Boundaries 8– Parenting adult children

When finally we get to the part of our lives when our children become adults, new boundary issues surface.

If all along we have been recognizing that our child was developing his or her abilities to make healthy decisions, then this period is not as difficult. If we had been thinking of the child as still needing our input in order to function optimally, then this period can be very hard.

Once a child is earning his/her own living, marries, and has his/her own children, the parents’ role should have changed radically. Parents then become older colleagues—people who share their experience with their children. Discussions should be real dialogues and not monologues. Parents should not call their children too often (more than once a day) unless there is a good reason. When the children even hint that they need to get off the phone, the parents should politely say, “have a good day/evening” and hang up. Calling hours should be at times of the day when people are expected to answer the telephone. Too early in the morning or too late at night can make the parents’ call an annoyance rather than a pleasant experience. As a rule, parents shouldn’t “drop in” on their children without first calling to see if it’s a good time. Parents need to realize that their adult children do have their own lives.

One of the hardest aspects of being the parent of adult children is watching your children raising their children differently than you did. It is difficult NOT to intervene. After all, if your children turned out well, you believe that you know a lot more about raising children than your child and his/her spouse do.

This was a dilemma for me. As I watched each of my children interact with their own children, I had plenty to say, but I kept silent. As I watch the grandchildren of four families grow up with four different styles of parenting, I become more and more convinced that there are many ways to raise good children.

Here are some exceptions to the rules:

If you see violence, I believe you need to stop it in the best way you can. With clients, I frequently tell them that violence (hitting, pinching, pushing, kicking, spanking, beating) simply doesn’t work. I explain to them that what it teaches the child is that people who are stronger can control people who are weaker by force. That three year old will someday be sixteen and stronger than his mother and father. Is that the message you really want to give?

If you see emotional abuse, I believe you need to stop it. Emotional abuse consists of (but is not limited to) treating the child in a way that devalues the child. Name-calling (cry-baby, terror, troublemaker, “Miss Pris”) is a sure sign that the child is being thought of in a derogatory manner. When parents label children as bad instead of shaping their behaviors, they are emotionally abusing them. When parents make fun of children or threaten them or make them feel guilty for no reason (“it’s because of you that I have stretch marks; I used to look really good”) that is emotional abuse. Parents usually will deny that it’s abuse. They will tell you that the child knows they are joking, but children don’t process this as humor. One father I had in my office used to tell his child that if he did something that the father didn’t approve of, he would “break his arm.” The father said that the child understood he didn’t really mean it. When I asked the four year old what it meant when Daddy said he would break his arm, the child said he thought that meant that his father was going to remove his arm—in the way that a doll’s arm comes off. The child said that it made him scared. Parents need to be sensitized to the fact that children are very literal and they don’t understand exaggeration, metaphor, or sarcasm until age five or six at the earliest. They also need to know that children internalize names they are called. They make these names part of them and they believe what their parents say about them. The “terror” will felt that wreaking havoc is his role in life. Labeling makes positive change hard.

In the event that you are seeing abuse, discussion with your own child should not be in the grandchild’s presence since you should not undermine the parents’ authority. Respect is the key word here… respect of the grandparent for the parents and respect of the parents for their children. All help should be given with love and understanding. Often young parents are just trying to do the best they can and learning alternative methods of managing the child’s behavior can help both the parents and the children.

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