When kids are young, it’s easy to find excuses to bond with them. After all, they’re living in your house, and you get to see them almost constantly. When someone depends on you for food, clothing, and shelter, you don’t exactly have to make dinner plans to see them regularly. But some parents worry that, when their kids grow up and leave the house, it’ll be harder to stay in touch. Will they only see their children on major holidays, or not even then? How will they keep that connection alive when their kids aren’t right in front of them?
Well, for those parents, here’s some good news. You may be heading for a closer relationship rather than a more distant one.
When co-authors and psychologists Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Jensen Arnett were interviewing families for their book, Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years, they came across an interesting discovery: 75 percent of the parents they spoke to claimed that their relationship with their adult children, now in their 20s, was substantially better than it had been when their kids were just 15.
Of course, this isn’t to say it’s easy. Nothing meaningful ever is. Your adult kids are embarking on their own lives now, and the tenor of your relationship with them will be inherently different than it was when they depended on you for everything. But it doesn’t have to be an uphill battle. It can actually be fun to find unique ways to reconnect with them as independent adults.
We consulted the experts—psychologists and authors who have studied what keeps families together—to compile this roundup of 40 ideas for bonding with your adult children that won’t just keep them in your lives but may help you discover new shades of their personality that you never noticed before.
Learn a new skill together.
This isn’t a teaching moment; you’re not the one introducing your kids to something new. Rather, it’s a chance for both of you to broaden your horizons. “Learning a new skill, like Spanish or healthy cooking or Tai Chi, can enhance your relationship with your adult child immensely,” says Kathy McCoy, a psychotherapist and author of We Don’t Talk Anymore: Healing after Parents and Their Adult Children Become Estranged. “It’s a way to get past the old roles and to experience and enjoy an activity together simply as two people on equal footing who are sharing a learning adventure.”
Put down the phone and make a date to see them in person.
We’re all busy people, so many parents settle for communicating with their adult children with phone calls and texts. That’s all well and fine, but face-to-face interactions are also vital. A 2015 study out of the University of Texas found that parents with the most positive relationships with their adult children typically interacted with them using all three modes of communication: Texting, phone calls, and IRL interaction. In fact, those parents with the strongest bonds with their kids were one-and-a-half times more likely to have regular contact where direct eye contact and physical touch was involved.
There are a million of volunteering opportunities out there, from visiting senior centers to pitching in at your local school to helping families in need. It can be a great reminder to both of you to be grateful for everything you have, including each other.
Ask their advice.
Yes, believe it or not, your adult kids have knowledge and life experience that just might be useful to you. Turn to them for advice on everything from work issues and financial investments to your personal relationships, suggests Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “Sharing advice as friends and equals will create the friendly connection you want,” she says. It also shows maturity, as you’re demonstrating to them that you realize the relationship has evolved, and that they know as much about the world, maybe more, as you do.
Do something that scares you.
Have you always wanted to try zip-lining or rollerblading or paragliding but never mustered the courage? Call your son or daughter and see if they feel up to taking on the challenge with you. It can be an especially great bonding moment if you’re both conquering your fears together, holding each other’s hands as you both try something for the first time you never thought you’d be brave enough to try.
Look at old photos together.
If you have a box or two in the attic filled with old family photos that you haven’t seen in decades, why not ask your kids to help you finally go through everything and create a family scrapbook? Looking at old pictures together can be a “great way to get to know each other in a new way,” says McCoy. “It’s a chance for a parent to share what they thought and felt when they first held the now adult child in their arms, or the memories the adult child has of some special occasions from his or her childhood.” They may even discover something about your past that didn’t involve them as babies. McCoy remembers going through photos with her mother, and realizing there was so much she never knew about her parents’ lives. “It was helpful to see my parents beyond their roles as Mom and Dad,” she says.
Get them alone.
If you have more than one kid, you probably only see them all together at the same time, for holiday meals or get-togethers. But there’s value in that one-on-one contact, where no one is competing to be heard and you’re only listening to what they have to say. Set up a date for just the two of you, and you could be shocked by what you learn without the distraction of a full family gathering.
Go to a game.
What’s happening on the field is almost beside the point. What really matters is the shared experience of watching a game—it could be baseball, football, hockey, almost anything—and cheering for the home team. Getting To 30 co-author Elizabeth Fishel says that she and her husband and their young adult sons “have had hours of family fun watching the Warriors.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about the sport. Giving your kid the chance to explain what’s going on during the game adds an extra element of intimacy. Any true sports fan loves explaining the finer points of their favorite subject with novices.
