When the children leave the house: about the relationship with adult children and children-in-law

When the children leave the house: about the relationship with adult children and children-in-law

When the children leave the house: About the relationship with adult children and children-in-law

Helga Gürtler

It is often not so easy to let a son or daughter become self-employed: don’t you sometimes deal with the thirty-year-old like a stupid boy? Doesn’t the son sometimes behave as if he is still entitled to be mothered by you? How do you get on with the partner of the daughter or son? How much ballast from old times influences the relationship with young people? How can you throw off this ballast, improve the relationship?

Quite different than in your time?

How did you feel when you were eighteen or twenty-one and finally of age? Mature and grown up, I guess. No more reason to be patronized by the parents. Sometimes the parents seemed rather not up to date, or?

And today? Is the young people of the same age much more immature, less serious, less fit for life than we were then? Or are we old people just imagining it??

We have to think that generations of parents at all times – back to the ancient Romans – believed that "today’s youth" is no longer good would in no way meet their own standards.

Your child is no longer a child

Already in the puberty of the children, the upbringing has to lag behind the accompanying. Educating means as a picture: the adult leads, the child follows, the child follows. Accompany means: Two go side by side, one leans a little on the other.

When the children are grown up, the relationship must be a friendly coexistence of equal partners – with taking and giving from both sides. The children eagerly await this time – finally grown up! He also has advantages for parents: they no longer have to be strong and considerate, they no longer have to be a role model. They can expect the grown children and their weaknesses. Let yourself go, rather fall out of the role.

The children must also stop making unilateral claims. Will mom continue to do the laundry and expect regular meals? Only if son or daughter e.g. other parts of household chores, shopping and part of the kitchen service. At the latest when living together among adults, claims and obligations must be evenly distributed.

Parents no longer have to feel responsible for the well-being of their adult children. The children must now bear this responsibility themselves. Do you think that can’t go well? Without your interference would the son or daughter fail hopelessly? You are behaving like clever Else. Do you remember Grimm’s fairy tale? One day the Else goes to the basement to tap beer. There she finds a hoe stuck in the wall above the stool, which artisans have forgotten there. And now she is sitting there and moaning because the child she will have one day could possibly be struck by this hoe one day if she is also here to draw beer. And everyone who comes to see her one by one listen to her grief and whine.

Perhaps your son is only so dependent because this is how he gets you to continue doing something for him that is quite uncomfortable to do yourself. When adult children leave important decisions to parents, they can also hold them responsible for the consequences. That is also very convenient. If you continue to "shake" your son excessively because you think he is too dependent, one day he will become as dependent as you now judge him to be. Your attitude helps make it so!

Trust your son or daughter to do something! Everyone grows by their tasks. Certainly not everything will go as straight as you imagine in the future. It can’t either. It is not your life, but his or hers. He / she has to design it with personal idiosyncrasies and possibilities, not you!

There is nothing to prevent you from continuing to guess when asked for advice, but young people now have to make decisions and take responsibility alone (unless they are really extremely immature and not yet of age)..

If the son (or daughter) has his own apartment, this is no longer automatically your area into which you are allowed to work uninhibitedly. You have to respect limits. Don’t come unannounced and suddenly find yourself in the apartment. Do not clean the kitchen, tidy up the room or paint the doors without being asked. Otherwise one day you will be very offended by his “ungrateful” behavior. Not only that he does not thank you for your help – he may even claim to have felt more comfortable in his old disorder, or make you responsible for the fact that a document that was probably sorted under the armchair can no longer be found.

Sometimes criticism hurts

It is important for a young person to think about the influences that have shaped their own character. Especially when he has children himself and wants to draw practical consequences from these insights.

It is difficult for parents to accept critical statements from adult children. "You never had time when I needed something", or: "You never let me do something alone, you always interfered in everything". Such sentences hurt. And in general terms, they are definitely not correct. But if you look more closely and concretely without resentment, they probably contain a portion of truth.

