Is your child now an adult of 20, 30, or even 40?
How often do you shake your head in disbelief, looking at this fully grown citizen of the world and remembering the tiny bundle you brought home what seems like days, rather than decades, ago? Whether your adult child is struggling to be self-sufficient or they’re remarkably accomplished, there’s a good chance you’re struggling with your place in their life. Is there a time when you should fully back off, stop offering advice and let them fail? Should you keep stepping in on everything from big decisions to bills?
No matter your personal philosophy and preferences, you probably worry that you’re sticking your nose in too much or not enough. You’ve reached the next developmental stage of parenthood – where you once worried about breastfeeding or bottle, staying at home or heading off to work, now you wonder whether your kid is too dependent or if they want you to back off.
For all the variability in parenting situations, one constant is that we’re always second-guessing ourselves, trying to figure out how we’re doing it wrong. If your child is an adult, you’re caught between wanting them to take responsibility and make their own decisions and convincing yourself that they still need you desperately.
Author Judith R. Smith wrote “Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change.” Her book is for parents whose adult children cannot be independent due to mental illness or substance addiction. While these parents are in a class by themselves, Smith gives voice to what every parent understands: “A mother’s internalized mandate to protect her child does not end when her children are grown.”
Some adult children are experiencing a “failure to launch” that parents may blame on having gone beyond caring for them to becoming caretakers. Whether your adult children seem incapable of making a decision without help or they’re fully capable but you don’t want to let them go or grow up, there comes a point when parenting responsibilities wane and we wonder if it’s really time for us to stop and take a breath. But where is that point? Is it when they graduate high school? When they get their first real job? Is it when they get married or when grandchildren are born? How do you know how far to pull back and how much help you can and should offer?
You’re never going to stop worrying about your child. Every decision you made when they were young was aimed at protecting them, helping them, and preparing them for the rest of their lives, and that’s far more than a habit – it’s part of your internal wiring. What’s important to remember is that in every action you took, in every lesson you taught, and in every example you set, you were also building an enduring relationship. No matter how much you questioned yourself and no matter how many mistakes you made, if your child is still turning to you for help or listening to your advice (even if they aren’t taking it), it’s an indication that the relationship you built is strong.
They may no longer need your protection, but they’ll always need your love and support, and you will forever be their parent. Each adult child will reach a point where your guidance becomes less of a directive than a suggestion, and as a parent, you’ll reach the point where the little voice in your head tells you it’s time to step back and let them make decisions on their own. Your irresistible urge to assist and solve may be better directed toward helping with grandchildren. Even before the pandemic placed historic and novel demands on both stay-at-home and working parents, adult children were increasingly turning to their parents for their wisdom, experience, and resources of time and love.
You may find your child turning to others for guidance in addition to – or instead of – you. They may ask for your help but be hearing conflicting advice from an in-law who they don’t feel they can ignore. Depending upon your relationship, your adult child may or may not confide in you about this type of conflict or about life’s small and large questions. They may take advice from others instead of from you because they’re more secure in their bond with you, and perceive less risk of rejection in choosing an option other than what you’ve offered.
Stranger than any of these dynamics is the inevitable point where they grow so much more responsible that they adopt an attitude that reverses your roles, deflecting your concerns about them and instead expressing concern about you. You may find any and all of these shifts uncomfortable. As their parent, you are always thinking about their better interests and will always be tempted to swoop in and save the day, whether they ask for help or you just think that they need it. Trust in the foundation that you’ve given them. No matter how self-sufficient your adult children are, you will always be their parent and your love for them will never cease. What will change will be the way that you each express that love and need and caring for each other.