples decide to downsize their living situation. This is often an exciting time for parents, but it often creates transition stress for the children, who may instead be focused on keeping their childhood memories, exclaiming “that’s my room!”
- Give older children as much notice as possible. Letting them know you’re considering a move and keeping them informed about the progress will help older children feel included in the process.
- Provide opportunities for them to help pack and sort the family’s belongings, which allows them to share stories and memories, save special items and the chance to say goodbye to their childhood home.
Scenario 2: Contributing to their financial support
Just because older children are out on their own doesn’t mean they’re financially independent. Are you willing to help supplement their living expenses? What would happen if you withdrew all support? It can be tricky to balance continuing to provide financial support while also encouraging (or requiring) financial independence.
- Connect them to free or low-cost financial planning software. Online budgeting services like Mint or You Need A Budget are great ways for geographically separated parents and older children to work together on making smart money decisions and starting good money-management habits.
- Articulate expectations and conditions for your continued financial support. Perhaps you are willing to assist with student loan payments as long as your older child is contributing to their retirement account. Be clear from the outset in order not to create confusion or disagreement as the support changes or ceases.
Scenario 3: Becoming in-laws or grandparents as they start their own families
One of the most exciting changes in parent-child relationships is the children’s transition to becoming spouses or parents themselves—and it can also be one of the most difficult transitions to make. Everyone has expectations about how the wedding day will go. Everyone has hopes and dreams for the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Sometimes, however, these expectations don’t align and can cause disappointment, hurt feelings and distance.
- Let them know you’ll follow their lead. Allowing your older children to set the level of your involvement that feels comfortable to them demonstrates that you trust their decisions. It also makes it easier to seek your support when they need it.
- Assuring them of your love and support during the hard times that may come, such as when their marriage hits the first rough patch or when they’re exhausted from a colicky baby, creates the space for them to confide in you without fear of judgment.
Scenario 4: Sharing challenging personal circumstances with them
When children are younger, parents often don’t reveal health problems, financial distress, or martial conflict. Keeping this boundary protects children from developmentally inappropriate information and stress. Once children are older, when they are themselves are grownups, sharing details with them becomes more appropriate but may also still be stressful for them.
- Be sensitive, but clear. Although it may be tempting to downplay difficult information, ambiguity can create a heightened sense of worry. Instead, highlight the important facts (such as the medical diagnosis and treatment plan), be sympathetic about how the information might make them feel and give them an opportunity to ask questions.
- Share carefully your own needs and feelings as you disclose difficult information. It may feel uncomfortable to allow yourself to be vulnerable with your older children in this way, but it is worth deepening your bond. Just remember there is a difference between sharing with them and burdening them—having other people in your life to lean on and share feelings with is a helpful way not to place all your emotional support needs on your children.
—Dr. Emily Cook
Dr. Cook is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland. Learn more by visiting emilycooktherapy.