Whether parents want it or not, they actually continue to have parental impact on their older kids – simply because they are parents. Want it or not, a parent’s relationship to his or her children is always one of “teacher” and “guide.” Parents teach both with conscious efforts and strategies and withunconscious behavior. They impact on adult children by their very existence: their model of how to think, feel and act in this world.
There are many ways that parents impact on their adult children. One important parenting issue for young adults is called “boundary setting”. Boundary setting lets others know how to treat you. Failure to set boundaries lets them know they can mistreat you and get away with it. Boundary setting both establishes and teaches healthy relationship skills. In parenting younger children, parents set boundaries all the time, often using negative consequences to do so. For example, a parent might say to a child, “if you continue to shout at me, you’ll have to go to your room.” To an adult one might say, “if you continue to shout at me, I’ll have to leave the room.” Boundary-setting occurs with spouses, colleagues and any other person with whom one has dealings. Therefore it is not specifically called “parenting.” Nonetheless, when parents actually engage in boundary setting with adults who happen to be their children or children-in-law, it retains a parenting “flavor” if only because the young people will certainly perceive it that way!
Teaching How to Live and Love
In addition to boundary setting, parents continue to parent their adult children and children-in-law through their personal model. A young couple looks at their parents and in-laws and makes life decisions based on what they see. “I don’t like the way your father treats your mother—I don’t want you to treat me that way.” “I hope that we can have a marriage as wonderful as your parents’ marriage.” “I love the way your mother entertains—we never had that in my house growing up. I’d like to make it part of our home.” “I don’t like the way your folks handle money. We need to work out something different.”
The Power of Parental Feedback
But there is more. Young couples are always children to their parents and parents-in-law. This means that the older generation still wants to nurture and protect the younger and the younger generation still looks to the older generation for approval and support. The words a parent speaks to his or her child impact on that child as no other words ever will, as they hold a psychic force that deeply pierces the subconscious mind. There is a similar (though not identical) impact of the words and actions of in-laws. They can hurt more than the words and actions of other people and they can also heal more powerfully. Kind, encouraging speech and action from parents to their children and children-in-law are more powerful than those from any other source. Thoughtless or neglectful parental speech or action can unintentionally cause enormous pain. This is one reason that sons and daughters-in-law are so easily crushed in their dealings with their in-laws. In the child position, they are extremely vulnerable and needy of the adult’s approval. In other words, parents are never just “normal” people (no pun intended) to their children and children-in-law. Against their own will and often without their awareness, parents are bigger than life both to their children and their children-in law. Parents of married children need to be aware of their on-going power. This relationship is not one of two couples on a level playing field. Between parents and children there is always a hierarchy. Parents must wield this power carefully in order to avoid causing serious harm.
Helping Adult Children Succeed in Marriage
One of the most important parenting jobs for parents of young married couples is to support their marriages. As more experienced people know, marriage can be very challenging. Young people—especially in today’s quick divorce culture—need all the support they can get. The parental task is not to minimize or discount a child’s pain, frustration or fear but rather to help him or her find the resources to cope with all challenges. Parents can help de-escalate conflict by normalizing marital struggle and growth. Except during marital crisis, they can sing the praises of the child-in-law. They can encourage their children to seek advice from their pastor, rabbi or professional counselor. However, if parents bad mouth the child-in-law or weaken the child’s resolve to work things out, their input can be highly destructive, harming the child’s life as well as his or her confidence. (The exceptions to this supportive strategy are cases of abuse that cannot be corrected (due to mental health disorders or unwillingness to seek treatment), incurable true mental illness and so forth).
As we can see, although parents may wish to retire, that option is out of the question. Even in death, parents continue to influence their adult children’s behavior! The best solution is to be cognizant of one’s importance and impact and consciously endeavor to be a worthy model and teacher all the days of one’s life.