Technological advances have made communication between people instant, global and multi-channel. You can exchange photos, written words, voice communications and more. But in some ways, it’s now harder to communicate with your emerging adult. Gains in logistics can present challenges for authenticity in communications.
This post will examine the communications paradox in which we find ourselves. And it will offer tips on how to communicate with your emerging adult in a way that builds intimacy and strengthens your relationship.
Technology makes communication easier
Mobile technology means your child can reach you (and vice versa) anytime, almost anywhere in the world. You can leave quick texts for your daughter to wish her good luck on an upcoming presentation. Or send your son a photo of the family dog.
Our family, for example, has a “FAM” text thread. We send around photos of what we’re doing or links we find interesting. People make funny comments and trade barbs with each other. It’s a fun way to touch base with our gang – a group that now has grown to eight people living in four different cities.
Moreover, applications like Facetime or Skype allow you to see the person with whom you’re talking. You can take a virtual tour of their location. You’ll get a better sense for your child’s environment. When you see him, you also may discern more about how he’s doing than you’d figure out from a simple voice call.
Technology makes communication harder
Although mobile technology makes it easier to stay in touch with family, it can make authentic communication harder. Two related factors are at play.
We rely more on mobile tech
Fifty years ago, people tended to stay put. Kids grew up and lived in the same town, or at least in the same state. But our society is more mobile now.
The more educated and/or affluent you are, the more often you move. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, three-fourths of college grads have moved at least once, compared to half of the people with high school diplomas only.
Under these circumstances, in-person communications aren’t as common. We use phones, texts, Skype, social media and other electronic means to stay connected with our loved ones.
Yet, according to a University of Texas study cited by an article in Psychology Today, parents report more negative interactions via phone or text than they do when seeing their kids in person. Parents who rate their relationships with their adult children as “positive” are 1.5 times more likely to see their kids in person than are the parents who assign “neutral” or “negative” relationship ratings.
In addition to finding authentic communication harder with mobile technology, parents can also find it frustrating. They complain that texts and calls go unanswered. Despite an appearance that cell phones make their adult children “always available,” parents still can’t reach them.
Parents suspect that caller id features help kids avoid talking with them. However, it might just be that young adults are busy and have trouble finding time to phone home.
Mobile tech yields distracted communications
A related problem with mobile communications is that you’re often doing something else while you’re talking or texting. It’s easy to have a quick text exchange while you’re watching TV or waiting in line. But how focused are you on either activity?
How many times has your college student called you while walking across campus? Or maybe your adult daughter has called when driving home from work. To be fair, don’t you also call friends or family when you’re on the road?
It used to be the case that families set aside specific times to talk to each other on the phone if a child was living away from his hometown. In college, I used to call home on Sunday afternoons or evenings, when the rates were cheaper and my parents likely to be at home.
Now, since everyone has a mobile phone, you theoretically can reach your loved one at any time. Only it doesn’t work that way. People are busy. You and your adult child live in different time zones. It’s hard to avoid mealtimes and other commitments.
I find that if one of my adult children calls me when I’m in the middle of something else, I feel distracted. And if I call them when they’re focused elsewhere, I can tell they aren’t paying much attention to our conversation. Calls like these are better than not communicating at all, but they’re generally not the most satisfying interactions.
How to make mobile tech work for you
So what’s a parent to do? It’s not possible to see your son or daughter regularly if he/she lives far away. As frustrating as unreturned calls and texts can be, mobile technology is the best way to communicate with your emerging adult child.
Plus, when mobile tech is at its best, it’s pretty great. You can share experiences with your family from across the world. For example, I Facetimed each of my grown kids from the Taj Mahal last year. They couldn’t be there with me, but I got to share the moment with them.
Here are two recommendations for how you can take advantage of mobile technology to communicate with your emerging adult:
Frequent low-commitment messages
Some families communicate multiple times per day, while others talk or text less often. In the 2010 book The iConnected Parent,* researchers found that parents and college students averaged 13.4 communications with each other per week. This figure declines as kids grow older. But the University of Texas study above found a surprising number of young adults and parents still communicate every day.
It’s okay to send a text or photo a few times a week. Just don’t expect your child to reply every time.
Regular focused conversations
You can avoid the issue of distracted conversations by scheduling times to talk or Facetime/Skype. You don’t need to be overly structured about this. But see if you can occasionally make plans to talk when both you and your adult child are free.
Setting aside time to talk when you’re not driving or trying to get something else done is a great way to make sure you really listen to your child. Even doing this every few weeks will help you and your emerging adult have more authentic conversations that deepen your relationship.
Don’t forget principles of good communication
You can leverage mobile technology to stay in touch with your adult child, but make sure you remember the basics of good communication.
Your child hasn’t forgotten that you once changed his diapers, fed and clothed him for years, and made sacrifices to pay for his education. But that doesn’t entitle you to say whatever is on your mind. If you still choose to say something that offends him, your child may cut off contact with you.
Here are some reminders.
Watch your manners
Don’t comment on a child’s weight. Don’t ask him when he’s going to get married or settle down. Don’t say the boyfriend your daughter just broke up with was a jerk anyway. Use tact – the same way you would with an adult friend.
This post in Next Avenue offers more suggestions for things you should avoid saying to your adult child.
Act like a consultant (not a boss)
Listen. Help your emerging adult frame his options. Resist saying things like, “When I was your age, …” The world is different now. But you can still help your child by listening carefully and asking questions to help him clarify his choices.
Your adult child may want your advice, or she may simply want to know she has your support. It’s okay to ask, “Do you want my advice or my allegiance?”
Love and accept your emerging adult
Whatever happens, make sure your child knows you love and accept him completely. You may not like the choices he’s making in his life right now. But communicating judgment and disapproval is not going to build trust.
Set and respect boundaries
While you may not like some (or all) of your adult child’s choices, it’s her life – not yours. Ultimately you can’t own your child’s problems. Nor can you fix them. Decide what you’re willing to do and stay firm.
At the same time, respect your adult child’s boundaries. I’ve written more about boundaries in a post with tips for when your adult child moves back home. Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No* is a must-read for building a healthy relationship with your adult child.
Don’t become your mother!
We’ve all been there. You say something, only to recoil later. OMG, that was your mother’s voice coming out of your mouth!
Big ones to avoid are “I told you so,” and “Someday you’ll see things my way.” You’ve probably been on the receiving end of statements like these. You know it doesn’t feel good.
Keep on trying to communicate with your emerging adult
Despite your best efforts, you’ll sometimes screw up. We all do. So do our kids. But don’t let a breakdown in communication lead to a breakdown in relationship with your adult child. Sincere apologies go a long way to restoring trust and respect.
Let go but build your relationship
In summary, recognize that personal mobility is here to stay. But you can leverage communications technology to adapt. Your goal is to let go of your grown-up “child,” while still building your relationship with him.
Be intentional about developing rhythms for communication that work for you and your emerging adult. And by all means, don’t allow mobile tech’s “instant access” excuse poor communication habits. It’s never okay to be rude, ignore personal boundaries or make your love conditional on a child’s behavior.
Communication is key to building and maintaining relationships. And although your adult child may give off signals to the contrary, she wants to stay in touch with you. So persist in trying to communicate with your emerging adult. Together you’ll deepen your mutual and enduring ties.
Images via: Shutterstock
Resources for further reading:
The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up,* by Abigail Sullivan Moore and Barbara K. Hofer, Atria Books: 2010.
Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents,* by Jane Isay, Anchor: 2008.
When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us,* by Jane Adams, Free Press: 2003.
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