Are you adjusting to the changing realities of an empty nest? This series will help! This Part 2 continues what we started in Part 1 with parenting-related strategies. Next week, in part 3, we’ll navigate what this means for marriage. And stay tuned for a two-part follow-up later this fall, when we’ll reveal what our adult kids say they need from us, courtesy of a brand-new short survey!
In last week’s blog , we looked at how important (and difficult!) it is for empty nesters to switch from counselor to coach. I hope you got the chance to put your coach hat on and be an encouragement to your adult kids!
This week, we’ll explore two more mindset shifts – and the action steps that accompany them – that can pave the way for strong, mutually respectful relationships in these empty nest years, and in the years to come.
Mindset shift #2: Trust your adult kids to make their own decisions.
No matter how much great groundwork we’ve laid by nudging our kids toward autonomy in their teen years, going “hands-free” on decision-making is an exercise in trust all on its own.
Especially since our adult kids will not make all the same decisions as us! They are navigating the landmines of “adulting” – and if they are early in their adult years, they are doing that for the first time. They are decades behind us in age and (hopefully) maturity. There will be stumbles. Just like we had stumbles during those years.
But we can remember this principle: trust builds trust.
As we show support for our adult children in their decision-making, they will likely approach us with greater and greater levels of trust – even inviting us to weigh in. Conversely, if they sniff out regular disappointment, criticism, or control from us, they may shut down or shut us out completely from their decisions.
So, how can we build a sense of mutual trust and respect, especially when we’ve been accustomed to having direct input into their decisions?
Action #2: Ask open-ended, curious questions.
Asking sincerely curious, open-ended, “coaching” questions can help the transition. And genuine, no-judgment-here curiosity is the key – because otherwise a young adult could easily hear a list of questions as criticism rather than as coaching! But sincere curiosity can go a long way – both toward letting our adult children arrive at their own conclusions (win!) and helping them feel supported by an interested, loving parent (double win!).
For example, suppose our child is deciding between several graduate schools or two different jobs. Instead of sharing our opinion (even if we have a strong one!) we might ask some questions to understand where they are starting. What are the financial realities of either decision for you? What advantages do you see about the timing – and the time involved – with either path? What has time in prayer shown you about what to do? What can we do to help you feel supported?
Notice, those are all open-ended questions, which are far less likely to be misunderstood as attacks. “Have you prayed about it?” may cause your adult child to bristle, but “What have you felt as you have prayed about it?” is a totally different thing.
If we really do have a targeted solution in mind but don’t want to force it, we can float the idea by asking, “What would it look like if you ____________?” and follow their answer with, “Tell me more about why you feel that way.”
Then, listen. Like, really listen. Not listening with half an ear while thinking through what we want to say next. In fact, we may not need to say anything at all, unless and until they ask for our opinion. (I’m still working on that one!)
Inviting our kids to work things out on their own while feeling supported by us may be the greatest gift we can offer in these initial adult years. This leads directly into Mindset shift #3.
Mindset shift #3: Respect their boundaries.
I once met a woman at a conference who expressed both frustration and resignation over an ongoing situation with her mother-in-law. “She barges into my house without knocking whenever she feels likes stopping by,” she said, before lowering her voice. “If I changed the locks, I don’t think we would survive her reaction.”
That’s not even the most horrifying aspect of the story. The woman was in her fifties and the mother-in-law was in her seventies! For many years, a pattern of disregard for healthy boundaries had normalized, resulting in a daughter-in-law who felt disregarded and a mother-in-law who exerted an unhealthy amount of control.
Imagine the difference if boundaries instead been set early on.
As our young adults begin to solidify their values and explore the boundaries they want to draw for their own lives, it’s crucial that we respect those boundaries. What might that look like?
Action #3: If they don’t bring up their preferences and boundaries … ask.
If our child doesn’t set boundaries for things like how frequently you should get in touch, the types of input that is helpful versus frustrating, and what the joint expectations will be for when they come home for holidays, we can help them think those things through. We can jointly discuss what those expectations will be. And this holds true for each new season they enter, which probably will have different expectations and boundaries. For example, what they want as a freshman in college will look different than when they are a senior in college (and different after they have graduated and have a job). We need to be proactively asking and adjusting at each step.
As we respect their lower-stakes boundary lines (e.g. how often we’ll touch base or whether it’s okay to “just stop by” their apartment), we may see really healthy conversations emerge around higher-stakes boundary lines (e.g. where they will spend the holidays or what their living situation looks like). We can have constructive dialogue, but we cannot impose our viewpoints on our adult kids. Thankfully, as we refrain from doing so, we’ll likely discover that a healthy two-way respect develops for our boundaries, too.
We may not always agree with the boundary lines our adult children draw. We may be hurt or even tempted to use guilt to control them into moving those boundary lines. But sowing seeds of respect and understanding is what we’re going for. A short term “win” is never a win if we blow the long game. Embracing this new season as a parent, with all its new opportunities, will solidify the loving relationship we want with our kids for years to come.
While the first two blogs in this series have shared parenting strategies for the empty nest years, come back next week when we’ll explore ideas for staying connected (or reconnecting) as a couple after the kids are gone.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear the empty nest parenting approaches that have worked for you! Please leave a comment below (or, if you’re reading this in my weekly email, hop over to the blog and share your thoughts.)
This article was also published at Patheos.
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