Not to brag (scratch that; of course I’m bragging!), but I think I have good relationships with my adult children.
They live close enough that I see them every few weeks. We text, email and every now and then talk on the phone. Although we may disagree about stuff like who deserved an Academy Award or what constitutes a clean kitchen, we don’t really fight.
Still, sometimes after a long stretch when we haven’t spent much time together, I don’t know what to say when I call to say hi.
I feel like my tongue, voicebox and mind have gone into a deep freeze. Conversation with these young adults I love more than anything doesn’t seem to be as easy as it should be.
Why Your Child May Go Silent
Turns out, many parents who can claim amiable relations with their adult children feel the same way I do. Alicia H. Clark, a clinical psychologist located in Washington, D.C., says that boomers in her practice continually worry about whether they’re communicating well with their kids.
(MORE: How to Be a Great Long-Distance Parent)
“A lot of the time, they’re not,” Clark says. “Parents ask the wrong kinds of questions, ones that their children, rightfully or not, feel are too invasive. The conversation can become strained, and the atmosphere can get tense and unpleasant.”
Wendy Boorn, author of I Thought I’d Be Done by Now: Hope and Help for Mothers of Adult Children, agrees. Young adults need to prove to themselves that they can make it on their own. “A parent might be thinking, ‘I care about them’ while the child is hearing, ‘They don’t trust me; they don’t approve of me; they don’t think I can do this,’” she explains.
The result of this dissonance: uncomfortable moments when every discussion topic you float elicits the resounding thud of silence. Or worse, an audible sigh.
Luckily, as long as parents and their grown children don’t have serious relationship issues, there are quite a few ways to turn on the conversation tap. Here are eight tips from the experts:
1. Become an electronic conversation wizard. Gen Y-ers (people now in their 20s and 30s) often prefer texting and “chat” applications to talking on the phone. That means the best way to catch up with your kids is to go where they are: electronic messages.
If Hillary Clinton, whose texting became Internet famous, learned to type on her phone, so can you.
Texts and instant messages tend to be brief, but the upside of electronic communication lies in its frequency and immediacy. As Boorn points out, “Young adults these days often don’t listen to their voicemail, but they do read their messages.”
Lots of short messages can provide fodder for a longer conversation. Say your phone pings and your child writes, “I burned the potatoes.” The next time you speak, start out with, “So, what did you end up eating instead of potatoes the other night?”
2. Adjust to their schedule. We 50-plussers are certainly busy. Many of us are still working full-time, and we have active social lives (as well as episodes of Mad Men or True Detective to watch). Thus, it might seem unfair to argue we should bear scheduling-compromise burden. However, we have more experience with time-management than our young adult kids, points out Debbie Pincus, author of The Calm Parent AM & PM book and CD series.
She suggests using email or text to find out when your child will be free to talk. “The more control your young adult feels he or she has over when you talk, the likelier he or she will be to relax when the phone rings,” Pincus says.
3. Don't interrogate. On the phone with their grown kids, parents often feel like they’re playing a game of 20 questions, trying to squeeze details out of their children. That, says Pincus, is exactly the problem.
“We don’t grill our friends. People in relationships don’t cross-examine each other. If we want good relationships with our grown children, then we should lay off all the probing if they show they don’t like it,” she explains. A few questions are OK, especially if you’re referring to recent happenings in their lives. “What happened with ____” (fill in the blank with anything your child mentioned last time you spoke) can be part of the ebb and flow of a conversation.
4. Cut the criticism. “Hi. I haven’t heard from you for a while” is a terrible way to start a conversation, says Clark. So is something like, “Have you been late to work again since that time last week?”
Much better openers would be along the lines of, “Did you do anything interesting over the weekend?” or a simple statement like “You seem pretty busy lately.”
5. Show genuine interest. “When you speak with your adult children, listen to what they say,” advises Clark. Don’t change the subject, and don’t immediately delve into a rant about what you think.
If your child is complaining about a boss or co-worker, an appropriate response would be, “That sounds so difficult. What are you doing about it?”
Before giving advice, or even telling a story about something similar that happened to you or someone you know, ask your child, “Do you want me to tell you what I think you should do?”
(MORE: Best Ways to Comfort Your Unemployed Child)
6. Avoid hot-button issues. Some parents and children can battle it out over the phone for a few minutes and then segue into a pleasant conversation. In most cases, though, Boorn says it’s better to avoid topics that will lead to arguments.
“There’s lots to talk about beyond whether or not you believe in climate change,” she says. Boorn suggests collecting interesting news stories you run across or jokes you hear so you can quickly change the subject if you feel tension on the other end of the line.
7. Have a life. Did you know that sometimes our grown children feel that we are too dependent on them? “I hear people in their 20s ask, ‘Do my parents ever do anything except worry about me?,’” says Boorn.
She advises we tell our grown kids about what we’ve been doing. Talk about the movie you saw recently; repeat the anecdote about the crazy supermarket cashier who refused to ring up items she thought were “unhealthy.” Be interesting and your child will be interested back.
8. Be upfront about expectations. Let’s say you’re upset that your grown kids don’t call you twice a week. Wait. Do they even know that you expect that?
A quick chat where you’re honest about how often you’d like to talk or get together in person can alleviate tension when unstated hopes remain unmet. “Talk about what you want, be ready to scale back your desires, and you will probably avoid a multitude of problems that can be adversely affecting your conversation comfort level,” says Boorn.
The experts also reminded me that my “tongue-tied” dilemma is probably only a temporary phase. Once grandchildren pop into the picture, there will be no dearth of conversation topics. And when the phone rings at 3 a.m. because the precious one has taken her first step, perhaps I’ll even think: “Couldn’t this conversation have waited six hours?”