May 24, 2024
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My Adult Children Are Emotionally Closed to Me

Dear Dr. Chani,

When my children were young, I imagined that they would get married within a few years of dating, and that my husband and I would enjoy having grandchildren. Unfortunately, my reality is far from that dream. All of my four children, ages 20, 23, 26 and 30, are single and living at home. It is incredibly challenging to live with my adult children, especially when they would love to already have their independence. One of the things that frustrates me is that they do not speak to me about what is going on in their lives.

I understand that they are adults and that they do not need to report to me what happens to them at work or in their dating lives. But I am still their mother. I worry about them and daven for them. If they are struggling, I would love to help them. If they are successful, I would love to celebrate with them. Yet each one of my children seems to be a closed book.

It might be easier for me to not have a close relationship with them if they lived away from home and I did not see them all the time. But I make sure to shop for the food they like, do their laundry and serve them supper (at different times) each night, so it is hard for me to not have normal conversations with them.

When I try to talk to them about their day, I usually get a one-word answer. They seem somewhat annoyed by my questions. Is this typical of adult children who live at home, or am I doing something wrong? How can I get them to talk to me and include me in their lives?

Sincerely,
Lara

Dear Lara,

A mother’s work is never done. You describe your devotion to your children through the many ways in which you continue to give to them, even as they have become adults. Yet you are frustrated that they do not seem to respond to your caring and love by bringing you into their inner worlds.

Parenting is challenging. It can become even more complicated as children mature into adolescents and then adults. When a child matures, he often needs to create some emotional distance between himself and his parents. It is not uncommon for adolescents and adult children to give vague, one-word answers to their parents’ inquiries about their lives. At times, he may want to keep the details of his personal day-to-day life to himself and to figure things out on his own. This helps him to discover who he is, feel independent and self-reliant. These are wonderful qualities that you want your children to develop. Yet it can be bittersweet to feel this gap when you long for a close relationship with your adult children.

The good news is that you can enjoy an emotionally close relationship with your adult children while acknowledging their natural tendencies to sometimes need emotional space. As you work to develop a closer relationship with your children, there are a few points to keep in mind.

First of all, remember to focus on each one of your children separately. Each one of your children is a whole world. He or she has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, worries and dreams. If you would like your child to welcome you into her inner world, you need to seek to discover what is unique about each child. Rather than searching for “a closer relationship with your adult children,” look to develop four different relationships—one with each of your children.

Secondly, you can encourage each child to talk to you by elevating your listening skills. When you ask, “How are you?” or “How was your day?” give your child your full attention when you listen to his answer. When you listen to what he says at any time, make an effort to listen carefully. Avoid judging your child, or thinking about how you feel and what you would have done. Instead, try to empathize and feel with your child how he feels. You might say something like, “That sounds really …—fill in the descriptive word that applies (challenging, confusing, amazing),” or “I can understand why you feel that way,” or “I hear what you’re saying.” Even though it may sound surprisingly simple, this gentle, understated form of active listening is often what your child needs most from you. Most of the time, your child just wants you to listen.

As you strengthen your conversational and listening rapport with each child, it can be helpful to reflect on your past experiences with each of them. Ask yourself, “What was my relationship like with this child when she was growing up?” “What were our conversations like when she returned home from school?” “How did I respond when she described her concerns, mistakes, challenges and successes?” The way you responded in the past might have influenced the way each child learned about sharing details of her life and her feelings with you.

It is possible that even with your best intentions, you may have unknowingly discouraged your child from opening up to you by responding in a way that made your child feel invalidated. For example, if you had previously listened to her with half an ear while doing something else, it may have sent her a message that you were not that interested in knowing about her. If you responded to her concerns by diminishing them and telling her not to worry, she may have felt that you did not understand her or take her feelings seriously. If you criticized her for mistakes that she shared with you, she may have felt guilty and ashamed. If you approached her challenges by trying to solve her problems and she was not interested in or did not feel comfortable with your solution, she may have felt overwhelmed and misunderstood.

There is a lot more that goes into developing your conversations and strengthening your relationships with each of your children. Hopefully, these first steps will give you a deeper understanding of yourself and your children, and set you on a path in the right direction.

Wishing you much success,

Chani

Dr. Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, teaches courses on how to become a master of relationships, and provides free relationship resources at chanimaybruch.com. Learn a step-by-step method to improve your ability to emotionally connect with her new online course: The RELATE Technique™—Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation. Reach out to her at [email protected].

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