top of page

Showing “Grown-Up Love” to Your Adult Children

By Dennis Rainey

Whenever I write or speak about “Right-Sizing Relationships With Your Adult Children,” I can tell I’m touching a nerve. This is a big need for parents of older kids.

A lifelong friend in California texted me; he’s a father of four daughters and his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He gave me permission to pass this on …

“Through tears I’ve just read over coffee your recent blog of letting go of our children. Our daughters are really pulling away. They are very unsure how to deal with the many changes to their mom and even their dad (me!). Of course I’m tempted to try and fix things! But I’m not going there. It’s very difficult.”

I called him. He text was only the tip of the iceberg in the story of his relationships with his girls.

Feeling like failures

Another pair of friends from the East Coast told me how their son and daughter-in-law won’t allow them to see their granddaughter who was born five years ago! The parents were cussed out and declared off limits. They were in a state of confusion about the situation.

This is not as rare as you might think. I’ve heard from others whose families are broken apart by internal strife. A father said he fears that the only time his family will get together is at the funerals for him and his wife. He concluded, “The refusal of our family to all get together is not what my wife and I envisioned for our family.”

Parents repeatedly say they feel like failures, asking, “What did we do so wrong with our children for them to reject us and God?”

And statements that point to the messiness of life, like:

“The abundant life doesn’t come from adult children.”

“The safest thing to do with adult children is NOTHING!”

“Our daughter is engaged to a guy who just confessed he is attracted to men.”

“Our newly married daughter just called and was hysterical … her husband had just beaten the tar out of her.”

“Our son has moved in with a young lady who has seduced him.”

“Our daughter has asked that I walk her down the aisle and give her hand in marriage to her lesbian lover.”

“Our son is like an ox to the slaughter with a woman who is seducing him away from his faith and us.”

Others said they were dealing with the heartache of a prodigal or, even worse, the suicide of an adult child. In fact, at the end of this article I’ll pass on a story that was shared with me by my mentor … a story I will never forget.

I’ve been reflecting on these conversations and asking some hard questions about what God expects of us. I’ve come up with two additional conclusions about loving adult children. Look through these and pick the one God is impressing you to apply in the near term:

1. Loving your adult child may be the last chance God gives you to grow up!

I have said many times that initially I thought that God gave us six children so we could help them grow up. But after a decade of child rearing I realized that God gave us our children to help us grow up.

In his famous chapter about love, the apostle Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a

child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

Read that again. God invites us to turn our backs on childish ways and step up to mature love.

Love for an imperfect person challenges us to pursue Jesus and ask Him to teach us how to love.

It drives us to make Jesus our refuge, our strength, our confidant, and our shock absorber when expectations continue to go unmet.

Love doesn’t manipulate or try to get its own way. It shoots straight.

Love views our adult children through the eyes and heart of God … they are broken people just like us who need redeeming love.

Love doesn’t play games; it does the hard work of forgiving and showing grace.

Love doesn’t always rescue, but seeks the best for our adult children. And that may mean letting them hit bottom. Read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The father didn’t rush in and deliver his son from wanting to eat slop with the hogs! The Scriptures are very instructive in just a few words: “… no one gave him [the prodigal son] anything” (italics mine).

In early March of 2018 I had the privilege of attending the memorial service for Billy Graham. His children spoke of their love for them, but his daughter, Ruth, told a story that brought all of us to tears. She had been a prodigal and she said, “I married a man on New Year’s Eve and within 24 hours I knew I had made a mistake. After five weeks I fled.”

In shame, she moved to California to get away from her family back in North Carolina. Months passed and finally she decided to go home.

When she rounded the last bend in her parents’ driveway, she recalled, “My father was standing there waiting for me. As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘Welcome home, welcome home.’ There was no shame, no blame, no condemnation, only unconditional love. My father was not God, but he showed me what God was like that day.”

Anyone who has had a prodigal knows that this is a picture of “grown up” love.