In my previous post, I wrote about my changing relationships with my adult children. As my son Ben, a 28-year old musician, observed in a recent email, “As we have come to understand that boundaries are different than they once were, we’ve tacitly accepted it but also had moments here and there where it has become clear that a specific boundary is different than it once was.”
And it’s in those “moments” that we parents often struggle. Should we remain silent? Should we speak up? And if we speak up, what do we say, and how do we say it?
Looking for answers, I called up Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. As you can imagine from her title, Nemzoff advocates speaking up—but with a few caveats. Here are her suggestions:
Lay the groundwork for adult conversations. One way to do that, says Nemzoff, is by sharing some of your daily dilemmas before your child leaves the nest. Annoyed at your boss, for example? Share the story.
“Often parents feel they have to be perfect in their children’s eyes or they don’t want to bother them, but children learn a great deal from our mistakes and our struggles,” says Nemzoff. “So learning that you were miffed at your boss today is an interesting thing because you stayed at the job even though you were miffed. How did you handle it? Did you blow up? Or did you talk to him or her a few days later?”
She also suggests soliciting their advice when appropriate. “Say, for example, you have a noisy coworker. They know about that. They face it every day in the cafeteria at school.”
Invite them into solutions. Chats about real-life problem-solving can set the stage for later conversations. For example, if your college freshman, home for a holiday break, bristled over rules set in high school, Nemzoff suggests making a pre-emptive phone call before he returns in the spring.
“Think about the rough spots and then talk about them on the phone,” she says. “Perhaps a rough spot was when you asked, ‘What time are you coming home?’ You can acknowledge that at college no one’s asking that, but explain that as his mother, you can’t just turn it off. Perhaps instead you can ask, ‘At what time should I start to worry?’”
“You have to be flexible, but so does he,” Nemzoff adds. “He has to understand that things have changed for you, too, and that you may not be as available as you were when he lived at home full-time.”
Choose your battles. As much as parents don’t want to feel silenced, they can opt to not say anything. “Being silenced by someone else is very different from deciding to be silent,” says Nemzoff. If your adult child’s behavior isn’t harming anyone, then perhaps you should remain silent and save your advice for another time, she suggests. Nemzoff also recommends couching the advice you do give as just one perspective, suggesting that your children seek other opinions as well.
Use the same communication skills you employ with others. As with anyone, timing, tone, and environment all matter when initiating an important conversation with your adult child. You wouldn’t ask your boss for a raise after making a big mistake, any more than you would loudly demand a raise in a public place.
“We fantasize that we can say anything we want to our kids, but the truth is, we never could,” Nemzoff says. “When I’m babysitting my grandson I don’t tell him that we are going to the circus while I’m putting him in bed. He’d never get to sleep!”
Maintaining open communications with our children is endlessly challenging, but ultimately rewarding. And, as Ben notes, always evolving.
“Gradually coming to see your parents as equals, or at least equally human, is a big one. While the first 18 to 22 years of my life were spent as the focus of care and attention while I faced various transitions, I now find myself somewhat stable, while my parents are wrestling with major changes to the life that they’ve had over the last 30 years. Seeing this has led me to understand our relationship as being co-equal in certain ways. For example, as a freelancer in a creative field undergoing major changes due to the Internet, I can trade ideas and commiserate with my mom’s journey as a writer.”
In addition to Nemzoff’s book, I also recommend this essay by writer Dominique Browning, which contains valuable tips for planning a vacation with adult children. In retrospect, if my husband and I had followed Browning’s first rule, “Turn it over to a younger power,” our Paris trip would have gone much more smoothly.