Embracing adult parenthood beyond borders
If you are the parent of an adult child, the days of changing diapers and acting as a personal Uber for your kids might now appear as a brief (yet cherished) chapter in the timeline of parenthood. Like many parents today, you might be facing a new set of challenges as you seek to understand and guide your adult children.
With increasing life expectancy, the duration of parent-adult child relationships naturally extends, adding layers of complexity and deepening emotional ties. This evolution transforms parenting into an even more enduring commitment. Consequently, many parents express uncertainty about their parenting role now that their children are grown up. Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent to Dr Spock’s The Common Book of Baby and Child Care when it comes to adult children. The crux of the journey is twofold: it’s not just about witnessing your child’s evolution into adulthood, but also adapting and redefining your own parental role.
In my practice as an emigration therapist, I often collaborate with parents seeking guidance on the shifting dynamics with their adult children. It becomes abundantly clear that laying a solid foundation during early childhood is paramount. By attentively nurturing the bond with your child in their formative years, you establish a foundation of trust and respect that will sustain and enrich both of you well into their adulthood. This strong foundation becomes even more vital when facing significant challenges, such as emigration, as it can be daunting to mend or enhance a strained relationship later.
Together, parents and I delve into strategies and insights, drawing inspiration from the rich cultural tapestry of South Africa. One such source of wisdom is the isiZulu greeting “sawubona”, which translates to “I/we see you”. This expression goes beyond a mere greeting; it signifies a deep connection between individuals. By truly “seeing” your adult children, you can better understand, connect with, and adapt to your child’s changing needs, ensuring your role remains meaningful and relevant.
The evolving landscape of adulthood
It’s widely recognised that children tend to assert their independence during two critical phases: toddlerhood and early adolescence. However, because of changing social and societal dynamics, there is now a new, third phase in the search for autonomy that occurs around the age of 30. During this phase, young adults want to demonstrate to their parents, and importantly, to themselves, that they are competent and capable of thriving on their own, without the safety net of the support of their parents.
A leading voice on this topic is Professor Laurence Steinberg of Temple University’s departments of psychology and neuroscience in Philadelphia. He has researched psychological development during adolescence and young adulthood over nearly 50 years and is the author of You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times.
Steinberg has found that a toddler’s desire for individuation entails defining themselves as a separate person from their parents, and an adolescent’s desire entails defining themselves as someone with their own opinions. During this newly defined phase, young adults want to live life independently, without relying on their parents. Realising this will help you as a parent to better understand your child’s occasional rejection of your opinions, assistance or support, even if these rejections feel illogical or insulting.
The traditional milestones of adulthood – such as starting a career, financial independence, romantic relationships, finding your own place to stay and becoming a parent yourself – now lasts longer than before. Steinberg’s research shows that today’s young adults take about 13 years after university to start a family, compared with the eight it took the previous generation. Today, even entry-level jobs demand higher qualifications and training, in addition to stagnating wages and sharply increasing housing costs.
This means that you play a more active role as caregiver for longer. But this is only one side of the coin. On the other hand, tougher economic circumstances force a radical departure from this lifestyle as more young adults choose to leave their birth country in an attempt to avoid the abovementioned circumstances.
Emigration introduces an entirely different set of challenges for you as a parent. Not only is there a physical distance, but this move also brings emotional distance because of different time zones and cultural adjustments.
New challenges and opportunities for your emigrant adult child
In today’s increasingly interconnected world, young adults emigrate in search of better opportunities and experiences, such as better job prospects, better education and better chances of reaching their personal goals. This global phenomenon is reshaping parent-child relationships. For the parents who remain, it can be a period of sadness and longing. Due to the geographical distance, relationships can become strained. Yet, this very distance can also serve as fertile ground for deeper, more meaningful connections.
This then begs the question: How can you, as a parent, remain a meaningful part of your adult child’s life?
The idea of “sawubona” can provide a conceptual map for navigating this new reality – it acts as a compass, guiding interactions between you and your emigrant child. It reminds us to continually “see” and understand one another, fostering mutual respect and making long-distance relationships more stable.
Nurturing the bond with your emigrant adult child
As mentioned, emigration introduces new challenges and complexities for the evolving relationship with your adult child, a relationship already fraught with complexities and uncertainty. Yet, it also offers opportunities for deepening understanding and connection. This journey can pave the way for richer conversations, mutual respect and a bond that is resilient despite distance. To truly “see” your adult children, there are a few steps you can follow to nurture your bond with them:
- Take a holistic view: Embrace the entirety of your adult child’s journey. Celebrate their triumphs and support them during challenges, acknowledging both their successes and moments of vulnerability;
- Exercise restraint: Much like the toddler asserting independence or the teenager rebelling against parental dictates, young adults around their thirties desire autonomy. Refrain from offering unsolicited advice – it is sometimes best to simply listen. By offering a safe space for your child to articulate their feelings, you solidify your role as a trusted confidant;
- Keep communicating: Regular communication can bridge emotional and geographical divides. Technology has simplified reaching out and staying in contact over long distances. From a simple video call to celebrate a birthday to sharing photos of daily adventures, digital interactions have become the norm for families spread across the globe;
- Be an attentive listener: Providing solutions isn’t always the answer. Often, just lending an ear without judgement or pressure can be the most profound support;
- Understand transitioning roles: The evolving relationship with your adult child requires a change from the role of authority figure to that of a mentor. This involves recognising and honouring their autonomy and celebrating their milestones. Healthy personal boundaries remain essential. Respect your child’s personal space by not interfering;
- Welcome their partner: Embracing your child’s life partner, especially from a distance, is crucial, since they play such a vital role in your child’s life. Consciously and sensitively build a bond with them to ensure your family stays intact; and
- Engage in meaningful conversations: Foster a safe environment for open discussion. An open dialogue ensures a lasting connection for both small, daily occurrences as well as significant matters such as end-of-life decisions.
Steinberg emphasises the importance of providing love, support and reassurance throughout this phase. Many people overlook how important being a warm and connected parent is to the mental health of their adult children. Knowing that they can turn to you for emotional support is especially vital during transformative phases in your child’s life, such as emigration.
Acknowledging and affirming your child’s life journey
In this rapidly evolving world, where distances can grow with each passing moment, the bond between parents and children remains one of the strongest connections that we as humans have.
Emigration, challenging for both parent and child, doesn’t weaken this special bond but reshapes the ways in which it is expressed. As a parent, it demands a conscious effort to immerse yourself in your child’s journey, celebrating their milestones, understanding their decisions, and empathising with their challenges. The ethos of “sawubona” embodies this deep commitment. This Zulu greeting signifies not just “I see you”, but can be an intentional affirmation of the parent-child relationship, becoming a testament to the prioritisation of this bond, even when geographical distances impose challenges. In our ever-changing world, this connection serves as a beacon, echoing shared memories, values and love.
By embracing this sentiment, you, as a parent, are offered a touchstone of genuine engagement, aiding in navigating the dynamics of an evolving relationship with your adult child. For them, this profound acknowledgment reinforces their roots, affirming the love and values that ground them. Hence, this age-old greeting can stand as a shared acknowledgment of an unbreakable bond between parent and child. DM