“What to do when your grown child won’t talk to you?” asked a recent article at Next Avenue. The author, Jill Smolowe, states that she takes the following approach to close relationships:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that the best expression of my love is to convey a keen and sustained interest in my loved one’s life, pursuits and concerns. To do that, I ask questions, try to give the responses my full attention and ask more questions.”
Unfortunately, her strategy of asking questions and listening attentively doesn’t work so well with her 22 year-old daughter. It hadn’t been working for a while, but this wasn’t a major issue when her daughter was away at college. Now her daughter has moved home and there is much more tension. Jill describes her daughter’s attitude about being questioned as follows:
“Far from experiencing my interest as love, she regards it as a disrespect for and violation of her personhood. To her, parents are to be seen, not heard.”
Jill is trying to accommodate her daughter’s dislike for being questioned. This is really difficult for her, though:
“I am trying to stay on my side of the line. But not expressing interest, let alone concern, when I perceive that my child is distressed feels about as natural to me as not breathing.”
It’s hard to tell from the article whether the distress Jill senses in her daughter is genuine or whether her daughter has only minor moodiness that Jill misperceives as greater than it is. Jill does seem to be pretty anxious about her daughter. That’s not uncommon for those who are parenting young adults. It’s much more difficult when a child of ours (whatever her age) encounters obstacles that we can’t resolve than when, as often occurred when she was young, we could do something to help her. Parenting young adults involves constantly feeling powerless.
Self-determination theory, a psychological theory about human motivation, posits that well-being and optimal functioning come from experiencing autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Jill seems to be focusing on relatedness with her daughter. However, her daughter may feel that mom’s questioning threatens the other two foundational needs, autonomy and competence.
Young adults are often motivated to defend their newfound autonomy. Most have had prior experience with a parent’s question leading to advice or pressure, so even the most innocent inquiry can make them squirm. Young adults are also striving to prove to themselves and others that they are competent. Parental questions often convey an unstated assumption that the child really isn’t capable of handling things independently. This latter issue was explained to Jill when she went to a therapist to ask how to handle the situation with her daughter. The therapist told her the following:
“The transitional moment into the adult world is ‘terrifying’ for a lot of college kids. A parent’s offer of help, large or small, is often heard as a ‘vote of no confidence’ in her child’s ability to figure it out for herself.”
When they become adults, young people face many problems that they have to resolve on their own. Some welcome parental input in the form of questions and even suggestions, but others don’t. It’s useful for parents to be mindful that their adult children need to experience autonomy and competence, and to be careful not to undermine these. Our children need relatedness, too, but they won’t choose to relate to us if they feel that we are threatening their autonomy or competence. Respecting our children’s autonomy and affirming their competence when they are in the transition from adolescence to adulthood increase the likelihood that we will have affectionate and peaceful relationships with them.