Autonomy and Friendship: Essential Tools for Supporting Your Adult Child
By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHCA, Bellevue Christian Counseling
Do you have a child that is now an adult, let’s say, 18 years or even as old as 50? Are they having life decisions to make? Are they making mistakes with life decisions?
What does a child need when they have become more or less an adult; i.e. when your protection and training are not central to their lives? How can you support them as they are trying out their wings at being an adult? You are used to supporting them as children; how that does support look like for an adult? If you really would like to support them, not just push your own agenda they need two things from you to make good decisions and manage their own lives well:
Autonomy and Friendship
Autonomy: Choosing and Acting Without Coercion
Autonomy is their ability to choose – to do that they need to be free(d) from coercion and know what they want. Autonomy gives them the ability to order their outer world, and as a consequence, the confidence to manage their own anxieties (their inner world).
But you probably find, as most parents do, that your children are not quick to seek out your “advice” and even avoid it. A moment’s honest reflection will probably remind you that there is some history to this — some reason(s), some event(s) where they learned that a step in your direction, an eliciting of your “advice”, is a step away from autonomy, a step into a type of coercion that they have received from you at some time in your history together.
Respecting Your Adult Child’s Autonomy
Generally, the notion that you will now tell them what they ought to do is not welcoming to someone whose need is autonomy – the ability to choose, to order their own world. Perhaps in the past that has even taken the form of reciting pertinent scripture. This can be the same as saying “You must do this or you are violating “The Rules.” Very coercive – you don’t care what they want or what they feel.
Or perhaps their experience of you reminds them of shame or intimidation. In raising children we are given the duty of training them and keeping them safe. “This is how you hold your spoon.” “Don’t run into the street or mommy will have to spank you.” Almost all parents, at some time, forget that a child has every human right that a parent has, and that someday they will be an adult to whom we would never say, “Do that again and I’ll spank the daylights out of you!” Intimidation. Or, “I can’t believe you spilled your milk again! Golly! When will you learn! How many times do I have to tell you…?! That was stupid!” Shame.
This is not training, and it’s not keeping them safe, and so it’s outside of your duties and latitude as a parent. So, perhaps they will not seek out your support because of past experiences of intimidation and shame. Perhaps it’s time to apologize.
Friendship: The Non-Coercive Relationship
If you get past the pitfalls above and your child is able to come to you without a fear of coercion and loss of autonomy, and without the reflex to avoid intimidation and shame, then you can support them in their other basic need for support: friendship. What is friendship? If you and I are friends then I know that you know how and I feel, and you know that I know how you feel. If we know that then we may walk down the street together and not say a whole lot – we are communing—which may include words.
To support your child with friendship is to inquire how they feel. You might have to pursue a bit; they may not tell you at first, but if you really want to engage their feelings it will guide your words – “Oh, it sounds like you feel kind of frustrated by that. That seems like it doesn’t feel so good, kind of grating, huh?” And you might be incorrect but if you really want to connect they are likely to share their feelings. Don’t try to explain, don’t try to fix it – that’s like saying, “Here’s why your feelings don’t count.” “I’m not interested in how you feel I just want to get this problem out of the way.” They will become even closer to you if you go further – take the risk of sharing with them how you feel.
Supporting Your Child Through Friendship and Autonomy
If you have extended friendship to them you can also inquire what it is they want. This gets back to helping them establish their autonomy – their ability to choose to order their world. Most often, people don’t know what they want — your non-coercive inquiry helps them to distill what it is they really care about and what is important. That’s support of their autonomy.
Christian Counseling Can Help You Relate to Your Adult Child
Learning to support your grown-up child is a process, and it takes both time and effort to learn how you can best support your child as he or she makes adult decisions. If you and your child need to sort some things out to get to that place of support, a Christian counselor can help emcee your interaction to advance their autonomy and your friendship in genuinely supporting your adult child in making good decisions. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to know about our services at Seattle Christian Counseling. I, or one of the many qualified Christian counselors at SCC would be delighted to help you understand how you can support your child through friendship and autonomy.
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