Relating to adult children

Balancing respect, responsibility can lead to rewarding relationship with adult children

Four generations of the Halydier family. Photo: Dara Halydier

Just as a wedding is only the beginning of a marriage, your child leaving the nest is just the beginning of a new relationship. My husband and I now have five adult sons. We are learning how to adjust to a new relationship with each of them. Sometimes it’s rewarding; sometimes it’s frustrating. With respect, open communication, understanding, forgiveness, humility and lots of prayer, we are connecting with and enjoying our adult children.

The hardest change to make as parents of adult children is shifting our understanding of the balance between our responsibility for them versus our respect of them. Relating to adult children can be a minefield, but it can also bring great joy.

The key to having a healthy relationship with an adult child is changing the relationship from parent to child to adult to adult. Yes, we raised them with our morals, values, faith and expectations. Now, our adult children are free to choose what they are going to do. That is their right and their responsibility. As parents, we are to let them go, give them to God (again and again), respect their choices and let them soar or fall flat. Either way, our job is to be there for them, cheer them on, encourage them and listen. It is no longer our job to give advice (unless they ask), expect them to obey us, put our expectations upon them or continue to try to raise them.

A time for both

Differentiating between responsibility and respect can make or break the relationship. There is a time for both. Moving from responsibility to a relationship based mutually on respect can be a hard transition. When children are under the age of 18, living in our home and on our dollar, it is our responsibility to teach, train, correct and expect obedience. Once they claim adult status, our role changes to respecting their choices and rooting for them. Knowing when this change needs to occur can be a very gray area as adult children may continue to live at home, want us to babysit their children, are still on our payroll at college or are making foolish life choices. Each of these situations requires a different balance of responsibility and respect.

Ephesians 6:1 commands children to obey their parents. When do children become equal and responsible adults honoring their parents but not required to obey them? This depends upon the child and our relationship with the child. Since my husband and I still helped with college expenses, there remained some responsibility over our children and an obligation that they obey in some areas. When the purse strings were completely cut, so was the need for them to obey us. The biblical admonition to honor their parents, of course, was still in effect, but it was theirs to work out. To help us make this transition, my husband and I often tell ourselves and each other, “Their child; their choice. Their life; their choice.”

Healthy communication based in respect is essential. Having respect for another means valuing their thoughts, opinions, ideas and emotions, especially when they differ from our own. The extreme opposite of respect is abuse—often expressed through anger or passive-aggressive behavior.

Respect means giving ourself and others the right to space and privacy by knocking on doors before entering, not opening one another’s mail and respecting each other’s needs for quiet and space. My in-laws live in our downstairs. Our family established a knocking or texting policy before entering the others’ space from the day they moved in. This is a healthy boundary for parents and their grown children.

Allowing for preferences of food, music, movies, how each person spends their time, etc. is also respectful, as is giving each family member the right to disagree, be heard, be taken seriously and be given the benefit of the doubt. Truth is at the center of respect–both telling the truth and expecting the other to tell you the truth. A show of respect includes being consulted when a decision affects the other. And lastly, respect is courteous and honorable treatment which includes using words that don’t hurt, asking before using something that belongs to someone else, and, basically, treating each other as a valuable gift from God. (Credit for this list goes to Peter Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature.)

Practicing independence

Respect does not magically appear when a child turns 18. Respecting other family members should begin at birth and continue through the transition to adulthood. Our responsibility ends a little more each time our child demonstrates another attribute of adulthood. Helping our child understand the way the relationship is and will be changing can be helpful for the child becoming an adult.

My husband uses the metaphor of a stallion in a corral. The teenager is the stallion, and the fence is the rules the parent has put into place over the years to keep the teen safe and to teach discipline. As a child moves through their teen years, parents let the child know that the parents are now going to begin to enlarge the teen’s sphere of responsibility and privileges by moving the fence outwards. However, as the child is still under their parents’ authority, the parents have the right to rein it back in if the teen gives the parent reason to believe that they are not ready to handle self-discipline and self-restraint. Talking in these terms to our children can help our teen to know where we stand and why we are allowing or not allowing them to take over different areas of their lives.

By the time they are out on their own, we will have watched them practice and experience independence, which creates a mutual foundation of trust on which both sides can build respect. If we keep children sheltered until they are 18, we have no foundation to trust their judgment. If we set no rules for them at all until they are 18, they will have no foundation to trust our judgement.

Some children will handle their new adult independence masterfully, others will not. Either way, we have opened the gate and must let them run free, trusting in what we have taught them. More importantly, we must trust that their Father God cares more for them than we could ever begin to and that he will now convict, discipline, correct, teach and lead them.

From this point on, we no longer have the right to these actions. By releasing them to God, our role changes. We should pray for them continually, ask questions about their lives, listen, encourage and give opportunities for fun and friendship, but they are no longer our responsibility. When we give our children respect, they may become some of our best adult friends.

Let our prayer to the Perfect Father in Heaven be: “Lord, thank you for the privilege to have raised such amazing young adults. Let them bow their knees each day to you. Grow their trust and their relationship with you. Let them know the depth of your love. Forgive me when I meddle or seek to prove myself or earn my self-esteem from my children. Rather, let me know that I am complete in you. Out of your grace and love, help me to love and respect my adult children well extending them grace and yielding any right that I think I might have to control them. Hold them in your arms, and help me to release them from mine. Amen.”

Recommended Reading:

Doing Life with Your Adult Children: Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out by Jim Burns

Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

It’s Your Move Child

I gave you life

            But I cannot live it for you.

I can teach you things

            But I cannot make you learn.

I can give you directions

            But I cannot always be there to lead you.

I can allow you freedom

            But I cannot account for it.

I can take you to church

            But I cannot make you believe.

I can teach you right from wrong

            But I can’t always decide for you.

I can buy your beautiful clothes

            But I cannot make you lovely inside.

I can offer you advice

            But I cannot accept it for you.

I can give you love

            But I cannot force it upon you.

I can teach you to share

            But I cannot make you unselfish.

I can teach you respect

            But I can’t force you to show honor.

I can advise you about friends

            But I cannot choose them for you.

I can teach you about sex

            But I cannot keep you pure.

I can tell you the facts of life

            But I can’t build your reputation.

I can tell you about drinking

            But I can’t say NO for you.

I can tell you about drugs

            But I can’t prevent you from using them.

I can tell you about lofty goals

            But I can’t achieve them for you.

I can teach you kindness

            But I can’t force you to be gracious.

I can warn you about sins

            But I cannot make your morals.

I can love you as a son (or daughter)

            But I cannot place you in God’s family.

I can pray for you

            But I cannot make you walk with God.

I can teach you about Jesus

            But I cannot make him your Savior.

I can teach you to obey

            But I cannot make Jesus your Lord.

I can tell you how to live

            But I cannot give you eternal life.

But whatever you choose, I will always love you!

– Unknown



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