COVID-19 NOTICE: We are open as an essential health care business. You can get help through consultation, neurofeedback, Voice Technology in the office or by phone. Don't struggle alone!

Your Adult Child is Not an Oxymoron

For those unfamiliar with the word, oxymoron: it means an expression with contradictory words—for example, jumbo shrimp. The words are oddly paradoxical, yet the pairing exists and even makes sense (though not semantically). Thus, your adult child is not an oxymoron. He or she is still your child, but has grown (or aged, at least) to the status of adult. Your offspring, imagine! Who knew, in those days of diapering, whimpering, reassuring that your child would turn out this way?

Yet the adult is still a child, not only through blood or attachment, but because he or she still depends on you. Many young adults still rely on their parents financially, especially in these economic times. Many more need guidance and emotional support, even when they bristle at receiving it. Some adult children rely heavily on parents to help raise their own young children.

Your role as a parent of an adult child changes dramatically as he or she emerges into young adulthood and what should be independence. You must facilitate the transition by many small acts of encouragement and limit-setting so that your child learns that he or she can and must make it on his/her own. This involves gradually becoming more self-sufficient in the basic areas of financial self-support, emotional maturity, worldly skills and experience, and the sense of humility and understanding that life does not owe him or her anything.

Some children fledge rather easily and some cause and endure drama or tragic setbacks. Due to disabilities, accidents, unforeseen events, or developmental problems, many children achieve only marginal independence, or they falter and remain needy of parental support through many years of adulthood.

In the process of "launching" your child to healthy independence, you must navigate the uncertain terrain of what is good for your child along with what is good for you, all tempered by changing and constraining circumstances. This process is long and trying because all parents have mixed feelings about children separating from them. On one side are feelings (and thoughts) of impatience, frustration, resentment, etc. regarding the adult child's slowness or failure to fend for himself or herself- the sense of entitlement that is projected when the child asks, expects, and takes for granted that the parent will indefinitely provide. On the other side are thoughts and feelings of worry, guilt, and an overriding love, protection, and responsibility to the child so that he or she will not drown or flounder. This ambivalence can be wrenching.

The dilemma of weaning your adult child evokes no easy answers. There are times, realistically, when it’s appropriate, if at all possible, to support your adult child in many ways-even though it costs you financially and emotionally. Above all, you have a responsibility to yourself and your family to provide leadership and maturity so that everyone involved can become as self-sufficient and contributing as possible.

Toward this goal, I offer some insights gleaned from cumulative and collective knowledge about human development.

  1. Expect and reinforce attitudes and behaviors that give you a reward for parenting (honor, joy, fulfillment, satisfaction).

    I have long maintained that it is the duty of all children to yield to their parents the continual experience of being rewarded for parenting. This concept may be compared to honor and respect, but it is actually a bit different. While honor and respect are the ideals and the Jewish notion of "nachas" (translating roughly to joy from your children's behavior and achievements) is also desirable, being rewarded for parenting means that you find the long-term course of parenting fulfilling, regardless of your child's accomplishments and misadventures and the mistakes each of you makes.

    This is a two-way street. You must have that objective in mind as your right and expectation; and your child must be indoctrinated with that expectation and responsibility. Raising a child is demanding and expensive, and the counterbalance is your well-deserved reward of fulfillment-to which you are entitled even if your parenting is imperfect and your child departs from expectations.

  2. Let your child make and learn from his or her own mistakes.

    Parents are advised to let children learn from their mistakes throughout childhood, starting from an early age. The delicate balance between encouragement and the challenge of learning from failure evolves into a style of parenting shaped by your beliefs, knowledge, and skills. Younger children, of course, require more intervention, teaching, and monitoring. As children grow, they become progressively required to rebound from mishaps and stand on their own feet. Lack of parental involvement (either actual or perceived) can lead to feelings of neglect or abandonment. Overprotection carries its own downsides of potential helplessness or ineptitude.

