As parents, supporting our children is one of the most important things that we’ll do in life. It doesn’t matter how old they are – whether they’re a newborn, a toddler, a teenager, or an adult – emotional and practical support can help to maintain a strong bond between parent and child.
It’s interesting to observe that the average age of first-time parents has risen over the years. Nowadays it isn’t unusual for women to give birth in their 50s – and adopting or fostering children later in life isn’t unheard of either, as there’s no upper age limit for parents or carers. Some grandparents may also care full or part-time for their grandchildren, and will take on parental responsibilities as a result.
Often, the relationship between parent and child (or grandparent and grandchild) deepens and evolves with time – largely because as children become older and more independent, they grow to appreciate their parents and grandparents and recognise their sacrifices. And even though most children go on to be able to look after themselves, many parents and carers will maintain some form of supportive and nurturing role in their adult child’s life.
Here, we’ll explore how the parental role may develop through the major milestones in a child’s life, and how we can best support and encourage our children and grandchildren – whatever their age.
Providing support for children and grandchildren: From birth – 12 years old
Emotional support tends to be more heavily associated with teens and young adults – but younger children need this support too. And providing it early on can help them to develop coping mechanisms for the future.
It’s important for children to know that they are unique, loved, and wanted. Using emotional language can help them to understand this, make sense of their feelings, and develop empathy towards others. This starts from when they’re born. For example, if a child is crying when their mum has left them with grandma, grandma could say:
“I know you’re sad because mummy has gone. She will be back soon, but grandma is here for you.”
Effective communication can also help when leaving your child or grandchild at nursery or school for the first time. Often, there’s a common belief that it’s better to sneak away if they get upset – but this can actually heighten feelings of fear and anxiety, and may lead to mistrust. An alternative could be to tell them that you’ll be back, and to help them understand that each time you say goodbye, you’ll always return.
Another way that we can support our young children is to make sure that there are times of rest and stillness. In our busy world, it’s important for both parents and children to find time to relax and unwind. You can use yoga and mindfulness to achieve this. If you want to give it a try, then it’s worth checking out these mindfulness exercises that can be practised with children on the BBC Good Food website – or this kids’ yoga class over on YouTube.
Practical support for younger children goes beyond feeding, changing, and teaching them to walk as babies. It can also involve helping them with their homework, accompanying them on school trips, and helping them use technology.
Technology has become an important part of our everyday lives and even young children need to know how to use it safely. This can include teaching them what information is safe to provide online, and who it’s safe to chat to. You can also make sure they understand that what they type virtually or send to someone in messages or emails is there forever – so should be given some careful thought. It’s best to have them ask for your permission if they want to download anything, click on a pop-up, or buy anything. Should they have any issues online, it’s important they know that they can come to you for help.
There are also life skills that can be taught to children from a very young age. Cooking is one, and even the under three’s can help in a safe environment. Gardening is another skill that can be taught when children are very little.
Boundaries form an important part of a child’s development, and of a healthy relationship between parent and child (or grandchild and grandparent). These boundaries shift as a child gets older, and will need to be reestablished over time.
For example, a baby who’s discovering their world for the first time may need to be distracted when they want something that they can’t have, as they won’t understand a lengthy explanation. Whereas, you can explain to an older child why they’re unable to do as they wish.
Saying no to a child can be hard, but it’s important if they are to learn boundaries. If you do agree to everything they ask, it will make them ill-prepared for the real world – as they won’t understand how to deal with disappointment or frustration.
As much as it can be tempting to spoil or overindulge our children or grandchildren, it’s important to know where to draw the line – otherwise unhealthy habits can develop, which are then hard to break. An example of this is allowing the child to have all their meals in front of the TV. At some stage, the child will be required to sit at a table to eat and may refuse when told to (because they have simply never had to do that before).
If you find it hard to know when to say no to your child or grandchild, then it’s worth having a read of this article on 9 times you should say no to your child to help them become successful adults from the Independent.
