Published in Blog by Celia Dodd on May 23rd 2022
Relationships with adult children can be even more challenging than relationships with younger kids. Yet while parenting advice abounds for young families there is little guidance on establishing an equal, adult relationship with a child whose nappy you used to change, on dealing with conflict, on communicating about the stuff that really matters, on understanding the ambivalence so many parents feel. As a result, there are times when parents feel at sea.
That’s why I decided to write a book about what academics refer to as ‘second-phase’ parenting: to explore the everyday dilemmas and anxieties that parents face when their children are grown up, as well as the crises: mental ill-health, eating disorders, divorce (of parent or child), the death of one parent, estrangement. I learnt so much from hearing other parents’ very different experiences, not least that the empty nest is just the beginning of the first new phase of a lifelong relationship, which requires as much empathy, effort and skill as when children are growing up.
I also gained essential insights from psychologists and academics, family therapists and couple therapists, including Liz Hamlin at Tavistock Relationships.
I also gained essential insights from psychologists and academics, family therapists and couple therapists, including Liz Hamlin at Tavistock Relationships. They offer invaluable guidance and helpful strategies on a range of challenges, such as dealing with difficult issues from childhood that continue to colour the relationship, on adult sibling rivalry, and on how couples can navigate the transition from being hands-on parents to partners who finally have more time to put their own relationship first. For many couples this is a huge challenge, as the rising numbers of ‘silver’ divorces testify.
Parents and children now share more time on the planet than ever before in human history. The bond between them ebbs and flows through many transitions: when children finish university or training, when they find a partner, if they have children of their own, if they move to the other side of the world. In recent years interest has grown in emerging adulthood. Parents worry that it takes their children much longer to become independent than they took themselves back in the day, and they’re puzzled by a boomerang generation who move in and out of home throughout their twenties. If a child isn’t fully ‘launched’ by an expected age, both parent and adult child may feel they’ve failed.
If a child isn’t fully ‘launched’ by an expected age, both parent and adult child may feel they’ve failed.
Finances are a big part of this massive demographic change in family life. But there are other reasons, not least the adult child’s need for an emotional safety net when so much in life is changing and uncertain, a need heightened by the pandemic. One 25-year-old told me how important his parents’ emotional support had been after university, when he was living in a shared house, couldn’t find a job and suffered from social anxiety.
Parents want to do what they can to help, but they’re not always sure if they’re doing the right thing. Both generations struggle with the push-pull of support versus letting go and becoming independent. This can also create tension within couples, if one parent is keen to ‘cut the apron strings’, for example, or if one partner feels an adult child’s demands are holding them back from pursuing their own new direction.
What would help is a greater focus on the continuing connection with adult children, and a reassessment of what independence and being adult really mean. Instead of focussing on separation and the idea that a parent’s work is done when a child reaches adulthood, it would be more helpful to shift attention onto the continuing relationship as it changes and develops throughout our parallel lives. There’s a growing acceptance that the transition to fully-fledged adulthood doesn’t happen overnight, but is a developmental process not only for the child, but for the parent too, and it continues throughout their twenties and throughout their parallel lives. That’s a wonderful prospect, because while we never stop worrying about our adult children, the relationship is one of the most life-enhancing and enduring we ever have.
‘All Grown Up: Nurturing relationships with adult children’ Celia Dodd, Green Tree, 6 June 2022, can be purchased at Amazon.
Her website is: www.celiadodd.co.uk