The criticism of son or daughter about their own upbringing behavior seems like utter ingratitude to parents. What did you go through and put up with because of the children! The many disturbed nights, always short on money, hardly any time for yourself … And now you should have done it wrong, should be to blame for everything!

You have undoubtedly made every effort to do what is supposed to be the best for your children. What is the best, what was good or bad for them is often only noticed afterwards, by the more or less clear consequences. Or you can only guess, see it that way or another, because what would have happened if … nobody can know.

And nobody is perfect. Nobody can perform a task as complex as raising a child without doing things that you think would otherwise have been better. So why shut yourself off from this subsequent insight? Isn’t it nice if maybe the grandchildren can benefit from it?

If you can talk about such different perspectives without blaming each other, it can be a win for both sides. The relationship can be freed from old ballast – perhaps from insults that have never been said before.

Discard old ballast

Grown-up children often believe that they should not openly express their own reservations or allegations in order not to offend their parents. Because they see that they have made every effort. But the parents feel these hidden conflicts – in irritability, in the dispute over trifles. They also often prefer not to hear what’s smoldering, because then they would have to deal with it – and that can hurt.

It takes courage to say things that may have been kept under the covers for decades. The first impulse is likely to defend yourself aggressively, perhaps with counter-allegations. But that does not go any further. It is not about determining who is to blame for something that cannot be changed.

When a daughter explains to her father that she has suffered from his often too high demands, it is so. It also does not change if the father tries to prove to her that his claims were not excessive. One is his view of things, the other is hers. But he can tell her of his disappointment that, in his view, she showed so little interest in things that were very important to him. And of his conviction that she needs his constant incentive to be able to fully develop her possibilities.

This way, one can understand the other’s reactions afterwards. Everyone can regret that their behavior has had effects on others that they did not want. Ultimately, this can be very relieving for both, and can lead to both of them finding a better understanding of each other on a new level as adults.

Sometimes, past experiences may have stuck in your mind that seem so trivial that you hardly dare to tell others. But that they stuck for so long shows that there is more behind them. They are probably symbolic of what constituted the actual insult.

I remember the report of a young woman who still resents her mother that she didn’t give her the promised pink slippers with the big pompoms when she was a child. For the mother it was insignificant, for the daughter it was a symbol of a lack of understanding and a backwardness towards the siblings. It is by no means a trifle to talk about the pink slippers again today under these conditions.

A temporary separation is not a disaster

In the middle of puberty, the child often starts to independently shape his own life path, ignoring almost all parental advice, only focusing on his own head. Must do it too! In most families, this is a time of concern, of more or less violent conflict. In the eyes of worried parents, one catastrophe after another is happening that they are trying to prevent. The children, on the other hand, defend themselves against what they consider unreasonable patronizing.

Many young people therefore move out of the house as quickly as possible – they have to have their own booth where they can finally be their own boss. Or it is the parents who are fed up with the eternal quarrel and more or less rudely put the son or daughter out the door. This is not a disaster at all. Such a separation, a temporary alienation can help everyone to find themselves, to be clear about what they want and what they don’t. The relationship often improves again when everyone no longer “squats” so close together, only seeing each other every now and then.

But sometimes children or parents break off contact for a few years. It even seems as if it is sometimes the particularly cared for children who take a long leap out of the close relationship and want to get on with it all on their own. Even if this was a break in anger, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Maybe the birth of a grandchild is a welcome occasion to try again under new conditions …

The children’s partners are mostly the wrong ones

The partner your own child chooses is rarely the right person in the eyes of the parents. Most of the time they imagined it differently. Everyone who brings up a child has bold hopes for their future: happiness, contentment, harmony, a good living, a respected profession. The child should have it better once. Perhaps it should also realize some of the dreams that the parents missed.

