In our last post I offered some ideas on how parents can go about reconnecting with adult children who have become distant and disconnected. In this post I’d like to talk a bit more about what is often behind that distance.
Why have your kids decided to distance themselves?
Obviously, there are many possible answers to this question, and the reasons range from the very minor to the very extreme. But there is one answer that comes up frequently among adults who have curtailed their relationships with their parents to greater or lesser degree.
They don’t want your judgment.
“But,” you protest, “I’m not judging my kids!” Maybe you aren’t. But consider whether maybe in fact you are, in subtle ways you haven’t really thought of.
Here some ways parents have been known to judge or criticize their children without actually saying so:
“Looks like your car could use a new coat of paint.” (Translation: you should get your car painted.)
“Where did you pick out that new area rug?” (Translation: I don’t like your new area rug.)
“How come Billy isn’t potty trained yet?” (Translation: you’re not raising Billy right.)
“Have you considered looking for a better-paying job?” (Translation: you’re not making enough money.)
“Don’t forget to take your raincoat!” (Translation: you’re not responsible enough to remember by yourself.)
Certainly a lot of this depends on your tone, which is impossible to discuss helpfully in written word. But even absent a condescending tone, children are liable to interpret comments like these as judgmental and critical – especially if their history with you is full of judgment and criticism. If you’ve been known to interact with your children that way in the past, it is likely they will hear you broadcasting the same message, even if truly you aren’t.
Note that advice-giving is only a hairsbreadth away from judging. If you tell your child they should shop at Store X because they have the best widgets, you are at the same time implying that your child doesn’t know how to buy widgets on their own. If you advise them to call your friend Jim to get the best price on the car repair they need, you are indicating that they don’t know how to find a good price on car repairs. They don’t want to hear it.
(Here’s an important point: you may even be correct. Your son or daughter may have no idea how to shop around for a good price. And yet your commenting on that fact is taken as judgmental – indeed, you are judging them, albeit correctly – and is unwanted!)
The Choices We Make about Relationships
It is extremely difficult for children to wash their hands of their parents completely. The nature of the parent-child relationship is that children grow up wanting and needing their parents’ approval. And that never fully goes away. When you make a very mildly negative comment about your daughter’s new haircut, your disapproval resonates very loudly. She feels judged, hurt, not good enough. And rather than continue to experience those feelings, she may very well close off the relationship.
Parenting an adult is still parenting. You still have a job to do. But it is significantly different from what it was when your kids were younger, or even teenagers. You can be there as a support system, as cheerleaders, as a source of love and acceptance, but not as a manager. You are no longer in a position to tell them what to do or to evaluate what they are doing.
As the parent of adult children, you must be vigilant to avoid judging or criticizing them, or even implying judgment or criticism. They are adults, and want to be seen as adults. What’s more, they want you to see them as adults. When you imply that they don’t know how to take care of their car or choose a hairstyle, you communicate to them that you don’t think they’re capable. And they don’t like it. The result is that they distance themselves from you in order to avoid it.
Alternatives to Judgment
The opposite of judgment is acceptance. You don’t have to like the choices your children make, but you have to accept them. One important reason this is so is because there simply is no other option – if you try to control their choices, you will quickly find they are no longer listening to you. If you criticize their choices, they will tune you out.
What your children want from you is to know that you believe in them and are there to support them through good and bad. In this way, things aren’t so different from when they were young.
Saying “I’m proud of you, son” is a good start. But if it’s followed by “hm, interesting color you chose for this wall,” it rings very hollow.
Acceptance sounds like “this paint job looks great!” or “I’m sure you’ve got this one.” It even sounds like silence, when you really don’t like that color of paint. There is no obligation to say so. Your children likely prefer to have an ugly paint color and to pay more for car repairs than to feel judged by you.
If your relationship with your adult children isn’t what you want it to be, consider the ways in which you might be communicating your judgment of them. You can start making the change from judgment to acceptance and from criticism to encouragement today. Let us know if you need help.
Learn more about our family therapy services here.