My mom used to say, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.”
She was speaking to the enduring, protective instinct of a parent. This is an impulse so primal that it can be hard to relinquish once a child becomes old enough to leave home, support themselves, and make important decisions about their lives.
One of the hardest transitions a parent can face is a child’s entry into adulthood. The work of parenting revolves around helping children acquire the skills, judgment, and capabilities needed to be truly self-sufficient. Most parents want their children to have lives of stability and happiness and to be able to navigate adulthood successfully.
What constitutes success and independence is defined subjectively. It is naturally viewed through the prism of a parent’s own beliefs, values, and life experiences. Culture, race, socioeconomic status, geographical location, family history, the presence of illness or disability, and other factors can influence the future a parent can imagine for a child. It can also influence the lessons they’re taught about how to survive in the world.
Stepping back when you want to step in
So, what happens when an adult child makes a choice that confuses you, worries you, or breaks your heart?
“Much of the angst between parents and adult children stems from the tug-of-war over whose life it is,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who developed the theory of emerging adulthood.
Arnett suggests a distinct phase of development between adolescence and adulthood, a time of identity formation for young people when they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they want from life.
He adds, “There often is a disconnect between parents who still want to shape their grown-up kids’ future course and the kids who are determined to live their lives their own way.”
Arnett suggests that the impulse to “fix things” when an adult child is struggling is understandable, if ultimately unhelpful.
“When grown kids cope with these ups and downs, they develop into resilient, self-sufficient people with the confidence that comes from standing on their own feet,” he says.
“Parenting is so personal. For some, when a young person does not adopt similar values or makes questionable choices, it can feel like a reflection on the parent or seen as a parenting failure,” says Sheryl Walden, a social work therapist at the Viva Center. Walden has experience working with children and families in the foster care system, as well as with adopted children and their parents. Walden helps parents and children explore feelings associated with changing relationships as children grow up and become more self-reliant.
“Oftentimes, it’s really painful for parents to admit and understand what is beneath their own expectations or what messages they assume to be true as they watch their kids navigate life,” says Walden. “There can be shame or grief, and a tendency to compare your child to others as an indicator of how you measure up as a parent.”
Their lives, their choices
Walden suggests parents “do the personal hard work of understanding and setting aside expectations or assumptions about what [they] consider to be best.”
“If you can show up without an agenda, you provide a safe space for young adults to reveal who they are becoming,” she says.
Walden also recommends:
- Respecting young adults as individuals, allowing for differentiation from parent’s opinions and beliefs
- Being curious about who your kids are becoming
- Anticipating and encouraging the new experiences, thinking, and information you will learn as you shift the relationship from adult/child to adult/adult
- Resist offering unsolicited advice or opinions
- Listening more than you talk
- Affirming and encouraging your children’s individuality
If you’re struggling emotionally in your relationship with an adult child, you are not alone. Viva can help you sort through the complex feelings of parenting at all stages. In addition, you can find a myriad of free resources for support via the Resilient Brain Project.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”