12 Tips for Gently Parenting Your Adult Children (Hint: It starts when they’re newborns!)

5 years ago

“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am a ‘baby mama’ when it comes to parenting my adult children. That means that my adult parenting skills are in their infancy despite the fact that…

As a mother of six from 25 years old all the way down to 25 months old, three of whom are adults, two of them married, one with two small children, three with college degrees, one a Pastor, one a Family Therapist, one a senior pre-med student, two who are teenagers, two currently homeschooled, one a kindergartener, and one a diaper-bottomed nursing toddler, my ‘boots on the ground’ parenting experience is not only wide-ranged, but also very current for nearly every stage of parenting possible.

and the fact that…

I have studied developmental and educational psychology, have more than two decades of training and experience in leading and developing student and children’s ministries, have created curriculums for both home education and church-based learning centers, have trained in, worked in, and directed early childhood education programs, worked with high-risk youth as a leader and mentor, and have extensive experience as a parenting author, speaker, and coach.

But even in this ’baby mama’ stage, I know that…

None of those afore mentioned facts make it okay for me to over-step my boundaries as a parent of adult children who are just establishing their own families, just embarking on their careers, just beginning to make their mark on the world.

Now what I’m trying to figure out is…

What are my boundaries?

That, friends, is the 64,000 dollar question, and here’s why:

All stages of parenting come with their own unique learning curve, their own challenges and frustrations, their own compromises and sacrifices, and their own flubs, false steps, and failures. From those first terror-stricken days with a newborn to the sleep-deprived months of infancy to the challenges of toddlerhood and beyond, parenting is a journey, not a destination. And when subsequent little ones arrive, the journey starts all over again as we discover that the lessons learned from parenting one child don’t always apply to the next as each have their own incomparable personalities, quirks, and individual identities.

The principles of gentle parenting (i.e. connection, empathy, intentionality, respect) don’t change as our children grow, just as they don’t change from one child to the next. What does change is our understanding of those principles as we grow in wisdom and experience as parents and human beings. The practical application of gentle parenting principles, though, can look very different from child to child and life stage to life stage. For instance, with an introverted child gentle parenting might involve a greater degree of physical proximity and emotional support whereas with a very extroverted child it may involve a greater degree of energy direction and respectful guidance.

This constancy of principles and individualized application of gentle parenting is no less true when parenting our adult children than it is when parenting our minor children. As gentle parents, we are our children’s first and best friend in the purest and truest definition of friendship. That sets the stage for the transition from the early parent/friend years to the parent-friendship that will characterize our relationship when our children grow into adulthood.

Here are 12 practical tips for gently parenting your adult children:

1.)    Begin to consciously pay attention to your own parents’ interactions with you. Mentally catalogue what you find helpful and what you find intrusive, what is an acceptable level of involvement, advice, and interaction and what feels overbearing or lacking. Make a mental (or actual!) note to remember those feelings when your own children become adults.

2.)    Remember, parenting is literally ‘on the job’ learning. Your parents are discovering by trial and error (often lots of error) what their roles and boundaries are in this uncharted territory of parenting adults. Model giving your parents grace when they overstep or underplay their roles. This will set the stage for your children to extend the same grace to you when seemingly overnight you suddenly find yourself learning to parent your own adult children.

3.)    While your child is an infant, meet their needs swiftly, consistently, and gently. They won’t remember what you did or didn’t do at this stage, but they will always carry with them how it made them feel. Make sure what they feel is safe, secure, and loved so that is they will take with them into adulthood.

4.)    When your child reaches toddlerhood, focus on connection rather than correction. What will matter most in later years won’t be whether they wore matching shoes or left the park without pitching a fit. What will matter is whether they felt heard, understood, and respected.

5.)    As your child moves into the preschool and early childhood years, focus on communication, whether that takes the form of whining, tattling, endless questions or some combination of all three. Continue to build a trust relationship by hearing their heart rather than their tone and responding with gentle guidance.

6.)    When your child reaches the middle stages of childhood, listening to the endless stories from your chatterbox or offering empathy and quiet support to your dreamer will help them as they explore who they are and who they want to be when they grow up. You are building the friendship of a lifetime in these interactions, so make them a priority!

7.)    Once your child enters the teen years, consciously begin to gradually shift your role into a supporting rather than a leading act. Listen not to their words, their attitudes, their hormones, their angst. Listen instead to their struggles, their hopes, their dreams, their fears. Remember, you are the only adult in the relationship at this point. They still have a lot of maturing to do. Practice self-control. Be honest about your own struggles, fears, and failings. You’ll be amazed at what a connection point that is as your teen discovers that they aren’t alone in their humanness. Be the first one to listen, the first one to forgive, the first one to apologize, the first one to understand, the first one to back down and try to find another way when the going gets tough.

8.)    When your child becomes an adult, let them set the pace. Some children will hit eighteen and be ready to move into a university dorm or get a job and an apartment right away. Others will need a slower transition. They may need to stay at home while going to university or while taking some time to try out different jobs as they explore this strange new world of adulthood. If the time comes that you feel they need a gentle nudge out of the nest, you can help them to find an acceptable roommate or two and guide them through the process of settling into independent adulthood.

9.)    Once your child is out on their own, your role will shift fully to a support system. Offering unsolicited advice is fine as long as it is briefly stated…once. After that, it becomes intrusive. Offers of help and invitations to family events, etc. should follow the same guidelines.

10.)    When your child starts a family of their own, consciously bring to mind how you felt at various times when your own parents supported you in your new role and/or interfered with the establishment of your new little family. Acknowledge to yourself and to them that they won’t do everything the way you did, that they will make decisions you wouldn’t make, that you will offer advice that won’t be heeded, and that they will make mistakes and have to learn from them just like you did.

11.)    On the subject of making mistakes, remember, just as you wouldn’t want every youthful mistake, every wrong choice, every unfortunate decision to be broadcast to the world or even just joked about privately instead of being left in the past where it belongs, be sure to practice ‘The Golden Rule of Parenting’ and treat your children how you like to be treated.

12.)    Keep in mind that the person you are now isn’t the person you were when you first started out on your journey into adulthood. Expecting your young adult children to think and experience and process life and events the way that you do now is like expecting a newborn baby to be able to pick up a book and read it.

Remember, the voice of experience has an immense amount of wisdom to offer, but only if it also has the wisdom to know when to remain silent. ~L.R.Knost


L.R.Knost~Parenting and Children's Book Author


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