We spend too much of our lives in a hurry to get somewhere. A long, meandering car ride to nowhere in particular can do wonders for your mental health. Even better when your adult child is riding shotgun. As the scenery races past and there’s no destination to get to, you might just end up having the thoughtful conversations that somehow always elude you during family meals or other get-togethers.
Go wine tasting.
A true wine tasting experience is nothing like hitting a bar or pub just to drink. The end goal is to savor every sip, to let the wine roll over your tongue and then discuss the intricacies of flavor with your fellow wine tasters. It’s fun even if you have no clue what you’re talking about, because you’re both figuring it out as you go along. It could become your new hobby together, with a shared shorthand that not everybody understands.
Start a garden together.
If your relationship with your adult child has been feeling strained in recent years, starting a garden with them could be just the thing to soften the edges. Recent studies have shown that gardening decreases anxiety and depression. It’s hard to stay mad at each other when there’s weeding to be done. And come Thanksgiving, you’ll be more excited about discussing the fresh veggies you’ve both added to the meal instead of arguing over the same old political disagreements.
Go on a self-guided walking tour.
Put on your best pair of walking shoes and invite the kids to explore your city or town with you. You may think you know every street already, but there’s always some uncharted neighborhood to discover. Besides, the point isn’t really the scenery, it’s that casual stroll with your kids, when you get the chance to talk about everything and nothing at all. Admire the architecture and see where the streets (and the conversation) takes you.
Even if pitching a tent in the wilderness doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, it may be exactly the thing to bring you and your kids closer together. A 2017 study looked at the impact of families camping, and how it strengthened those relationships in ways other family outings couldn’t. Why? Because when you’re camping, far away from WiFi signals and other distractions, you’re forced to spend quality time together. “The whole day was a time for our family,” one study participant noted. “Waking up together, exercising, playing games, singing, collecting wood for the night.”
Avoid “yes” or “no” questions.
If it feels like your adult child just doesn’t want to share the details of his or her life with you as much anymore, the problem might be less with them and more with the questions you’re asking. You may think you’re being helpful with questions like “Are you getting enough to eat” or “Have you found a better job yet?” But you’re doing more harm than good. Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with one syllable and show genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them what brings them joy, what makes them excited to get out of bed, and what they’re most looking forward to next weekend.
Become their “go-to” babysitter.
Childcare can be prohibitively expensive. And sometimes they can be hesitant to ask you for help with babysitting, worried that they might be taking advantage of you. Let them know that this couldn’t be less true, that you relish every moment to spend with your grandchildren and you should be the first call whenever they need a night off. Trust us, this will mean more to them than you could begin to imagine. When they know that you’ve got their back, and calling you for help never feels like an imposition, you will have given them all the more reason to feel like family comes first.
Create a new family tradition.
It doesn’t have to be connected to a holiday, says Fishel. “The formal holidays can be full of pressures,” she says, “and making your own traditions can take the pressure off and allow for good conversation and time for bonding and making new memories.” Create your own unique family rituals for everything from betting on the Oscars together to visiting a museum together for Mother’s Day.
Cook a meal together.
If you’ve ever cooked a big dinner with someone, you know how it can feel like you’re both doing an elaborate dance in the kitchen, reaching over and around your co-chef until it starts to feel like you can anticipate each others movement. You don’t even need a reason to make some elaborate dishes—maybe it’s just a TV dinner date for the two of you—but you’ll still relish the feeling of working together in the kitchen and making some culinary masterpiece that is really a combined effort.
Write them a letter.
McCoy fully admits that it may sound antiquated in an era of texting and FaceTime, but she swears that an occasional snail mail surprise can be an amazing bonding experience. It could be as simple as “a lovely or funny card with a personal message for no special reason,” she says. “Or a heartfelt thank you note for a gift or simply a good time together. It’s an unusual way these days to express your love.” And best of all, she adds, it gives your adult child tangible evidence that you care.
Go clothes shopping.
Whether it’s taking your son to get a tailored suit or shopping for dresses with your daughter, this is a perfect activity because it never feels like wasted time. It’s all about “doing activities together that are a normal part of everyday life,” says clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, author of such books as From Conflict to Resolution. Whether you actually buy anything is besides the point. Heitler says it can be fun to “pick out fun clothes for each other,” even if you’re just window shopping.
