Parenting Adult Children, Part One

This week, Dan and Becky Allender begin a two-part conversation about parenting adult children—a category full of complexity, shame, and pain, but also the potential for new expressions of love and the hope of redemption. They start by acknowledging that, for many parents, whatever age their children are feels like the “hardest” age. This is no less true for parents of adult children, who may often look back on when their children were younger as an easier, simpler time.

Dan: “Every period of life has its own complicated structures of being humbled. If this is not about grace, and about our partaking in grace for ourselves and on behalf of others, then there’s not a lot of good that will come.”

Dan admits that he doesn’t know a single book that is written with honesty and clarity about these dynamics. Becky reflects on how easy it is to notice what we wish our parents had done differently as we grew into adults, but now, as she and Dan relate to their own adult children, she notices some of those same dynamics—like offering advice without curiosity, or holding certain expectations over our children. Of course, the difficulty of this season makes sense: you have less power and influence than ever, which is as it should be, but it may leave you feeling unmoored and wondering what your new role is.

Dan: “It is a field rife with potential for not just complexity, but conflict.”

For many parents and their adult children, the primary goal is to avoid conflict, to sustain the current structure of their relationship. So no one talks about difficult truths or deep matters of the heart, and both sides are left no longer really knowing the other—not knowing their evolving spiritual beliefs, their aspirations, their relationship concerns, or anything below the surface.

Dan: “Don’t pretend that the relationship is as good as you would hope for it to be, and don’t pretend that you know your child as well as you presume you do.”

Becky: “I think it’s our job as the parents to be curious about them first.”

They are always going to be your children. You will always be their parent.

Becky and Dan discuss a few other dynamics, including the triangulated parent who acts as a go-between for their children, and they share about a difficult conversation with their children that Becky recounts in her book Hidden in Plain Sight, before landing on this crucial call for all us: “If you’re in an adult-to-adult relationship, you want to be in a relationship that’s growing.” Can you ask the hard questions about your current relationship? Do you have the courage to articulate that which has gone unsaid, to name those places of heartache and desire? Is there enough freedom for you to honor and delight in each other?

Becky: “I do think our role, really almost all the way to the grave, as long as we’re capable of it, is serving. Servanthood doesn’t stop at any point. That’s my desire, to be strong in body and mind to keep serving not only each other, but our children too.”

Dan: “Let most of the work that you do in an adult relationship be play and care—provision, protection, opening the potential for them to get a night away from their kids, to hang out and let us feed them pancakes. But at some point, an adult-adult relationship is going to need redefinition. It’s going to need a kind of commitment to re-enter a new relationship, rather than to live only on both the blessings but also the failures of the past.”

Even with deep love between parents, adult children, and their spouses, there is great complexity in this terrain. Next week, Becky and Dan will talk about how to engage when the relationship is marked primarily by tension, conflict, and neglect.