Krista’s mom was coming for a visit and her stomach was already tied in knots. As a child, her mom constantly told her what to do and how to do it. And to top it off, Krista felt she never did it quite good enough. Now she was 33 years old, but she still felt like that eight-year-old little girl when mom came to visit.
During one of her visits, her mom said, “Krista, I have some extra time today. Would you like for me to rearrange your bookshelves to look better?” What Krista wanted to do was to scream and say, “No! I like them just the way they are! You do your bookshelves the way you like them, and I’ll do mine the way I like them! Leave my stuff alone.” Instead, she just stuffed her frustration and said, “No, thank you.”
Brittany’s mom was much the same. On one visit, she pulled Brittany into the bedroom and said, “I want to tell you something.” Brittany thought it unusual but was hoping her mom was finally going to share something meaningful for a change. Instead, her mom said, “Brittany, let me show you how to tuck the corners of your sheets in properly.” She began to demonstrate the perfect military folds. Brittany just stood there. “Unbelievable,” she said as she turned and walked out of the door.
I’ve heard of stories like those while writing the book, The Power of a Woman’s Words, but I think these are enough to give us a good idea of how to have a bad relationship. My mom was much like Krista’s, and even though mom has left this earth, I can still feel that knot tied with the cords of frustration in my stomach that came with her visits.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Monkey Business Images/Stockbroker
I’ve always thought responding to someone’s question with, “It’s complicated,” was a total cop-out. It’s like saying, “I just don’t want to talk about it” or “You could never understand.” But how to talk to adult children effectively is complicated! There are so many variables to consider when talking to these creatures… of which I am one. Let’s look at five keys to “adult speak.”
Number One: A Changing Relationship
When it comes to speaking to an adult child, we should talk to him or her more like we would to a friend rather than a child. Parents often fantasize about being best friends with their adult children. And while the relationship may have many facets of a great friendship, there are differences.
We get to choose our friends. We don’t get to choose our children. And once you’ve got them, you can’t send them back for a more compatible model.
A parent invests time, emotions, money, and energy in a child year after year. Parents are nowhere near as invested in a friendship as they are with their children. If a friend disappoints or hurts us, we can opt-out of the relationship. Not so with children! Parenthood is permanent.
As Elizabeth Stone has put it, “Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” But at some point, we have to allow that heart to beat on its own.
Number Two: Encountering Differences
Most of the time our friends are like us. We have similar interests, opinions, worldviews, and hobbies. Not so with adult children. An adult child may be drastically different from his or her parents with opposite political, social, and moral beliefs. Their hobbies, interests, and goals may have no commonalities.
An adult child may make lifestyle choices that run opposed to what they were taught under the parent’s roof. At some point, the parents may wonder where in the world this person came from, and who kidnapped that compliant 10-year-old and replaced him with this bigger, older, vastly different version. The relational transformation from child to adult is like a tadpole morphing into a frog, where the last phase is sometimes unrecognizable from the first.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Winnie Vinzence
Number Three: Acknowledging Personality
Another factor in deciphering the “adult child speak” code is personality differences. A mom can say the same thing to two different adult children and get two different responses. One adult child interprets a mom saying, “Do you want me to help you with your laundry?” as a welcome offer to relieve the pressure of running a home. Another adult child hears that same statement and interprets it as, “You’re not capable of keeping up with the housework. I don’t like how you’re so messy. You need me to step in and take over.”
I know. It’s complicated. Another mom told me about how her four daughters responded to the simple words, “Drive safe,” when they left her house. Three of the girls interpreted her farewell as a loving “goodbye.” The fourth interpreted it as “you don’t think I’m a good driver.”
The key is to understand the adult child’s tendencies and craft our words carefully. And even then, what works in one situation may not work in another.
Number Four: Hearing Differently
Another piece of the puzzle is that boys and girls—rather, men and women—perceive words differently. Stereotypically, men tend to take words at face value while women tend to wonder what you really mean. Birth order can also come into play. A straightforward first-born may tend to receive words differently from the sensitive middle child. Is your head spinning yet?