Do more listening than talking.
McCoy says most older parents “are too often inclined to give unasked for advice or make observations that can lead to conflict. You can’t get in trouble if you simply listen.” And in listening, she says, you learn much more about your adult child and what is going in their life.
“One friend of mine, who has four adult children who love him dearly, has an unbreakable rule,” McCoy adds. “He never, ever gives advice unless asked for it and even then, he keeps it brief and asks them what they think about the advice or some alternative to it. He keeps the focus on them. It works beautifully in his life and may in yours.”
If you haven’t read a book to them since they were too young to read on their own, you’re missing out. They may not be into Dr. Seuss anymore, but just the simple act of sitting with them and reading aloud to each other—whether it’s a novel you both enjoy or the Sunday newspaper—can help you and your kids feel closer since, well, back when reading bedtime stories was a regular thing.
Go see their favorite artist play live.
“Millennials are known for appreciating experiences,” says Fishel. Rather than just buying them tickets to a concert, ask if you can tag along and check out the show. Taking an interest in the music that they love, even if it’s not someone you would normally listen to, demonstrates an open-mindedness that they’ll respect. And who knows, they may even return the favor and accompany you to see your favorite recording artist. Sharing those experiences can be “food for thought and conversation that goes beyond family issues,” says Fishel.
Stop using nicknames from their childhood.
When they were just toddlers, giving your kids a cute nickname like Twinkletoes, Monkey Noodle, or Pumpkin Pie is harmless. But they’re adults now and they should be treated as such. “They feel more respected when called by their given names,” says Tessina. If you want them to enjoy your company, you need to acknowledge them like you would any other adult. Here’s a litmus test: Would you call a colleague or your best friend “Stink-a-potumus”? We’re guessing no.
Help them decorate their starter home.
A mom wants to feel useful, Heitler says. “Helping her adult daughter or son to accomplish some of the to-do’s on their never-seem-to-get to list can be fun as well as helpful.” One way to do this is by offering your aesthetic assistance with home decor. Maybe they need a new couch or some curtains for the living room. Whatever it is, it’s always invaluable to have a second pair of eyes. If you can be a sounding board without being too pushy with your opinions—this is still their life and their home, after all—you’ll have found that perfect balance that seems to elude so many parents.
Tell them a joke.
Yes, even a “Dad Joke” can go a long way. A 2017 study found that people who laugh together tend to enjoy each other’s company more. If your sense of humor is lacking, invite them on a date to see a stand-up comic or watch your favorite funny movie.
Train for a marathon.
This is about so much more than just an excuse to spend more time together while getting in shape for a marathon. It’s about encouraging lifelong healthy habits for both of you, which can continue long after you cross the finish line. Studies have shown that families that run together are more likely to keep doing so, exercising more often and more consistently, then those who try running on their own.
Be open to criticism.
Okay, so maybe this one doesn’t count as “fun,” but it could be one of the most important things you do for your relationship. If they seem cold or distant, ask them what’s bothering them, says Joshua Coleman, author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. And then listen non-defensively, even if they have “complaints about you that you don’t like,” he says. “Don’t explain, rationalize, or push back. See it as an opportunity to be closer.”
It’s not a magic fix, but it’s a huge first step in the right direction. “If you can show yourself as someone who’s able to tolerate criticism, be self-reflective and empathize with your child’s feelings, the chances of their wanting to be closer to you will improve,” Coleman says.
Decorate for the holidays.
Maybe we’re just suckers for the holidays, but nothing makes us feel more like a kid than decorating the house for Christmas or Halloween. Break out the tinsel, pump up the holiday tunes, and have yourself a grand old time with your adult kids. You’ll have a blast recounting your favorite holiday memories—hey, nothing wrong with a little nostalgia to strengthen those family bonds—or laughing over your ridiculously over-the-top decorations.
It might seem like a Norman Rockwell cliche, but there really is something magical about a father and his son or daughter sitting on a fishing boat all day, talking about nothing in particular and enjoying each other’s company. Just because they’re all grown up now doesn’t mean you can’t recapture those moments. You might not catch any more fish then you did when they were younger, but you’ll soon realize that the true rewards of fishing are about much more than what you bring home in a bucket.
Have a dance party.
