All Grown Up

Here's how to start relating to your adopted child as a young adult when she leaves the nest, and your role as a parent changes.

Leaving the nest is a big step in a teen's life

Shortly after Joan’s son left for college, she went grocery shopping. As she went up and down the aisles, she suddenly realized that she didn’t have to buy the kind of bread she always bought for him. He wouldn’t be there to eat it. She thought about calling to remind him that whole grain is best, but she resisted the urge.

Another parent, Carol, was shocked when her 19-year-old told her that she wanted to extend her travels abroad. When Carol insisted she come home, her daughter said, “Gee, Mom, I wasn’t really calling for permission. I just wanted to tell you my plans.”

Letting go and allowing young adults to make their own decisions, big or small, may be especially tricky in our families. Supporting a teen’s bid for independence can trigger feelings of rejection and abandonment. And, after struggling long and hard to become a parent, facing children leaving the nest can reawaken painful feelings for Mom or Dad. If so, it is important to acknowledge these feelings but not let them interfere with your ability to help your teen move into young adulthood.

Your New Role

We’ve all been told that we have to allow our children to experience failure to learn from their mistakes, and to develop confidence in their decision-making.

But if a child has experienced compromised beginnings — orphanage or foster care, abuse or neglect, the trauma of broken attachments — a parent may be particularly reluctant to step back and watch her experience challenges and possible hurt as she moves into adulthood. Parents who adopted transracially also want to protect their young adults from racism they will encounter as they enter the larger world.

But step back you must. One way to think of your new role is as an advisor. You can and should continue to provide guidance and assistance, but you must make subtle shifts in the delivery. For example, a teen who is home from college would expect not to have a curfew: “It’s not like you can tell me what time to come home when I’m at school!” His parents can compromise by agreeing that they can’t set a curfew, but can request, as a courtesy, to know what time he will be home.

When discussing responsible choices concerning, say, alcohol use, a parent might say: “I know you are away at school and are enjoying your new freedom. I understand that — I remember that feeling. But I hope you will use good judgment and consider the legal consequences if you get caught drinking, as well as the impact on your health and grades. With freedom comes responsibility. I know you can handle it.”

In the “olden” days, before cell phones and computers, parents made do with weekly phone calls, or even monthly letters, from their grown children. Today, some parents communicate with their young adults every day, via texting.

If you do stay in such close contact, however, make sure you wear your advisor hat and steer clear of being an interrogator. Accept a teen’s need for distance, comment positively on what she tells you, and let her know that you are always available to offer advice when solicited, and emotional support, no matter what.

Still Your Child

Though the transition may be difficult, you will survive the journey and take pleasure in watching your child’s transformation into adulthood. You can also look forward to decades of a fulfilling adult relationship with your child.

Also remember that, no matter the speed at which they flew out of the nest, our children will fly back for short visits or extended stays. Respect your young adult’s need for autonomy, and be there to provide parental advice, support, or nurturing when needed. As teens feel more secure about themselves and their entry into adulthood, closeness with parents will gradually be redefined in a way that is comfortable for both parents and children.

When Joan’s son returned home for Thanksgiving break, she cooked his favorite dishes. The family had fun hearing about his new friends and classes, and reminiscing about old times. And when he returned to school, Joan packed a few loaves of healthy bread in his suitcase, just in case.

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