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Becoming a Friend to Your Adult Children

Luke, a successful professional and a therapy client, recently came in to discuss his relationship with his 19-year-old daughter, Kendra. He said he was very worried he was losing her friendship and described the following sequence of events.

Last year, Kendra, a fine athlete and student, decided to leave the expensive private school she was attending and enroll in a public high school for her senior year. She complained that her classmates were “stupid and silly,” and she couldn’t identify with them. Luke counseled against it, explaining that a diploma from a more prestigious high school would help position her for a more successful college career. But she insisted and switched schools.

Then, this year, after enrolling as a freshman at the University of Colorado with the goal of taking pre-med classes, she changed her mind one month into the semester and notified her father she was no longer interested in medicine. Instead, she was going to become a photographer.

Alarmed, Luke lectured her about the difficulties of making a living as a photographer and told her she was heading toward a low-income lifestyle. She balked at his feedback. He reacted by saying she was difficult to get along with (citing a recent family trip during which she had been angry and distant) and accused her of creating a lot of tension at home among her brothers because of her mood changes. He admitted to me that during this exchange he had been judgmental and angry. She responded by moving out of Luke’s house and in with her mother. During the four weeks since leaving, she has had nothing to do with Luke and has been resisting his attempts to get together and talk.

He told me, “I know I’m doing something wrong but I’m not sure what it is. I feel as her father I must give her guidance, but she turns her back on me. I don’t want to lose her friendship, but I don’t want to shirk my responsibilities as a father, either.”

I asked Luke, “Do you trust that Kendra will be able to self-correct if and when she does make mistakes in judgment?”

He pondered the question for a bit and said, “I think so. But I’m so used to trying to head off errors and helping her avoid pain that it’s difficult for me to trust her to do the right thing without my help.”

“You’re at an interesting juncture as a parent,” I said. “You’ve had 19 years to teach her your value system, which includes your approach to problem solving and decision making. But she isn’t going to follow all your suggestions at this point in her life. As a young adult in college, she is trying to establish her independence and is seeking to make decisions that meet her needs even if they don’t fit your expectations. It may be time to switch to another way of relating to her.”

“It’s killing me. She has the brains to be a doctor, and I see her choosing a path that won’t come close to tapping her potential.”

I said, “Let me recite an old, wise saying that can give you another perspective on Kendra’s decision to be a photographer.”

My grandfather was a laborer

So my father could be a businessman,

So I could be a professional, 

So my daughter can be a poet.

Luke thought for a minute. “So you’re saying she has benefited from the lifestyle I’ve been able to give her to the extent she feels safe enough to pursue a more risky artistic career—and that is a good thing?”

“I suspect this is the case. Given everything you’ve said about Kendra, she is solid. She has earned good grades, has demonstrated success at sports, and was brave enough to switch schools her senior year. She seems very confident. Yes, she’s moody and difficult at times, but that is not unusual for a teenager. You know the old saying about over-emotional teens: ‘Freeze ‘em at 15 and thaw them out at 24.’ ”

He laughed. “So, to cut to the chase, you’re saying I’m at the point where I have to shift from an overprotective parent-educator to a trusting parent who says, ‘I believe in you. Do what makes you happy. I know you’ll be fine.’ ”

“It think so. The lecturing and unasked-for advice is not working. Further, you need to tell her you love her and believe in her, and you’ll back her decisions. Reassure her that you’re available whenever she needs to talk, and you won’t be offering uninvited advice anymore because you believe she can function well out in the world. Let her know you trust that if she makes mistakes, she’ll grow from them and figure out solutions and move forward.”

At this point, Luke was nodding his head and appeared receptive to my suggestions. I believe he’ll seriously consider altering his role with his young adult daughter.

It has been my experience working with parents that children of Kendra’s age present a difficult transition challenge. I personally have had to relearn it with each of my three daughters. Luke’s love for his daughter and his long-term habit of educating and giving advice hindered his ability to switch gears and accept the next phase of parenting required by a 19-year-old young adult. This phase can be referred to as the “Adult Friendship Phase.” It is the beginning of a more equal, accepting, yet still supportive role for the parent and a more independent, autonomous, and experimental role for the young adult.

In Luke’s case, once the Adult Friendship Phase is established, Kendra will probably feel safe enough to ask for advice, realizing she’ll no longer be judged for choosing to reject it.

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