If there are too many awkward silences when you get together with your adult kids, sometimes the only way to put a smile back on everyone’s face is by initiating a spontaneous and completely silly dance party. Oh sure, they’ll resist at first, but when those ABBA tunes start blaring and you’re busting some serious dance moves on the kitchen floor, they’ll soon feel compelled to join in. Dance parties are like laughter—they’re infectious, and always have a way of sucking the tension out of the room.
Take a trip down memory lane.
There’s probably a building or stretch of road from your past that still holds a special place in your heart. Maybe it’s your first house where you and the kids haven’t lived in years, or a restaurant the whole family used to visit back when your kids still needed a high chair. Take them back to those old haunts and take another look at the hallowed grounds. It’s not about living in the past, just a quick reminder of your shared family history.
See a scary movie.
Why do we feel closer to someone when we watch a scary movie with them? It’s because being frightened, even when we know it’s all an illusion, puts us in a vulnerable space. We scream and reach for the hand of the person sitting next to us. That self-confident exterior briefly disappears, and we show just how fragile we really are underneath. Sit in the dark next to your adult child and squeeze his or her hand while a horror movie plays out on the big screen, and you’ve shared something that not everybody reveals to each other.
Get out the vote.
While talking politics is generally something to be avoided, Getting To 30 co-author Elizabeth Fishel thinks it’s a good idea—if your political ideals match up, that is—to take that beyond just agreeing with each other during dinner conversations. “Get out the vote together or work for a candidate you both support,” she says. “The country needs Millennial voters!” Even more than that, the country needs parents and adult children who encourage each other to not just have strong opinions but the resolve to get out into the world and fight for them.
Visit a distant relative.
Putting together a family tree is one thing, but nothing makes you feel connected with your extended family like finding relatives you’ve fallen out of touch with. Perhaps you’ve got a great aunt or long-lost second cousin you haven’t seen in what feels like a lifetime. When your kids were younger they probably weren’t all that interested, but as adults they may share your curiosity about the relatives they’ve never met. Give them a call and see if they want to join you on a road trip adventure to discover their DNA roots.
Discuss adult topics.
Running out of things to talk about with your kids? You may be clinging to old ideas about what’s an appropriate topic to bring up with them. “As your children grow, don’t limit your conversations strictly to family topics or questions about their personal life,” advises Tessina. “Involve them in discussions of current events and the like, just as you would with a friend.” You might want to stay away from hot-button topics like politics, but there’s a whole lot more going on in the world than just who’s in the White House—and who your son or daughter is dating.
Host a party together.
It could be a casual Sunday picnic, or a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings. Whatever your preference, you and your adult kids share co-hosting duties, which includes everything from planning the menu and arranging the table to sending the invitations and selecting the right wine. It’s a big job, but with two people handling the heavy lifting, it’ll have all the adrenaline rush of running your own restaurant.
Get to know their partner or spouse.
The person your adult child has fallen in love with shouldn’t be someone you’re just vaguely familiar with. Take the time to get better acquainted with them, whether it’s engaging them in a one-on-one conversation during your next family gathering, or even better, inviting them to lunch, just the two of you, so you can finally learn more about their life than just the bullet points. Your kids notice gestures like this, and they appreciate it more than you know.
Go thrift shopping.
The best thrift shopping is when you’re purposefully not looking for something specific. Second-hand stores are made for aimlessly browsing, and when you’ve got a shopping partner—say, an adult son or daughter with a few hours to kill—you can have endless fun looking through the racks and making discoveries of ancient civilizations (or just people who hung on to junk for too long) like a pair of amateur anthropologists.
Take a hike.
As University of British Columbia researchers discovered just a few years ago, getting out into nature is good for you. It increases your happiness and well being levels, and increases your overall joy. What could be a better setting for having a long, leisurely conversation with your son or daughter? Neither of you will ever be in a better headspace than when you’re surrounded by trees, far away from WiFi signals, with only each other’s voices to break the silence. Ah, that is true serenity.
Plan a vacation.
If you’re sworn off family vacations since that last Disney World trip—which mostly involved standing in line and sweating—you may want to reconsider. Planning a getaway with your adult kids is a very different experience, and one that’s considerably less daunting because you have someone to share the expense and the big decisions, like where and when. Also, and we can’t stress this point enough, you’re both adults now, so what you both enjoy should line up more perfectly than when they were younger and all they wanted was more cotton candy and a photo with Mickey Mouse.