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The Best Advice I Got on Parenting Adult Children

I thought that once my twin daughters graduated college, they’d be officially launched and we’d ease into a more mature, adult relationship.

Here’s how that naive scenario went: As they began their careers, and lessened their financial dependence on us, we’d forge a new relationship characterized by mutual love and respect.

Sure, we might be called on to help in a pinch, with money matters or other resources—we’d happily be their safeguard. And we might lean on them once in a while for their assistance on things foreign to us (tech issues, popular culture, and the like).

But overall, we’d be on a more egalitarian footing, a “friendship” of sorts, not subject to emotional reactivity, not subject to guilt or obligation.

I was not only wrong, I was delusional.

Now if my scenario is what’s come to pass for you, hurrah and way to go! But for me, and for many of the mothers I’ve talked to, the blissful adult relationship I dreamt of has been elusive.

Truth is, in their twenties, many young people are still hard at work on defining their identities. This is the necessary process they began in their teens to determine their values and beliefs, their passions and aspirations, and to learn how to show up as whole authentic selves in their lives. This also entails learning how to be in relationships, with themselves first and foremost, but also with friends and intimate partners, siblings and parents, bosses and colleagues.

Keep in mind, it’s a messy process, filled with fits and starts, struggle and disappointment, joy and pleasure. But it’s an essential journey that, if embraced, will set them up well for the future. (And those of us, like me, who did not do this work in adolescence and early adulthood, are likely only delaying this “growing up” process until later.)

As our daughters continue to grow, as they seek to learn who they are and how they show up in the world, they’ve chosen to push us away at times. This has led us to into several conflicts with them.

In all honesty, it’s been exhausting. A times, the experience has brought Peter and I together, clinging in mutual despair and shared understanding. At other times, it’s caused disagreements between us.

In the midst of one of these tug-of-wars with our daughter, as Peter and I vented to our marital therapist, she gave us the best advice…

She said: DROP THE ROPE.

Do you get it? (I had to ask what she meant.)

Imagine you’re in a tug-of-war with you on one end of the rope and your grown child on the other. You’re both tugging and pulling and not giving an inch. What would happen if you just dropped the rope?

Our therapist says that when we drop the rope, we stop making the focus be the conflict between us and our child. We set our daughter free so she can redirect her energy from fighting us to addressing the issue herself.

When we stop pulling on our end of the rope, we are sharing an empowering message with her: We believe in you. You are competent. You can do this.

Dropping the rope is not easy. As parents, many of us want nothing more than to see our children happy. So we strive to protect them from pain, but we can’t shield them from the reality that life is full of struggle. And often, struggle is a great teacher.

So it’s time for us to relinquish ownership of their happiness and show them that we are confident they will figure it out.

I get that this won’t apply in every parenting situation, but for the control freaks that Peter and I can be, it’s been our new mantra. Drop the rope.

YOUR TURN: Is there a conflict in your life where it might make sense for you to drop the rope? Have you done this successfully already? Tell us in the comments!


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  1. Susan Buesching

    What a challenge these emerging adult years have been for us! I never saw this coming. I have read several books on dealing with your adult children and the “drop the rope” advice was some of the best. It is difficult to equate the “I need additional time to figure life out” with the, “You’re 18, you are on your own,” advice my husband and I grew up with. Another piece of advice I received that helped was, “Change your expectations.” I thought by now my husband and I would be done with raising children. The timeline is going to be longer than we anticipated. This generation of young adults have added a new phase of life before they actually plan to settle down.

    • Hélène

      Thanks for sharing your experience Susan. Good to know we are not alone! Love the “change your expectations” idea too.

  2. Gail Silveria

    This is the best advice! Once I stopped trying to control and protect my 4 adult children, things changed dramatically. We set new adult boundaries with mutual respect. We can enjoy them so much more now. They have their struggles and they grow from them. I’ve seen how it has made their own marriages stronger having to lean on each other more than Mom & Dad. I’ve also learned to wait for them to come to me when they need advice or guidance. And, it happens frequently now. I think it is because they know I will listen and only offer advice when asked. Sometimes it can be difficult to hold back, but it has paid off.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Hélène

      It’s so good to hear that this has worked for you. Fingers crossed it does for us too… Thanks for sharing!

  3. Sally

    Thank you for sharing! While I was in multiple parenting groups formal and informal when my children were young, I think it’s a lot harder to talk about parenting “adult” children with other parents. I know in my most intimate friend relationships we’ve talked about feelings of shame. Are my kids struggling because I didn’t prepare them, because I’ve been too hands on, too hands off? And is it ok to celebrate and share with my friends when my child is making awesome accomplishments and is really succeeding when I know another friend’s child is struggling? Luckily I have a group where we can support each other, console each other and celebrate progress and success at whatever level our children are at. With my own children, I’ve found similarly, that “dropping the rope” helps. My version is engaged, but non-reactive listening. Sometimes a child will tell me something that makes my heart drop and I want to cry or I feel angry and think “why on earth did you do that?” And I just take a deep breath and ask questions like “how are you feeling about that?” “then what happened” “what do you think you want to do about it” “do you need our help” but I absolutely do NOT say “here’s what you should do…” “I’m going to call so-and-so to straighten this out for you”, “that was really stupid” and I don’t put emotions in their mouths either: “you should be really pissed”, “you must be devastated”. I let them tell me how they feel and of course I commiserate or celebrate or have a supportive response that is not an overly reactive one. And it’s hard but I guess it’s appropriate to our new relationship as adults speaking with other adults. Love and support without taking over. Not as easy as it may sound, but we’re finding it rewarding in maintaining a close relationship with our adult children.

    • Hélène

      So much wisdom! Thanks for adding your perspective Sally.


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