When my husband and I dropped our daughter off for her first semester of college two years ago, I knew that our relationship was about to change. It had to. Over the years, I have discarded many of my beliefs around parenting, adapting them to the harsh light of reality, but one has remained constant: Parents have to allow their children to grow up. Too often, parents remain too involved in the lives of their children, blocking their independence. I was determined to be different.
Like most transitions this one would be complicated. My relationship to my daughter was close and well-established, honed over eighteen years under the same roof. Now I needed to retreat and make our relationship less about raising her and more about raising myself to be the parent of an adult. I knew that this would take time and effort and it helps that my daughter is blessed with common sense and a forgiving attitude.
Sometimes, quite often actually, I revert to my old patterns of nagging, particularly when she’s home for breaks and resumes her quest to make her room resemble a missile testing site. Old habits are hard to break. Despite setbacks I strive to maintain the balance between support and interference, help and hovering, between reminding and nagging. In short, I’ve had to relearn how to be a parent. Over time, I have adopted some general principles to guide me as I navigate the uncharted territory of parenting an adult.
4 Ways to Parent an Adult
1. Show trust: Nothing hurts a burgeoning adult more than a lack of trust from a parent. I’m a dedicated worrier and college offers unlimited opportunities for maternal anxiety: Would she be able to keep herself safe? What if she didn’t get along with her roommates? Would she eat well or live on snacks? For my own sanity, I employed a new strategy: radical trust.
Being ready for college involves trusting that she has, or is able to learn, the skills she needs to survive and thrive. I want her to be able to call me for advice, chats, or share frustrations and problems without fearing that I’ll judge her, like a domineering eagle, swoop in to fix the problem. Trusting her also means trusting my own parenting skills. I’ve had to find a way to believe that I managed to teach her enough during our eighteen years together that she’s able to survive without me.
2. Remember what I needed: Did your parents always know what was best for you? I didn’t think so. As I consider my relationship with my daughter I often ask myself what I wanted from my own parents when I was her age. I didn’t need them to teach me right from wrong, or remind me to put gas in my car. Instead, I wanted fair-minded, emotional support to make the major and sometimes terrifying decisions all young adults face. I try to provide that to my daughter and to keep in mind that while I’m older and have more life experience, I don’t actually know what it’s like to be young today.
3. It’s not my journey: My own rocky path to adulthood involved plenty of stumbles that I would prefer my daughter to avoid. Although she is much more accomplished than I’ll ever be, I remain vigilant, on perpetual guard, scanning the horizon for looming threats. All parents want their children to live healthy and happy lives, and to fulfill their potential, but many also have a distinct ideas of what their children’s futures should look like.
During freshman orientation, the most common question was from parents who wanted to know whether they could veto their children’s course selection. The response from the panel members was swift and uniform: “Back off.” The journey to adulthood involves adventure and exploration as well as setbacks and false starts and it is one that our children will have to take alone. For me, it’s been a difficult part of parenting an adult a lesson, I have to keep learning as she prepares to graduate from college and start her life.
4. Consider our future relationship: All relationships change over time, perhaps that between parents and children the most. As a parent of only one child, my experience as a “full time” mother felt disconcertingly short. Although, her preschool years loom large in my memory, they constitute only a fraction of our lives together and most of it is still ahead of us. As a result, establishing a strong relationship with her as an adult, is crucial. I now weigh my words and ask my daughter to tell me what kind of support she needs.
As my daughter launches toward adulthood, I want to be present to cheer her on – from the sidelines, of course.
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Daniela Loose is a writer, voracious reader, and former teacher and translator always on the hunt for the perfect sentence. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post as well as in various online publications. She lives in New England and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.