Now when this child, now grown up, chooses someone with whom she would like to live for the next few years without parental intervention, the parents feel cheated of part of their efforts and their bold hopes, even though it is the dream partner they imagine probably not at all. “What, such a scurry mouse for my son’s gem? Does it grow at all intellectually? ”“ A locksmith, of all people? If only he were an engineer! ”“ What, an artist? And what do you want to live from? ”

There is also a good portion of jealousy between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. For many daughters, the father is initially the dream image of a man. She adores him and he shows himself at her best. Or at least he imagines it. And suddenly a "linnet with puberty pimples" competes with him! At least that’s his view. That this young man is clever, sensitive and loving may not be noticed at all – precisely because he is so jealous. When a young person senses that he has reservations with his counterpart, he often behaves provocatively or clumsily.

And who is to blame for the fact that a seemingly unsuitable liaison has come about? Of course the other! Turned his own child’s head, got her around, fooled him. Try to sit in the nest made … If there is a dispute between the parents and the child about the choice of partner or if the young people develop a completely different lifestyle than the parents had imagined, then it was definitely one or the other, who tries to negatively influence their own child and alienate the parents. It has to be the other one, it can’t be your own child. How did Ringelnatz put it so nicely? "So he razor-sharp concluded that what cannot be cannot be".

It is difficult for aspiring daughters-in-law and sons-in-law: they have to take an exam and have a bad chance of passing it from the start. But since hardly anyone expects today that this will be the partner for the rest of their lives, the pressure is probably not as great as it is in our time. Remember your first visits to the parents-in-law?

Most young people today perform long, repeated, and thorough checks before tying themselves to someone. And many parents are not inclined to want to get to know each new “flame” more than superficially – if only to avoid the emotional “slingshot tours” mentioned above. First wait… But when a child comes, it gets serious.

The birth of a grandchild is a reason for most to approach one another, to accept themselves as members of the same family. But the reservations, the jealousy, the prejudices and misunderstandings are not off the table. They can be temporarily swept under the carpet for the sake of peace, but they are likely to remain unchanged and form ugly bumps. And you will always stumble across them when dealing with the grandchild …

You may think that there are simply differences of opinion about whether the two-year-old should be put on the pot or when he should go to bed. In reality, all of these disagreements feed on a fundamental distrust between you and your daughter-in-law. When she expresses a certain opinion, you simply itch to think the opposite is right. And so it is with your views. This can go on forever if you don’t try to “reorganize” your relationship. You don’t have to love each other terribly. You should not make this claim to yourself, to your daughter-in-law or son-in-law. Something has to grow (and sometimes it may not grow).

But be careful, accept, tolerate each other! Don’t always just look at the mistakes the new family member has in your eyes. Rather, pay attention to endearing idiosyncrasies. Everyone has them – this person must also have them, otherwise your own child would not have got involved with him. Incidentally, you shouldn’t be happy with him, but your son or daughter. That is not the same! Talk to each other. Say it openly when you are happy, but also when something annoys or worries you. This is the only way to get to know each other better.

The partner now plays the first violin

When your child joins forces with a partner, their standards for living together become more important than those of the parents. Suddenly, son or daughter develop different preferences, different habits. The daughter may go to the dance class with her husband, which she has previously rejected as "super-skewered". The son no longer comes to coffee on Sundays because he has recently started playing tennis. The tone of conversation can suddenly change. You can then easily get the impression that the new one alienates your child because it suddenly shows behaviors that it never had before.

But if you prepare for a new partner, you always have to go a bit in terms of their behavior and preferences. How else should something common arise? The intimate interaction with another person, the entry into new circles of friends and areas of interest therefore always results in character changes. New things become important, before the essentials take a back seat. This does not have to be a disadvantage, even if it may seem that way to you. Your child should live in these new conditions, not you! The most important thing is that your son and daughter feel comfortable. And he or she has to try it out for himself.

The meaning of the honeymoon

When a young couple has found each other, the old custom is to go on a trip for a not too short time. That means that it breaks free from all previous ties and habits. It leaves behind what has determined his life so far, concentrates entirely on building something new and common.

