Scott Haltzman, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in North Providence, Rhode Island, and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife’s Heart Forever. DrScott.com
In our mobile modern society, many adult children live hundreds or thousands of miles from their parents. Unfortunately, that geographical distance tends to be highly correlated with emotional distance from our kids and grandkids.
Even extended families whose members still live near one another face challenges, with ever-increasing demands on their time.
The good news: Parents can overcome these challenges and build strong relationships with their adult children no matter where they live. Five ways to make that happen…
Make your respect for your grown kids a recurring theme of the relationship. Adult children want one thing from their parents above all else — respect. The more you provide, the greater the odds that your children will want to remain close with you.
One way to show respect is to shower your grown kids with praise just as you did when they were young. Search for any excuse to offer a compliment. Make “I’m proud of you” and “You handled that very well” your mantras.
It also is important not to criticize your grown children when it seems as if they have failed. Criticism will only drive them away from you.
Helpful: If you catch yourself being critical, make at least five positive comments or actions before the end of your call or visit. Research has shown that a positive-to-negative interaction ratio of five-to-one or better can help maintain closeness in our relationships with our children (and our own spouses, too).
A family’s traditions help to define it as well as preserve it. These traditions might include a distinctive way of celebrating a holiday or something as simple as gathering each year to watch an annual event on TV. Sure, your kids are busy with their own families and maybe there’s been some bickering — but everyone still gathers at your house to watch the Super Bowl because it’s a tradition.
It’s never too late to create new family traditions. Whenever the extended family gets together and has a good time, single out something distinctive about the occasion — perhaps the place that the family gathered… the board game the family played… or the day of the year on which the gathering occurred. Suggest that the family try this again, perhaps the following year. If everyone has as much fun the second time, it could become a tradition.
Warning: Never make family traditions seem like requirements. If you hold it against your son that he spent Thanksgiving with his in-laws, the holiday could become a source of anxiety, driving your family apart, rather than a tradition that holds you together.
Resist the urge to give advice, even when it is requested. Receiving guidance from a parent can make adults feel like helpless children again. They tend to rebel against this unpleasant feeling by pulling away from the parent — even if they asked for advice.
If your adult child requests your advice, say, “I’m happy to help you sort through the pros and cons, but it’s your decision to make, and I know you’ll make the right choice.”
One way to provide guidance to grown children is to ask them to teach you how they do something. Rather than criticize your adult children’s decisions or methods, express an interest in these and ask if they could explain them to you. Listen attentively and without criticism, then casually mention that a different method was taught back when you were learning this task. Briefly describe your method and its advantages, then ask whether this strategy is still used. If your child doesn’t wish to pursue the discussion any further, let it drop. This should dodge the psychological pitfalls of providing parental advice because the child gets to act as teacher first… and your guidance is presented as something that someone else taught you.
Example: When your son comes to you enthusiastically intending to buy junk bonds, you can ask about the company and its financial health, even look it up online with him. Then you can share how exciting it is to take a risk, as well as how you have learned not to invest any more than you can afford to lose.
Provide direct advice only if the adult child is about to make a massive and potentially irreversible misstep, such as driving an unsafe vehicle or buying an older home without a home inspection.
Search for ways to support and praise your sons- and daughters-in-law — even if you don’t really care for them. It’s your relationship with your children and grandchildren that will suffer the most if you don’t get along with your kids’ spouses. Your grown kids might decide it’s easier to cut you out of their lives than to deal with the problems created when you and the spouse are together. And your child’s spouse is likely to come up with excuses for the child’s family not to visit you or invite you over.
Warning: The fact that your child criticizes his/her spouse to you does not mean that you are free to criticize that spouse, too. What you take as serious criticisms might just be your child venting normal marital frustrations. He actually might love and respect this partner very deeply. If so, your criticisms might damage your relationship with your child.
Select noninvasive communication methods. Frequent phone calls or drop-in visits from parents can seem overbearing to adult children. Better options…
E-mail and social-networking Web sites. Modern technology lets families keep in touch without interfering with one another’s schedules. You can write as much as you like in an e-mail message or on a Facebook page — and your kids can read it whenever they like.
Care packages. Young kids away at summer camp aren’t the only ones who appreciate care packages. A batch of cookies that arrives unexpectedly in the mail can be a great way to remind your adult child of your love. My mother sent me clothes that she found on sale for a full decade after I married. My wife and I both appreciated it.
Warning: Do not follow up your packages with calls. These calls could make it seem like you are fishing for a thank-you or an invitation to visit. Gifts are most effective as relationship builders when there are no strings attached.
Also, be sure that gifts won’t be misconstrued as subtle hints that your children or their spouses don’t measure up. Books about dieting or a free session with a marriage counselor will be seen by your kids as signs of your disapproval, even though in your eyes, you’re just trying to help.