Dr. Paul on forging an adult relationship with our adult children

We hope we’ll have a loving relationship with our children when they leave the nest. But there are no guarantees.

My friend Jill called me the other day, concerned about Jim, her 33-year-old son. Jim is an artist who’s having trouble supporting himself. He has a couple of day jobs, but over the last several years he’s depended on his parents for help with rent and other expenses.

Jill and her husband are starting to resent Jim’s lack of responsibility for paying his own way. He expects his parents to bail him out.

It can be difficult to navigate and forge an adult relationship with an adult child. Yet, it’s an important component in the arc of a family’s life. No matter how old they get, we will always be their parents and they will always be our children. They will always consider us part of their “security net” as long as we are alive.

I always knew that my parents would help me if something unforeseen happened in my life. That knowledge was reassuring, although I never had to rely on it. My parents helped us with a down payment on our first house and with college tuition for our daughters. And we helped them when they became old and infirm.

While young children’s lives can have their own challenges, they’re often more predictable. Adult life is far more varied and complex. Our adult children will inevitably experience some of the ups and downs of grownup life, including divorce, health crises, problems with kids, financial upheaval and unexpected job changes.

We hope we’ll have a warm, loving relationship with our children when they leave the nest. We hope that they will want to have us in their lives. But there are no guarantees. Adult parent-child relationships can be thorny.

So, when do moms and dads help their adult children, either financially or otherwise?

Only support causes you believe in. We helped our daughters with graduate school because we believe in the value of education. I didn’t help one daughter when she wanted to quit her job before she had another one. I didn’t believe that was the right thing to do. Love is unconditional. Financial support isn’t.

Don’t do anything that will engender resentment on your part. That will be bad for your relationship. When parents start to resent helping their kids it’s time to reevaluate each other’s expectations. It’s important for both parents and their kids to make those expectations explicit. Resentment is like rust — it can erode a relationship.

Let your kids struggle to find their own solutions to life’s problems. Don’t rush to bail them out. They need to learn how to solve their own adult problems. We won’t be around forever.

Don’t enable dysfunctional behavior. Jill wonders if Jim has a drug problem that they don’t know about. It’s easy for parents to look the other way or explain away troubling behavior.

Be thoughtful about loaning money to your kids. Loans between loved ones can disrupt your relationship. What if they miss a payment? What if they go on a pricey vacation? What if they don’t pay you back? How will you feel? I decided a long time ago that if I wanted to help my kids, I would give them a gift and not a loan.

Don’t give unsolicited advice. Trust me, it won’t be appreciated by your adult children.

Love is blind — it’s a bright light that obscures our vision when it comes to our children who we adore and cherish. But when they are firmly on the adult stage, we will want to develop a mature relationship with them and they with us. It won’t be like other adult relationships, so it will be unique. But hopefully it’s one that is filled with love, respect and trust.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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