Why We Walk on Eggshells with Our Grown Kids

Why are parents so scared of their adult children?

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Tanis Saucier/Shutterstock
Source: Tanis Saucier/Shutterstock

If there's anyone we don't have to tiptoe around, it's our own family, right? Home is where we can let it all hang out. But when it comes to our grown kids, it may be a different story. What makes us uncharacteristically cautious, think twice before we say what we think or feel in a way we rarely did when they were children, is the fear of estrangement.

"I don't want my son to cut me off the way my daughter did," explains a woman whose daughter just stopped speaking to her for no reason—or at least, not one she can understand. "So I'm very careful about what I say around him now." Another woman complains that she has to choose her words selectively when she's with her daughter—"She's touchy and sensitive in a way she hasn't been since she was a teenager. We got past that stage, but I'm afraid we may not get through this one unless I am totally agreeable and acquiescent to her at all times and in almost everything. Which is not my way." Says still another woman, "If she doesn't want my opinion, why does she ask for it?" Chimes in her husband, "It's like asking me, does this dress make me look fat? No matter what I say, it’s wrong.”

There are some subjects that grown kids are, in fact, touchy and sensitive about. They don't welcome our opinions about their spouses or children or friends. They're not interested in our observations about how they look or what they eat, wear, or spend their money on. And if we continue opening and observing on topics they think (rightfully, most of the time) are none of our business, we may risk losing them.

The fear of estrangement—of being cut out of our grown kids' lives—is why we tread so carefully around them, and why we sometimes feel inauthentic, as if we're pretending to be someone we're not, in their presence. It's an implicit recognition of the power shift in the relationship.

They can come and go as they like. It's their right, as adults, to choose how close or distant to us they want to be, to set their own boundaries and draw their own lines. And even if we occasionally cross those lines, the total estrangement between parents and their grown kids for long periods of time we hear and read about so often—especially online in the forums for estranged and alienated parents—is the exception rather than the rule in most families. The best way to avoid it is to choose tact and diplomacy rather than blunt honesty, to refrain from pressing unwanted advice on them, to negotiate rather than demand.

In fact, when it comes to getting along with grown kids, I'm reminded of the advice my father gave my husband-to-be once upon a time: "Just say yes, dear, and do what you want.”