Just over two years ago my two eldest kids left home within months of each other. We went from a busy family of five to a quiet family of three virtually overnight. My girls were 21 and 22 at the time.
I have great children, great parents and parents-in-law. We all love each other dearly and we enjoy a wonderful relationship. I am asked fairly often by mothers of teenagers on the edge of adulthood how to navigate the season of letting go. Here is my very best encouragement and advice.
Take responsibility for your own needs
I recognised years ago that one of the things that fill up my emotional energy tank is spending time with my kids. Just sitting around the dinner table with my children makes my heart happy. It fills me up! It’s one of my most favourite things to do. Now that my kids have left home it doesn’t happen as often.
But, making me happy is not my kid’s responsibility.That’s my job. I have had to learn to meet my emotional needs in other ways. Murray and I have been really intentional about nurturing new friendships with people whose company we enjoy, including each other. I have had to learn how to have fun without my kids being there.
This doesn’t change how much I enjoy spending time with them when we get together, but I don’t rely on them to fill my emotional needs.
Respect your adult kids
They are now their own people, and they get to decide how to live. If you want to have a great relationship with them, you need to respect the decisions they make. You can’t tell them what to do anymore.
When each of our kids was around 18 years old, my husband had a significant conversation with them. He basically said, "You've grown up, we've finished parenting you, now you get to make decisions about how you live your life, and we will love and support you the best that we can."
We shifted gears from teaching and training them, telling them what to do and setting boundaries. Now we get to enjoy watching them put everything they have learned into practice and live a purposeful life of their own.
Respect their time
Our adult kids are busy. They have real adult responsibilities. They each have jobs that they are thriving in, but a full-time job is demanding and time-consuming. On the weekends they have to clean their apartments and buy groceries and run errands and spend time with friends. All the things that a fully-functioning contributing adult has to do.
We try to be realistic in the amount of time we expect our busy kids to spend with us. Having dinner every week would be great, but it just isn’t practical for them.
Respect their ability to make decisions
They have grown up, and now they get to choose for themselves.
We have great kids who are making great choices in their lives. But even so, they are doing things differently to the way we would do them. That's okay because it's their life, not ours. Sometimes their choices are difficult to watch, but a number of times we have seen how the choices they make lead to better outcomes than the choices we would have made for them. We are learning to trust them and cheer them on, rather than influencing them to change.
If they are doing things you don’t understand, ask why. Ask questions about why they have decided to go plastic free or become a vegetarian. Understand their world, their thoughts and their fears. Be on their side.
So, when your son decides to join the circus, tell him he is amazing and celebrate! Keep your opinions and anxiety for your prayer journal and be his biggest cheerleader. Be the one clapping the loudest in the front row on opening night and be the open arms he comes to when it all goes pear shaped.
Watch your language
The little comments matter. Hurtful words are remembered, and they destroy the relationship that you are trying to nurture. This is hard to fake! The attitude in your heart will come out in the words that you speak, so if there is something going on that you are not happy about, sort that out with God for yourself before you spend time with your kids.
Pray lots! Ask for forgiveness. Ask God to give you a heart of love and compassion. Pray for God to show you how you can encourage and nurture your kids with your words. If you make comments that make them feel judged, inadequate or belittled, they won’t want to spend time with you. Simple as that.
Fit in with their interests
If you want your kids to look forward to spending time with you, do the things they love to do. Fit in with the activities they enjoy rather than the things that would be your first preference.
When my daughter started getting series with her boyfriend my husband discovered that he enjoyed golf. So, Murray dusted off the old clubs and started playing again. A quick trip to the driving range on a Friday afternoon was something they enjoyed doing together. And, the best conversations happen when you are both having a good time!
Accept their partners
In our culture, we get to choose our own life partners, for better or worse. Your kids have to choose who they are in a relationship with, and often, this is the critical step for an ongoing healthy relationship with your own kids. If their partner doesn’t enjoy your company, feel respected and accepted in your home, they will quickly start putting the pressure on to disconnect. If you want to spend time with your kids, you have to embrace the people they love.
Be willing to help
When the phone call comes, go. Even when they are all grown up and self-sufficient, the time will come when they ask for help. Do your best to be there for them when they need you. Be the trustworthy friend who will answer the call and bend over backwards to be there when they need to drop off their car for a service early in the morning or moral support at a doctor’s appointment.
Reach out to them
If they haven’t called you, call them. If you want to spend time with them, invite them over. Often a quick text message letting my kids know that I’m planning on making tacos tomorrow night will be enough to gather everyone who is available. Keep it simple, casual and fun.
Go easy on the guilt
Guilt is a terrible motivator. There’s nothing worse than feeling obliged to do something or be somewhere out of guilt. The ‘If you love me you will visit me’ line won’t actually build genuine relationship. The ‘Come if you can because I love seeing you’ approach is much better!
This is the most important one…
Make it so they love spending time with you
Make your kids feel like they are invincible when they are with you. Tell them how proud you are. Tell them you love them. Be interested in their lives. Speak words of encouragement and appreciation. Love on them, 1 Corinthians 13 style. Support them through the complexities of life, the good and the bad.
Without relationship, you lose your influence. And adult kids have a choice to be in a relationship with you or not. Don’t sacrifice your influence for the sake of being right. Don’t push them away by being judgmental or telling them what to do all the time. Just love them.
It’s not easy, letting go and watching them leave to the big wide world. We will always be their parents and will always love them more than they know. That’s exactly why it’s so important to nurture and cherish a relationship with them.
What’s the best way you stay connected with your adult kids? Let me know in the comments. I think we can learn a lot from each other!
*There are exceptions to the above. Not all relationships are healthy and beneficial. Sadly, family relationships can become abusive. If you need help, I recommend finding a trusted Christian counsellor and getting the professional help and support you need to navigate this difficult journey.