Feel free to consider the first few years of such a relationship as a continuing honeymoon – certainly not as carefree and enjoyable, but as free as possible from old liabilities. You save your child mental conflicts if you do not insist that everything between you remains as it was before. If you step into the background without reproach and do not maneuver your son or daughter into a competitive struggle according to the motto: "Who is more important to you, this woman or us?" You can only lose!

The more relaxed you react to a temporary estrangement, the greater the likelihood that later – when the relationship between the two has consolidated – the relationship with you will become closer, more familiar. Do not unilaterally charge the responsibility for the estrangement to the new partner according to the motto: “We had such a good relationship with our daughter, but since she knows this man, she has been transformed. It has a bad influence on them. ”

It is also unfair to want to discuss the dark side of your partner with your son or daughter. If the two are serious about each other, they have to defend each other from important third parties. And parents are third in this case! It may be that the new son-in-law deals with the money much more loosely than is customary for you. But maybe your daughter will find that very appealing, since she has always learned that you have to turn every dime three times before you spend it. Even if she basically agrees with you – to say this in conversation with you would seem like a betrayal. So she will defend his style and move closer to his point of view than if the parents didn’t say anything about it.

So the more parents do to compete well with their son-in-law or daughter-in-law, the more likely they are to help their child move away from them. Remember, when you feel that starting a new family means that your child has become unbearably far away from you – the young people are still on their honeymoon inside. Be patient!

Your child has become a father or mother

Accepting this down to the ramifications of the subconscious is sometimes not so easy. Your son or daughter suddenly expresses their own views about raising children, although you probably understand more about it, after all, you yourself raised one or more children. That sometimes provokes a certain arrogance. Or to worry about what will happen to the poor child if it is left to two such "green beaks". But you were such a greenhorn when you had your first child! And you did not react irritably at the time if parents or parents-in-law did not take you full when dealing with the baby?

It is just that: with the birth of a child, its parents assume responsibility for their care and upbringing. They play the first violin in everything to be decided. Grandparents have to accept that. Even if they do something very differently than parents or in-laws find it right – who can actually say what is right or wrong? The young parents may drag the baby around with them all the time, while the grandparents think they should have more rest. They bring the two-year-old a drinking bottle several times a night or get used to being able to fall asleep only with his arms on. But the more grandparents get involved in the know-it-all, the sooner the young people will refuse to do so in spite of defiance, and criticism, however legitimate, will fall on deaf ears. The more young parents feel recognized in their new role, the more free they are to think about good advice.

Old piece on a new stage

Many a conflict that arises between young parents and a grandmother or grandfather is basically the continuation of an old conflict from childhood. Young people who have passed puberty get a more differentiated, balanced view of their own parents with increasing maturity. They no longer think of them as the greatest, as most of their childhood, but also no longer as "the last", as in the often violent conflicts of puberty. They see more clearly what the parents did well, but also what was bad, what is responsible for some peculiarities that they can no longer get rid of, and also for some wounds that still hurt.

If e.g. If a mother as a child and adolescent has always suffered from being held too "under the thumb" by her parents, then her own children will now be a very welcome occasion to finally get her to determine where it is now goes, and no longer their parents. And so there is always friction about little things – whether the child has to put on a hat or not, whether he has eaten enough, whether he should go to the playground or not.

Grandparents often find it difficult to recognize that their children are now in charge of raising their grandchildren. They secretly resist by not taking wishes seriously or by simply undermining educational measures, in any case more by their own heads. If you push a chocolate egg to the little one just before you eat, even though you know exactly that Mama disapproves of it, then Mama’s anger is directed not only against the contribution to an unreasonable diet, but even more against the contempt and disregard she feels , She feels treated again like the child who is not taken very seriously.

Parents and grandparents often vie for the greater affection of the children – if necessary with bribery – in order to prove to one another who is the more lovable, the more educationally capable. And so some treats given at the wrong time or in excess also convey the message: "Am I not particularly dear to you?"

The young parents want to prove to the grandparents that they are more successful with their upbringing methods and do more justice to the child than the grandparents. If the children take the side of their grandparents, the parents experience this as treason, are irritated and unjust.

