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The "Big Switcheroo": Functional Relationships with Adult Children

When 26-year-old Tiffany arrived home for a visit from her job in Philadelphia, I happened to be with her parents in the kitchen. During her first 45 minutes home, the following questions and comments came flying her way:

“Do you think it’s time for you to change jobs?”

“Have you changed the oil in your car?”

“You look skinny – are you eating enough?”

“We need to talk about your savings plan.”

“Uncle Jasper wants you to call him.”

“When’s a good time for us to come and visit you?”

I just smiled through this barrage, not in mockery, but because it all sounded so familiar. Where is the line between showing concern and kindness for our adult children, and getting in the way of their private lives?

We tell ourselves that we would do anything for them.

It turns out, for many of us, that we would do anything except respect them as capable and independent adults. We would do anything except let them take the lead in the relationship.

Those would have to be conscious moves, because over-protection and hyper-worry roost in our brains. The caretaking we employed to help our kids grow continues like a runaway train and often bowls them over as adults. They have changed, but we haven’t. Or won’t.

A stream of superficial slogans rises up to comfort and defend our excesses:

“What do you expect, I’m my son’s mother!”

“You’re not the father of a daughter – you don’t get it. This is what we do.”

“In my culture, the children never really leave.”

“She’ll always be my baby…”

You can see the letting-go process in wolves, bears, and birds – a necessary release that feeds autonomy, initiative, and confidence in budding adults. In humans nowadays, that relinquishing of control comes only with a struggle.

But over-involvement exacts a cost. When adult children feel boxed in by the unregulated anxiety of parents, they often flee. Or spend a lifetime focused on pleasing or worrying about the parent.

The pivot point, where the biology of raising kids demands a fundamental change in our assumptions can be thought of as “the big switcheroo.”

It’s the change that happens in healthy families as children move through their teens and young adulthood into functional independence.

When trying to navigate this tricky space, it’s helpful to reflect on the voices of solid research, reasonableness, and maturity. Consider the following guiding principles for building functional relationships with adult children:

1. Healthy one-on-one connection allows emotional space for each person to be who they are and think for self.

2. As children move into full and independent adulthood, parents retire as parents, and become significant, non-invasive supporters. Gradually the relationship shifts to “adult-adult.”

3. Parents reduce their emotional neediness for their adult children by forming other, meaningful, adult relationships, pursuing engaging life interests and involvements, and supporting autonomy and initiative in their adult children.

4. Parents and adult children become more observant of behaviors that signal emotional over-attachment - blame, resentment, seeking to rescue, assuming you know what’s best for the other, avoidance, unreasonable expectations, etc.

5. Healthy parents respect the complexity of family life. They acknowledge that they can never fully know their adult children. Likewise, whatever issues reside between them may never be fully resolved.

6. Parents approach the imperfection and incompleteness of the relationship with curiosity rather than reproachment. For example, instead of telling adult children what they should do, a parent might ask, “What’s it like for you?” This helps regulate anxiety and fear of rejection in the parent, and fosters healthy connection and separateness.

7. Emotional separateness involves a series of reminders for parents:

· “I respect the right of my adult children to define themselves separately from me.”

· “My children have their own lives and destinies that do not depend on my approval.”

· “I focus on my own needs and desired life, and, only when invited, on the lives and decisions of my children.”

It turns out that “the big switcheroo” is a normal process that begins with the clipping of the umbilical cord. Too often along the way, mostly without knowing it, we try to stop it.


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