Parents need to reset relationship to an adult child


SOMEWHERE ALONG THE parenting timeline, we stopped raising our children and started wooing them. Sometime over the past 30 years, we stopped demanding obedience from our children and started seeking their love and companionship.

It was a serious tactical error because it shifted many of the powers in the parent-child relationship to the child. And one of those is the power to hurt.

Family and relationship therapist and author Joshua Coleman has written an important book that can help parents heal: When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along (Collins, $23.95).

Coleman writes about parents and children from his San Francisco practice who have reached points of terrible pain and alienation because of abuse, neglect or messy divorce.

He even writes about his own experiences as a divorced father and the antipathy it created in his oldest daughter.

These are dramatic stories, and you weep for the parent who has received that awful letter from an adult child, forbidding Mom from calling and writing or telling Dad that they will never speak to him again.

Coleman offers parents a step-by-step way to cope and to carry on with hope for the future.

But Coleman also writes about parents who have done nothing observably wrong and still face the wrath of a blaming child, and of parents and children so mismatched that phone calls and visits are fraught with tension.

And his book poses the question at the heart of many relationships between boomers and their young adult children.

What is this relationship supposed to look like? What do we owe each other? How are we supposed to treat each other? How do we avoid hurting each other?

"The first thing we have to do is give ourselves a chance to grieve for the child that is no longer there," Coleman said in a telephone interview.

"Just like when they left for kindergarten and we grieved for the toddler that was no longer there, we grieve when they become their own people and go out into the world."

The intensity of our parenting when our children were young needs to give way to some new kind of involvement -- Coleman and others describe it as a shift from "manager" to "consultant."

But the lengthening season of adolescence -- which no less than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now describes as lasting into the late 20s -- makes it confusing even for parents who want to back off.

"A lot of parenting is driving blind," Coleman said. "You can't rely on the signposts of your children's feedback because they will all be detour signs.

"Sometimes the provocative way our kids respond is their way of putting stakes in the ground for their own autonomy."

One of the perverse outcomes of our intense parenting is the assumption by our children that we are to blame if things don't turn out right.

Junior fails to gain traction in school or his career, and he blames Mom or Dad for failing to provide him with the tools for success.

"Don't make the mistake of defending yourself," Coleman said. "See it for what it is: the cry of a child who senses there is something wrong and decides to blame you rather than face up to his own shortcomings."

There is plenty of advice and comfort in Coleman's new book. But the difficult task of reframing the relationship with your adult child requires patience and restraint.

No shaming, no guilt-tripping, no childish temper tantrums, no brooding, no self-pity. No intrusive questions, no demands, no attendance requirements, no emotional blackmail, no whining, no silent treatment, no bribing.

Be available but not needy. Be there to help and advise, but set limits. Be grateful for the attention you get from your children, but don't let it show. Don't let our love for them give them more power to hurt us. Protect your heart.

"All of this requires a pretty darned centered parent," Coleman said. "Closeness with our adult children is not an entitlement, but it can be the goal.

"It is nothing we can assume. But it is something we can hope for."

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