Setting routines can also help children begin to learn about time management, and responsibilities. For example, you could suggest they get their homework done before watching TV or having dinner. This can help them learn that they can relax and have fun, but only after the more important, time-sensitive things are done.
Providing support for teenagers
Teenage behaviour can be challenging – even for the calmest of parents and grandparents. And this can be especially true if you’re juggling work or other commitments.
Puberty is a difficult time for teenagers – and, as a parent or carer, it’s only natural for you to feel that it’s your responsibility to help them through this awkward stage. They’ll be going through physical changes and hormone surges, while searching for their own identity, receiving pressure from friends, and pushing for independence.
This transition period can be tough, and there will be occasions when you won’t enjoy your time with your teen as a result. However, in order to help them, it’s important to look after yourself too – and if need be, take a step back from the situation.
Often, one of the most helpful things you can do is to allow your teenager to learn from their mistakes (as long as they’re safe), and to understand they might do things differently to you as they discover who they are. You can also be there for them when they want to talk. But, do be patient and try not to interrupt them until they’ve finished speaking. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen, and they may not need advice.
Teenagers also need their own space and privacy, and by giving them this, you can show them you trust them. Knowing they’re trusted will help to build their confidence and allow them to become more independent.
If you do have concerns about their behaviour, schooling, priorities, health, or safety, then try talking to them calmly. For instance, you may have worries that they are having unprotected sex or even getting into drugs. The NHS website has good articles on both drugs and seeking contraception. For help with mental health issues, YoungMinds has information and help for both parents and young people.
When offering practical support to teenagers, it can be useful to ask yourself what support you wanted when you were a teenager. Did you want help beyond being taken to school, or to social events after school and at weekends? Such as help with homework, learning to drive, or tips on money?
Teaching teens about finances is one area that’s of great importance as they move forward with their lives. For example, ways to earn money, tips on budgeting and how to save, and what the consequences are if they do overspend.
If you feel comfortable doing so, then you could talk to them about your own finances – specifically, how much you spend on mortgage or rent, utilities, food and transport, and how much that translates into a percentage of your earnings. Pensions are another area to discuss with them – as this might seem like something that’s not important now, but that will have a significant impact on their future.
For those with children heading off to university, you might find this article on How to help student children or grandchildren financially useful. It offers tips on how to support your children or grandchildren financially while they’re at university.
Other ways to help your teenager could include teaching them to cook, and/or about their diet. This is also a good way of teaching budgeting. You could suggest they plan the meals for a week and provide them with a budget in which to do so.
Household chores like cleaning and basic maintenance are all beneficial for them to learn too. For example, what temperature you wash various items of clothing at and what colours should go together. Why not have them help with vacuuming or cleaning windows? These will be invaluable skills for them to have when they leave home.
If they do help out, then be sure to offer encouragement, compliment them on a job well done, and thank them when the task is completed. There’s also nothing wrong with paying them a little bit of money for what they’ve completed.
If your teen is 17 or over and looking for more independence, then you could also consider teaching them to drive. Check out this guide from the RAC on How to teach a learner driver to find out more.
Teenagers are experts at pushing boundaries and limits. Although this can seem frustrating, these challenges do serve a purpose – in that it allows them to develop their own beliefs, values, and sense of self. The difficulty can be knowing when they’ve pushed the limits too far, and it’s important, therefore, to let them know what behaviour is acceptable.
Boundaries work best with teenagers when they’re agreed together, so it can be helpful to explain your decision, and demonstrate that you’ve taken their view into account. This way, they’ll be more motivated to cooperate with the boundaries you’ve set.
As time goes on, you may find that you need to renegotiate the boundaries. If so, then it’s important to make clear to them why you are doing so and listen to what they have to say. By establishing what’s important to each of you, a balance can be struck between their views and your own.
At the same time, try to avoid setting too many boundaries as this can lead to resentment and will be difficult to maintain. Above all else, explain to them you are doing this because you care.
For more tips on boundary setting, you might want to have a read of this article from Relate.