Sometimes parents have to grind their teeth small because they cannot do without the support of their grandparents. Grandparents experience this as a triumph and play this trump card: "Oh yes, but then we’re good at childcare!"

For example, some controversy about pampering or bad manners is more a power struggle among adults than a disagreement about parenting methods. The children are, so to speak, only the medium through which parents and grandparents resolve their conflicts. Understanding such relationships is the first step in tackling the problem where it really exists.

Mother-in-law, daughter-in-law

How was it with you when you were with your in-laws for a long time for the first time in everyday life? You will surely soon come across habits that were different there than at home. Trifles maybe – the bedding turned left on the line and in the closet, but for you it was turned right again before it was stowed away. The boulettes may have been called meatballs, they were shaped small and round – not larger and flat than yours.

Everything unimportant, not worth a fight. But haven’t there been conflicts in this regard anyway? Didn’t you defend your attachment to your family with your domestic habits, and resisted being taken over by the new family? Wasn’t the irritation about the name and size of the boulettes also a competition for recognition and authority? Do not compare the mother-in-law with your mother, the father-in-law with the father and wanted your own parents to do better?

Or was it different for you? Did you approach your parents-in-law with open arms, perhaps because you weren’t very happy with your own parents? And now expect the same from your daughter-in-law?

In any case, it is worthwhile to look for such backgrounds if the reason for an irritability, a violent exchange of words seems too trivial. What is actually behind it? What are you fighting for with your daughter-in-law today? To optimally arrange the dishwasher, to lock the garage or the suitable school bread for the children? Is it really just about these questions or more?

How did you address your in-laws? Mom, Dad, Mom, Dad, Fritz, Grete? Just like your parents or differently? Young people who have a loving relationship with their own parents often find it difficult to address pretty strange people in the same way at first. They prefer to avoid any direct address over a long period of time. But that seems unfriendly and offensive at some point. It is much better to talk openly about it soon after you get to know each other and to arrange a new, not yet “occupied” form of address. The longer you wait with it, the more difficult it becomes.

Different families, different customs

It is no longer your business, how the young people set up their lives and their apartments, organize their money, spend their free time. Does your daughter-in-law expect your son to clean the windows and iron his shirts himself? Or has he only been wearing non-iron shirts since he was married? Before you start to regret the poor boy, iron his shirts again, or make nasty comments about the neglected daughter-in-law, wouldn’t you have liked to have had a man cleaning windows and ironing shirts? Haven’t you complained often enough that men are so reluctant to avoid uncomfortable necessities that you as a woman are worse off? Isn’t it a reason to be happy when something changes slowly? If your son agrees, what does it concern you anyway? And if he isn’t, if he’s complaining, isn’t that because you spoiled him too much? Then it is high time that you support your daughter-in-law so that he can change his habits?

The ways in which people set up their lives are very diverse today. Some take out large loans in order to first set up a chic apartment, others live in an occupied house and sleep on the floor. Some only marry and then have children, others only have children and do not marry at all. Differences in religion, culture, and social background hardly play a role for many. In any case, the likelihood that your son or daughter will arrange life exactly as you see fit is very low.

Do you remember your reaction when your father-in-law appraised your eating habits, your mother-in-law mocked the child’s lack of order or poor upbringing? How did you like it? Weren’t you pretty angry? Didn’t you agree that it was none of your business? Please remember that the next time you find that your children and children-in-law are “impossible”. It’s always a question of perspective!

Especially the connection with a person of different nationality and culture can also be full of interesting experiences for the parents. Personal examples give you a much more vivid insight into another culture, another religion, eating habits and lifestyle, music and dance than you would ever get on a vacation trip. Suddenly they have relatives in Turkey, Portugal or India that they would otherwise never have known.

