Do your parents treat you like a child, even though you feel like an adult and have the bank account and responsibilities to prove it? Are you having more arguments with your parents over your decisions, lifestyle or values? Do you feel you are growing apart over these arguments? And then are you getting guilt trips like, “I know you are too busy with your friends to call me”.
Moving the Parent-Child Relationship into Adult-Adult in the 30’s is challenging, but normal. A change occurs in the parent-child relationship when the child starts becoming an adult. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the “child” who is grown as the Adult Child. It is a normal developmental transition that usually occurs in the late 20’s to later 30’s. And it must occur for the Adult Child to fully feel and function as an adult. It is not meant to be fraught with conflict. But the transition will occur with or without the parent’s cooperation.
The effects of this relationship change are generally not taught in school. Therefore, the increased tension between the parents and the Adult Child is not understood and often threatens the relationship.
Both you and your parents are in a normal developmental stage
We don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore, the parents often do not know how to adjust from the Parent-Child relationship to seeing their child as an Adult. They fear losing the relationship during this transition. And the Adult Child doesn’t know why the relationship seems strained. Or why he or she feels like they are still a child when around the parents.
The perspective of life is different between the parents and the Adult Child. The parents’ life is more known, developed and experienced. The Adult Child is beginning to go out into the world and to find new experiences and his or her place in the world. From this point on, the parents’ world will not grow and expand as much as the Adult Child’s. Therefore, the Parent-Child relationship becomes more central to the parents. They look forward to having grandchildren which begins a new chapter in their parental life. They may look forward to hearing what the Adult Child is doing and what they are experiencing out in the world.
But a strain in the relationship often develops with this transition. As the Adult Child finds his or her way in the world they begin to differentiate themselves from their parents. This is normal and is necessary for them to discover who they are and how they are the same or different from their parents. Sometimes we make decisions that are the opposite of what our parents would want for us. That is part of how we sometimes differentiate ourselves from our parents – even if in reality we are in agreement with them, we don’t let them know this. Sometimes those decisions we make come out of who we truly are, and are genuinely different from the decisions or preferences of the parents.
How to navigate from Parent-Child to Adult-Adult
As challenging as this transition can be I have never lost a parental unit yet that was not already seriously disconnected. Here are some suggestions to consider:
As the Adult Child:
- Rather than focus on the parents’ negative statements, try to understand that the parent is likely afraid to lose you, but can’t say this directly or doesn’t understand this yet.
- Tell your parents that you have been very busy but that you would like to get together. Or if you are not geographically close, suggest a time to call. We’ll discuss a potential conversation later in this article.
- If your parents do not respond positively to you reaching out, it’s possible they feel hurt or insecure in the relationship and feel too vulnerable to respond. Try not to focus on the negative reactions you get. Try to let it go for now. Remember, they probably have more to lose in the parent-child relationship than you do.
- You can help your parents understand that living your life differently from them is not about right or wrong. It is about each of you living your life according to what fits you.
- Ask your parents how they went through this parent-child to adult-adult transition with their parents. Did they even have a discussion about each other’s feelings? Most likely they just let the transition happen with no discussion, and did not even know there was a transition in place. Perhaps they continued to be guided by the parents’ expectations.
- Understand that sometimes there is also a cultural difference between the parents and the Adult Child who was raised in the U.S. Try to put yourself in their place. What you are doing may be interpreted as being disrespectful in their life experiences even though that is not your intention. Try to let their resistance go for now and offer to connect again regardless of any hurtful comments they may make. We don’t always say what we really feel inside.
- Write them a letter about how you feel. Sometimes written communication allows the sender more time to adequately express their feelings and the receiver more time to assess and reflect on their feelings. Speak from your heart about how you feel, but try to be loving and not critical. Focus on how you value their relationship but that you are living a busy life and want to make time to see them or call them. Stay away from accusations or assumptions about them.
As the Parent:
- Accept that every Adult Child must make this normal transition, at least in the American culture.
- Almost always it is not about the Heart. It is about them growing up and needing to find themselves in the world as you most likely did.
- Try not to take their absence personally. Let them know you understand but would really appreciate it if they could find some time to get together, even if it is a limited amount of time.
- Try not to focus on what they are doing that disappoints you or makes you feel they are pulling away from you. Try to focus on the positive things in the relationship and conversations.
- Write a letter if this is easier for you or you feel they will be more open to that. Stay away from critical or judging comments.
Example of a conversation as the Adult Child:
“Mom or Dad, I know I haven’t spent as much time with you as you would like. It is not because I don’t value you. I live a busy life and sometimes feel pulled in different directions. It has nothing to do with my heart. I love you. I know we have been bumping heads lately, but I really want our relationship to be closer. Let’s try to get together on ……….”.
Example of a conversation as the parent:
“I know you are an adult now and need to live your own life. You shouldn’t feel pressured to visit, especially if that pressure will diminish your enjoyment of the visit. I just want you to know how much I love you and that I miss you sometimes. I know you are busy and I understand that you might feel pulled in all kinds of directions. Maybe we can get together when it is a good time for you. I want you to live your own life but also look forward to hearing about it from time to time. I love you.”
This is a normal transition. It is not about the heart. The heart is in place for each of you. It is a life transition into adulthood. It is about the Adult Child going out into the world and building his or her own life, as the parents also did. Understand the feelings or possible position of each other. Avoid criticism or blame. Focus on what is truly in the heart.
Best of all, by working through this relationship with your parents you will no longer unconsciously need to duplicate an unhealthy relationship in your love life. Very often we unconsciously look to replay our negative parental experiences with our romantic partner, but with the hope of a better outcome. Then we will be “fixed”. This is called IMAGO. But it rarely works. We just experience more negative dynamics in a romantic relationship.
Having honest and loving conversations between the Parents and the Adult Child can change an unhealthy relationship into something more positive and true to how the heart really feels.