Tracey Whitestone was visiting her 29-year-old son, Adam (names have been changed), in his new condo. Noticing that he didn't have curtains on the windows, she volunteered to sew some — and was disappointed when he declined her offer.
Then, when his girlfriend waltzed in an hour later with Bed Bath & Beyond shopping bags stuffed with drapes, Tracey almost burst into tears.
“I felt replaced,” she says. “It hurt that my son no longer valued my opinion. I thought he didn’t want me around.”
Milo Greenberg, 60, had an even more disturbing situation with his grown children. “My ex-wife and I waited until after they were on their own before we divorced," he says. "The whole process wasn’t particularly acrimonious. But after the divorce, my kids seemed really distant, as if they were blaming me.”
(MORE: How to Tell Your Adult Children You're Divorcing)
Psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., the author of When Parents Hurt and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, observes that it’s common for boomers to be anxious about relationships with their grown children.
Often our offspring suddenly appear distant or not eager for our company, he says. We feel slighted; we consult therapists and counselors and discuss our state of mind on social media sites.
Our concerns, however, can be a tempest in a teapot. Parents may be making a big deal over what’s really a normal developmental stage. “Sometimes a kid is just sending the message, ‘I do like you, but I don’t want to be attached like glue,’" Coleman says. "A parent shouldn’t interpret that as a sign of enmity.”
Kathy McCoy, Ph.D., author of Making Peace With Your Adult Children, agrees. Perceived indifference is usually just an adult child's act of independence. “Young adults may be caught up in their own lives and not in touch as much as a parent may wish,” she says.
(MORE: How to Heal a Rift With Your Adult Child)
7 Tips for Staying Close
So how can parents manage to stay close to grown children who need space? And how do we avoid the unnecessary heartache that comes from misinterpreting their vibes? McCoy and Coleman offer seven practical tips:
1. Don’t expect your child to be your confidant. While your friends may be all ears for a graphic description of your latest mammogram or blow-by-blow recount of a fight with your boss, your children will probably not be as riveted.
Coleman says they don’t want to hear about such personal things — but not because they’re self-centered. “A parent/child relationship is pretty intense," she says, "and as they get older, the natural tendency is to want to separate and gain some distance.”
2. Don’t assume your child always wants to chat or text. Response time almost always gets longer as kids get older, experts agree. Cissy Blank says that when her son, Jason, lived at home, he returned calls and messages quickly. But that changed when he went away to college. So she tacked a copy of his schedule to the fridge and was careful never to call during class, trying to be considerate. Yet sometimes it still took Jason days to get back to her.
“When he came home one weekend, he told me he had a lot going on and that we should assume he was okay unless we heard otherwise. It hurt," Cissy says, "but it was true.”
“Not texting daily doesn’t mean your kids don’t like you,” McCoy says. “What’s happening to them is much more pressing and vivid than what’s going on with their parents.”
3. Accept that they are allowed to shape the nature of your relationship. Unlike the way many of our parents raised us, we encouraged our children to be assertive. “The downside is now that they’re adults, they’re often calling the shots in their relationships with us,” Coleman explains. “Telling an adult child 'I would never have considered spending the holidays with anyone but my parents' doesn’t cut it with most Millennials because we raised them to follow their passions, not to kowtow to duty.”
4. Don’t compete with your child’s partner. In three words: You will lose. Tracey Whitestone eventually got over her drapes angst. “Somehow I had the idea that I had such great taste and that my son still needed to rely on me. Then I realized two things. First, his girlfriend would probably be spending more time in the apartment than I would and, second, if I had asked Adam who had better taste, his girlfriend or me, I’m sure he would have said his girlfriend.”
Coleman recommends we recognize our child’s choice of partner as the potential “gatekeeper” of the relationship. “Parents are being replaced as love objects,” he says. “The more we complain to a child about their partner, the greater chance we take of driving him away.” It may hurt, but it’s a developmentally important process.
5. Treat them like the adults they are. You’ll never have a good relationship with your grown child, McCoy claims, if you say infantilizing things like, “Why are you still getting pimples?” You may be concerned that she isn’t eating right, but bear in mind that our kids are just as sensitive about criticisms of their appearance as they were when they were teens.
McCoy further observes that grown kids may recoil if they perceive their parents as being needy. “What really turns young adults off,” she says, “is the idea that their parent has a problem and they’re supposed to fix it.”
If you desire your child’s company, McCoy advises saying something like “I’d like to do something fun with you. Could we have lunch or go to a museum?”
6. Take the initiative when you sense genuine estrangement. If you’re feeling distant from your child, Coleman suggests proactively tackling the issue in a conversation. “The key is to start from a position of deep empathy,” he says. “If your adult kid says she’ll never forgive you for divorcing her father, you can tell her, ‘It was a hard time in the marriage. I don’t need to go into detail, but there were reasons.’ You have to assume your child will eventually get over it.”
That’s what eventually worked for Milo Greenberg. After a year of experiencing his children as distant, he finally got them all together and let them know he wanted their relationship to go back to normal.
“I was surprised to hear from all three how much it had affected them and that they were going through their own ‘stuff’ about it,” he says. “They told me they were working out dealing with their mother and their grandparents. None of them blamed me or were angry with me. They just needed space.”
7. Create a full life that doesn’t revolve around your children. McCoy offers this final piece of advice: “A parent who expects his or her adult children to be everything becomes a burden. We need to fill our lives with our own passions and hobbies. When our happiness or well-being doesn’t entirely depend on our children, we can better enjoy them more when we do see them.”
In other words, the more interesting our lives, the more interesting we become — and the more interesting our children will find us.
Choosing to Be Close
Parents who feel estranged from their children should test out new behaviors and see what works best, Coleman says. We may need to stop calling so frequently or refrain from critical behavior.
If we want to feel closer to our young adult children, there’s one more step, he says: We need to carefully consider our kids’ complaints. If there is a kernel of truth, decide whether it’s something we’d like to change. After all, our children really are our greatest teachers.