I’ve heard a lot lately from empty nest moms who aren’t sure how to build healthy connections with their adult kids. Some complain that they don’t see enough of them and want to know how to encourage more family time. Others sheepishly confess that they’re happy to have some room to breathe but think maybe they shouldn’t say so out loud. A few wonder why their kids are making what seem to be “bad” choices in jobs, living situations, and relationships. Still others seem hard-pressed to say what their child’s plans are for the future because it’s a topic that’s off-limits, and they worry about why.
Here’s the thing about moving from full-time, hands-on parent to coach/advisor to your adult kids: It’s easy to think it’s all about us – how we fit into our adult kids’ lives – but it isn’t. It’s also tempting to believe that it’s all about them – they’re in the driver’s seat now, so we’re free to hop on a cruise ship and sail off into the sunset. Also, not true if we want to stay connected and hope they want the same.
Changes are happening on both sides of your relationship.
What is true is that both you and your adult child are growing into a new season of life. And that means you’ll both have to make adjustments in the ways you relate and communicate.
Sometimes, those adjustments will feel awkward and uncomfortable. It can be confusing to figure out your new role. And even harder to find ways to stay connected while giving adult kids the room they need to succeed.
But if we want happy, healthy connections with our adult kids, we’ve got to lean into our discomfort and do our part to build new grown-up relationships.
With some personal reflection and a willingness to change, you can step confidently into this new season and find a brand-new level of joy with your grown-up family. Here are four questions to ask yourself as you navigate your new path:
1. Am I trying too hard?
Our natural inclination to protect and care for our children can spill over into adulthood. What once was a healthy and necessary part of parenting becomes a not-so-helpful habit. If you find yourself doing too much or trying too hard to smooth the way for your adult children, ask God to help you trust that He is in control of their lives – and always has been. So it’s safe for you to give up the director’s chair, step back and watch Him work for their good.
While that might sound easier said than done, there are two ways to calm your mama bear heart as you learn to let go.
First, instead of trying to keep up with every detail of their lives as you did when they were younger, ask your adult kids how you can pray for them now. By sharing their prayer requests, they’re giving you a window into what matters most to them as grown-ups. It may take time for them to feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you, but keep asking and praying (even when they aren’t specific.) Be respectful of their privacy, pray as you’ve promised, and be sure to follow up by asking how the struggle or challenge is going.
Second, recognize that sometimes nostalgia tricks us into seeing our children not as adults but as the dependent youngsters they once were. Overcome that obstacle by noticing how your child demonstrates they can care for themselves. Keep a journal if it helps, and jot down examples as they happen. Give your child the opportunity to make mistakes, and don’t be quick to rush in with a fix. Focus on their ability to solve problems and offer to help only if asked.
2. Am I listening to understand?
When we think we know someone better than they know themselves, it’s hard to listen without jumping to conclusions based on a lifetime of experience. But perhaps more important than in any other relationship, listening to understand is crucial to building strong bonds with adult kids.
Young adults are forming their own ideas about dozens of different things, and nothing feels worse than having thoughts or feelings dismissed simply because they’re different or unexpected. So, take a deep breath and welcome conversations about new ideas. Try not to take it personally when your beliefs and opinions are challenged. Ask God to give you generous portions of empathy and patience, then try to stay curious and positive as you listen to hear your child’s perspective.
Listen to yourself as well. Are your words encouraging or critical? Be sensitive that sometimes loving suggestions or advice sounds like criticism. Try to hear what your child hears. Don’t offer opinions unless asked, and then tread carefully. Asking gentle questions like, “What are your thoughts about that?” will build more bridges than any sentence that begins with the words “You should…” or “You shouldn’t…”
3. What could I do differently?
We all make parenting mistakes. It’s a simple yet unavoidable truth about being human. The important thing is learning what to do differently next time.
Think of every interaction as a chance to gather more information about what works best between you and your adult child, then make the necessary adjustments. If you recognize that you’ve overstepped a boundary, be quick to apologize. But remember that an apology doesn’t mean much unless followed by action.
Explain what you’ll do differently the next time to rebuild trust. If you aren’t sure how to make it right, ask, “Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”
Work hard to keep an open dialogue about expectations. It’s okay to be honest about hurt feelings or disappointments as long as the same goes for your child sharing those things with you.
If you still struggle to connect, a good therapist or coach can work with you to navigate any underlying issues contributing to your struggles and conflicts.
4. As my role changes, who will I be?
When we fill a family role, like Mom, we pour our energy into all the things that must be done to keep our people fed, clothed, ready for the game, ready for exams, ready to drive, ready for their first date, ready for college, ready for life.
It’s a role we embrace with enthusiasm, love, and devotion. But we get into trouble when we allow our identity to be defined too closely by a role we fill. Because when our kids grow up, and that role changes, we might be left wondering who we are and where we belong.
This is more than just an empty-nester problem. It’s human nature to see ourselves in relationship to the people we care about. But other people – no matter how much they mean to us – do not define who we are.
Our true identity comes from just one place: our God, who created us for a great big life – before, during, and after the heavy-lifting years of parenting. When we lean into His plan and ask Him what He wants next for us, we’re one step closer to finding the freedom and joy waiting in every season.
If you could use some help figuring out your next steps toward a joy-filled empty nest, I’d love to be your guide. Click here to schedule a complimentary coaching call today.
Discovering who you are and what’s next for you is a necessary part of building happy, healthy connections with your adult kids. Because just as you want what’s best for them, they need to know you’re happy and whole even when they’re no longer the center of your world.
Leave a comment below to share how you’re building stronger connections with your adult kids.