How to Parent Your Adult Kids | "How To" Series

Part of our "How To" series

Have you ever Googled your adult child and been shocked at what you found? I may be naïve, and maybe it is something most moms do, but I honestly never thought to do it. Until today. 

What I found surprised me.  

(No, no! Not what you’re thinking. I didn’t find a mug shot or a scandalous news story.) 

My oldest son Nate, the one who drove me insanely crazy when he was a teenager, is standing nonchalantly with Solange Knowles in a photograph set against the New York City night skyline. Yes, that Solange Knowles--the American singer, songwriter, model and actress. I had no idea my son was keeping the company of such a famous person. 

But it clearly was Nate, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a travel editor for the magazine, Surface.  

Check it out for yourself. (He’s the one on the left in the red glasses.) 

I shouldn’t have been that surprised by the Solange situation. After all, one morning a year or ago, he sent me a casual text informing me that he was going to be on the American morning talk show, “The View”, with Leann Rimes as her DJ while she sang, “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. I happened to be driving to a physical therapy appointment at the moment and ran into the clinic as soon as I arrived, shouting, “Turn on Channel 2 NOW!”  

Needless to say, everyone--therapists and patients alike--stopped what they were doing and we watched Nate expertly do his thing. I didn’t even know he knew how to DJ, let alone that he knew Leann Rimes. But this is my son, Nate.  

Here’s my gripe: why didn’t he tell me about these events, in full detail, in advance? Doesn’t he know that I want to know everything he is doing at every minute of every day about his exciting life in New York City?  

That is a probably a silly question. Of course he doesn’t know. And even if he did, he wouldn’t comply with my irrational wish because it’s not what he wants, or even should want. (And to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to know everything he does either.) 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about parenting adult kids. Or rather, do we still need to parent our adult kids? Harry Truman once said, “I have found the best advice to your children is to find out what they want, and then advise them to do it.” I’m not sure if I completely agree. What about the things they want to do that you would advise them NOT to do? And yet, they don’t really want our unsolicited advice. At least my kids don’t. If yours do, count yourself lucky. 

As a therapist, I support my clients’ need for exerting their own self-determination and personal will, unless they are obviously about to shoot themselves in the foot. Even then, I have to consider that what I might see as a foolish idea, other people might not. Hey, I might even be projecting my own fears/values/beliefs/envy/horror… onto my kids. We all do this sometimes. 

I remember the time Nate wanted to learn to scuba dive. Now, I know that thousands of rational people scuba dive. It’s a really cool thing to do, and I’m all about trying new things and challenging yourself.

(Except for me, the idea of being in the ocean, below the surface, with the possibility of a face-to-face encounter with a ravenous shark absolutely terrifies me!)

Nate knows this about me. But, although I really, really did not want him to do it, I also knew that the fear was my problem, not his.  

He did learn to scuba dive and loves it. Mercifully, he did not tell me until after the fact about the sharks he encountered while scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef when he was living in Australia during his semester abroad. I must consider that sometimes ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to the possibility of dangerous wild animals eating my adventurous offspring.

He survived, and so did I.  


The problem is, I have two other extremely intrepid adult children. My youngest son, Nick, is about to embark to Alaska for an internship, and he will be camping out in a tent for weeks at a time with a biologist studying vegetation after fires. When he first told me about it, I was thrilled and excited for him. And then he told me that he would have to carry a shotgun with him in the “likely” event he would meet up with bears. My excitement quickly turned to horror. (It’s that wild animals thing again.) 

My daughter, Beth, is getting ready to move to a small town in Oregon to put her new Physician Assistant degree to work in a rural clinic. Will she be accepted by the people in the community? Will she adapt to rural life? Will she be happy? (What wild animals live in Oregon?)  

As a parent of adult children, it can be both heart-warming and heart-wrenching to watch them venture out into the world. We wonder if we've taught them enough to be successful, or resilient enough to deal with failures. We will project onto them our fears and worries because, after all, we did give birth and raise them. Ideally, we also helped them develop confidence and competency to face the world and make decisions that may or may not be what we think is best for them. 

So, here’s my best advice for parenting your adult children: let them teach you what they want and need from you.

That’s what they want.

They want us to see them, to hear them, and to respect their choices, even if it scares or worries us.

They will make mistakes; just as we have made mistakes, and will continue doing so. And as much as it might kill us, we have to support them. If they come to us with what seem like truly crazy ideas, we can talk to them about our views. There might be tears; there might even be arguments, because we want and need to be heard by them as well. But more importantly, they will know it’s about our love--not control--that motivates our concerns. Relationships are rarely ever easy anyway, especially relationships with our children, in which we have invested so much time, emotion and energy.  

A wise friend and psychologist once told me: “We don’t leave our kids. Our kids leave us.”  

Even though that is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, it’s true. The goal is that they know we will be there, through it all, as long as we are still on the planet. They might not be ten years old anymore, but they most likely still want and need quality relationships with us, their parents. My own mother died when I was 56, and there is not a day that goes by when I don’t wish she was still here, being my mother. Our kids probably feel the same way, even as they go out to live their lives, leaving us behind. 

And, every time they come back, we can just be grateful that the wild animals, or the wild world, spared them again. 

Carol Storey
A Villa Storyteller