Providing support for adult children and grandchildren
No matter how old your child or grandchild is, it’s likely that – at times – they will still turn to you for emotional support (regardless of how well you have prepared them to face the world). Relationship breakdowns, the birth of their child, and problems at work are just some examples of times when your child might come to you for help.
If they do, try not to respond to them like a child by imposing your own opinions. Instead, treat them as the adult they are by listening to them, and offering guidance and support. It can be tempting to rush to their aid each time you see them struggle, but doing so can take away their independence.
For instance, if they’re having a problem at work with a difficult boss or co-worker, then rather than getting involved and trying to fix the situation yourself (or telling them what they should do), you could share your experiences with them about how you handled those situations. This way, they can take away their own learnings should they wish to, and use them to find a solution that suits them best.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the ability to support themselves – and you can use small acts of encouragement to give them confidence, and remind them they can make it on their own.
Just as with babies and teenagers, adult children will need different types of support at different ages. A twenty-something may be doing some form of further education, searching for employment or starting a career, while someone in their 40s may be established in their career and have children of their own who are heading for adulthood. A 20-year-old won’t appreciate being treated as a teenager, and a 40-year-old won’t want to be thought of as a 20-year-old.
One of the most helpful ways to support adult children emotionally is to develop a friendship with them, so they feel comfortable turning to you for advice and support should they need to. If they see you as a friend, then they’re more likely to trust you to be there for them in a non-judgemental way.
If you’re struggling to connect with your adult child, or if there’s been a breakdown in your relationship, then it’s important to remember that all is not lost. There are plenty of tips on how you can start to rebuild your relationship in this article from Standalone.
Practical support for adult children can take many forms – from helping your adult child move to university or first home, right through to helping with their children. Then there are the times when emergencies might happen and you receive a frantic call asking for help; like when their car has broken down or they’ve missed their last train or bus home.
Sometimes the support they need might be someone to talk to. If so, then let them know they can always come to you if they have a problem. It might be a matter of them using you as their sounding board, or they may be seeking your advice.
If they do come to you to talk, it’s important to remain supportive, even if they talk about things that make you feel uncomfortable. It’s flattering that they’re comfortable talking to you about anything (including things that might be very personal), and it’s important they don’t feel judged for opening up.
If you’re asked to help with caring for their children – whether it is on a daily basis or occasionally – then it’s important to respect that their method of raising their children might not be the same as yours. It’s also possible that you might not approve of your child’s choice of partner, but it’s their choice and it’s often best to keep your feelings to yourself rather than alienating them (providing they are safe).
Ultimately parents are a safe haven for children. When things go badly, they know there’s a place for them to go – so often, you can help them just by being there. Whether it’s returning to live at home for a short time due to a relationship breakdown, being in between jobs, or in this day and age, being unable to afford a place to live; it’s good for them to know that you’re there for them.
Just as with young children and teenagers, setting boundaries for your adult children is important – even more so if they move back home after having lived away.
Before they move back home, it’s worth having a talk with them about what you both expect. If you need to set a time limit on how long they can stay, then be clear on this. It’s also important to discuss what – if any – help you’ll require from them around the house, like helping with meals, bills, housework, and what the rules are on having visitors.
Sacrifices will likely need to be made by both parties, but arranging with them what is expected in advance, can make all your lives easier and create a harmonious household. For more tips on how to set boundaries for adult children living at home, you might want to have a read of this article from Empowering Parents.
Boundaries also need to be set with adult children who live away from home too. For instance, if you have a key to their home, then you should only use it with their permission. Or, perhaps you could arrange regular times to catch up, to avoid one of you calling or texting too much (as this might become annoying!). To learn more about boundary-setting when your child moves out, it’s worth having a read of our article; 6 tips for coping with an empty nest.
Supporting our children begins the moment they are born – and some may say it begins before then. However, this support will constantly evolve, alongside your parent-child roles and boundaries.
It’s also true to say that no matter what their ages, our children will often be watching us carefully – so try to set a good example by practising the behaviour you would like them to follow. Even as adults, many of us will consider; “what would mum or dad do?” And our children and grandchildren will likely do the same.