Sure, some of the two will be quite unfamiliar at home – half their culture, half his. With the necessary open-mindedness from all sides, a very interesting mixture: Maybe you like the foreign food and you are encouraged to do ginger, cinnamon or mint on the meat. But if German cuisine is everything to you, it is better to stick to your habits. The main thing is that you do not claim that this is the only sensible kitchen – the strange stuff that son-in-law or daughter-in-law cook is not edible. You know, tastes are quite different.

“My Daughter-In-Law’s Parents”

If your son or daughter start their own family, you will have to deal with another “family addition”: namely the other pair of parents. This is so little important to us that there is no separate name for this form of kinship. It is often different in other cultures.

You basically have so much in common with these people. All of the concerns and caring efforts for the young couple are also on their side. Nevertheless, the relationship between you and the other parents is often characterized by fierce competition. If the son and daughter-in-law live very differently than was customary in your home, then this influence, which you probably think is negative, must come from the other home. But please remember: The other parents also want the best for their child. You now think that what was normal in your home is correct and normal, you may encounter the same reservations as you did. If you think you need to change young people’s household or habits, other parents can try with the same right. Isn’t it better if both parents keep out of it and let the young people find their own, third way?

Jealousy often stirs when children and grandchildren deal with two pairs of grandparents. Why are they visiting the other grandparents again, why me or us less often? Do the grandchildren prefer the other grandma? She will probably let them go through everything or bribe them with gifts. Seriously mean that?

The less the grandparents know each other, the easier such prejudices arise. Maybe you should meet a little more often, sometimes without the children and outside of big family celebrations?

However, you may not be able to get along with these people despite your goodwill. Then you have to avoid them, but also avoid hurtful criticism. Because it inevitably strains the relationship of the young couple if they constantly have to juggle between the jealousies of the parents and parents-in-law. And even the grandchildren may have to learn what they can’t say about which other grandparents so that they’re not angry. It’s a shame.

Find the optimal distance

There are cultures where the generations of a family live very closely together. In our culture the opposite is the rule. Young couples in particular are often wildly determined to first prove to themselves and others that they can do well on their own.

If you have your own house with an expandable attic, the chances are that the young people will stay there than if you live in a rented apartment. Those who cannot find a job in the country may move to the big city. The student moves close to the university where she gets a place to study and finds her life partner there. Young parents move to the country because of the children. These and some other conditions often determine how close to each other or how far apart grandparents and grandchildren live.

In addition, personal idiosyncrasies also play a role in how closely the generations link their lives. Some take grandma with them on a family vacation, of course, others definitely don’t want to. One grandmother likes to ride, the other insists on enjoying her childlessness, especially on vacation. Some find it ideal if old and young live in the same house; others prefer a few streets, a few places between them. Some want to see each other every day, others weekly and others want to find that once a month is enough. If these views are the same for old and young, both (hopefully) can set up their lives accordingly:

  • Do you have the same ideas as your children regarding distance and proximity? Have you ever thought about it?
  • If one is more close than the other?
  • How much sympathy is desired from both sides, what is experienced as interference?

It is not always the case that the older generation seeks more closeness than the younger generation. Sometimes the younger ones think they have to take care of the older ones more than they would like. Try to explore and maintain the optimal closeness between each other and everyone will be best off. There are no magic recipes for this. What is optimal for others does not necessarily have to be for you.

You are not a worse grandmother, not a worse grandfather, if you are satisfied with seeing your grandchildren once a month or less. They are not the best, who keep crouching together, even though they do not feel comfortable at all. Don’t say, "Come back tomorrow" if you don’t mean it. Invite less often, but then from the heart. And ask the same from the young people. In that case, however, you shouldn’t be offended by an honest word – "Tomorrow it won’t suit me so much, better come next week"!


Helga Gürtler (2000): Children love grandparents, Kösel Verlag, Munich

Further contributions by the author here in our family handbook


Helga Gürtler is a qualified psychologist. She writes books and magazine articles on educational topics, gives lectures, works with groups of parents and in the training of educators.


Helga Gürtler
Stubenrauchstr. 4
12203 Berlin
Telephone: 030/833 67 10

Created July 17, 2003, last modified September 9, 2013

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