Number Five: Filtering through Past Pain
And finally, we can’t ignore the fact that words are filtered through the sieve of past hurts and hurdles. Did a child experience abandonment or bullying as a child? Did the adolescent experience drug addiction or sexual abuse? Did the young adult experience bankruptcy, rejection, or loss? Even as an adult myself, I always ask myself if I am interpreting others’ words through the filter of past pain. Past experiences affect present perception.
Sometimes parents become so frustrated and confused about how to use their words with grown children, they just give up and float along, letting the words take them where they will. I have a better idea. While we aren’t to use our words to necessarily steer the adult child, we can use our words to steer the relationship between us. Then if they feel safe and secure enough to ask for direction, we can make suggestions and pull out the map of wisdom and past experience.
Related: Listen to Our FREE Parenting Podcast!
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Guidelines for Cheering from the Sidelines Rather Than from the Huddle
Various psychologists and authors have written about the stages of parenthood. Bob Hostetler calls these stages the Commander Phase (ages 1-5), the Coaching Phase (ages 5-12), the Counselor Phase (ages 13-18), and the Consultant Phase (ages 19 and beyond). Another resource refers to them as the Loving Discipline stage, the Training Stage, the Coaching Stage, and the Friendship Stage. Whichever labels you choose, they all agree that adult children fit into a category all their own. We go from coaching in the huddle to cheering on the sidelines.
As I said earlier, how to talk to adult children in ways to strengthen the relationship rather than weaken it can be complicated. While it’s not possible to delve into all the variables and possible scenarios, here is a list of eight common tendencies to avoid. As a caveat, these suggestions are for relatively healthy relationships, but do not apply to life-threatening situations.
I call this list:
Words that Make Adult Children Want to Run for the Hills (Don’t Say It!)
1. Don’t tell them how to raise their children. Those precious little ones are their children, not grandma’s.
2. Don’t remind them of the way you raised them, such as “That’s not the way I raised you” or “I would have never let you get away with that.” Believe me, they got it. If they choose a different route, then that’s their decision. This does not mean omitting funny stories about their childhood. My son loves to tell stories about how we raised him, especially the discipline variety.
3. Don’t be rude. Don’t allow a family connection to be an excuse for rudeness or lack of respect. Talk to your adult child with the respect you would any other adult. When speaking to him or her, ask yourself, Would I speak to a friend that way? If not, don’t say it, or say it in a different way.
4. Don’t jump in with solutions and ideas to try to solve his or her problems. Rather, be a sounding board and ask good questions. Allow the adult children to come to his or her own solutions, even if you don't think it is necessarily the best one.
5. It might take every bit of restraint you have in you, but don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it. Then reply with, “What I would do…” rather than “what you should do.” We all know that wisdom comes with age. But here’s a question to ponder: Where did that wisdom come from. I don’t know about you, but most of my wisdom came from trial and error, mostly error. Once adult children see that the parent is not going to give unsolicited advice, he or she will be more likely to ask for it.
6. Don’t share a private conversation that you’ve had with your adult child with someone else. This is true for any shared confidence, but it’s worth emphasizing in parent/adult child relationships.
7. Don’t take it personally if the adult child doesn’t have time for a long, drawn-out discussion on any particular day. Remember how busy your life was at that stage of life. And just because mom and dad have retired and have time on their hands doesn’t mean that their adult kids have time to suddenly fill the void.
8. Don’t forget you are a guest in their home. Mothers-in-law need to remember, once an adult child gets married, there is a new woman of the house…and it’s not mom. Whether it is a son taking a wife, or a daughter taking a husband, the wife is now the queen of her castle. The mother or mother-in-law, as well as the father-in-law, is a guest.
9. When adult children call on the phone, don’t say, “I was wondering when I was going to hear from you” or “I haven’t heard from you in a long time.” Avoid any statement that makes him or her feel guilty for not calling earlier.
The bottom line is that when children morph into young adults, a parent’s words need to morph right along with them. Failure to see and treat the grown child as an adult friend will ruin a relationship, sometimes beyond repair. While we aren’t to use our words to necessarily steer the adult child, we can use our words to steer the relationship between us.
Click here for a FREE printable download of 25 Statements that Build Strong Relationships with Your Adult Children and 25 Statements that Can Destroy Relationships with Adult Children.
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Originally published Wednesday, 14 July 2021.