    By the time your child has grown up, the die is cast-not on his or her inevitable adult fate-but on the habits of indulgence you have practiced over decades. Sometimes these habits are incompatible with family economics or the healthy independence and separation that should normally occur when a child reaches adulthood. Though your adult child may be ill-equipped to navigate or survive the complexities of adult living, your efforts should steer toward urging and allowing your child to make adult decisions and abide by the consequences.

    Occasionally, a bailout is needed. However, rescuing your adult child from persistent mistakes usually results in repetition of the maladaptive behavior, as well as resentment by both generations.

    As a wise friend often says, "The hungry dog makes the best hunter."

  3. Work toward being a friend to your child.

    Parents are warned not to be "buddies" to their kids. This separation of identity is naturally crucial. When your child is growing up, he or she transitions through many stages. The desire for a parent to be "hip" or "with it" must be tempered by the resounding leadership of adult authority, responsibility and, hopefully, wisdom. As the parent, you must establish and maintain boundaries, however much you may want to be liked and revered by your youngster.

    Being a friend to your child operates on a different plane than being popular or informed and conversant with trends. What is truly important is to develop a relationship of trust ad respect, so that when your child reaches adulthood, he or she will come to you for advice and to share confidences. Such intimacy and trust is a profound blessing for you and your child. It will enable and empower your child to take the risks appropriate to successful independence. It will also provide a haven of experience and judgment to draw upon in order to evaluate and make adjustments. The friendship between you and your adult child cannot blossom from authoritarian or harsh upbringing, nor can it flourish in an atmosphere of permissive avoidance of setting limits.

    Don't you want your child to come back to you for caution and advice when he or she is old enough to make independent (though not always prudent) decisions? The seeds of this blossom are planted early in family life and are nourished and watered by intermittent allowances of choices by your child with following evaluation of behavior and teaching about consequences.

    In their quest for autonomy, often welded to stubborn rebellion, children may not listen or heed. Of course, they need correction and sanctions. But you will be gratified by developing a relationship with your children where open lines of communication eventually lead to their requests for guidance, even when they are old enough to act on their own.

    It could be an inquiry about worldly commerce, such as getting a car fixed or purchasing insurance; or it might be an imploration to assist with the grandchildren. Interactions like these between you and your adult child will change the generational dynamics and provide you with a rich and rewarding perspective on your impact upon raising children.

  4. Meet your own needs through relationships and activities apart from your child.

    It is natural for parents to want their children to have a "good life." To most parents, this means achievement (matching or exceeding the parents’ own), financial sufficiency and stability, and similar values. Many parents unwittingly succumb to living vicariously through their children’s accomplishments; this can take the form of involvement in the child's sports or extracurricular activities or through an emphatic pressure on achieving high grades and getting into the "right" school. Though such involvement can motivate children and play a vital role in their development and life-long values, parents need to recognize when to back away. When parental involvement continues inappropriately, it becomes a substitute for the parent's own lack of satisfaction and/or the stunted ability to let children go.

    Effective parenting requires good modeling. Therefore, parents should have their own relationships and activities that provide involvement and reward apart from their children. Not only is this good for the child to observe during development—it makes the transition of letting go easier on both parent and child. Age, physical status, and life responsibilities all differentiate the interests and activities of parents and grown up children. This is as it should be. Don't fall into the trap of resenting your children for being involved in their own lives. Calling and visiting may be enough, especially if you are busy with your own satisfactions.

  5. Recognize and accept the changing and diminishing role of your job as a parent.

Whether your adult child is succeeding in the world in an age-appropriate, socially approved manner or is expressing an "inner child" playing video games in your spare room, your relationship must change as you and your child grow older. On a biological level, you have done your job by reproducing and/or nurturing your child to adult mammalian status-food, clothing, shelter, and medical care are the basics. On a social level, you have tried your best to educate, inculcate, and impart the skills and experience your child needs to make it independently. The result is not guaranteed. On an emotional and spiritual level, you owe it to your child, yourself, and the rest of your family to evolve with the grace and wisdom that aging brings.

There is an old saying: "The only love that should grow asunder is that between parent and child." It means that the normal and expected bonds between parent and child naturally mature and change as the child makes his way.

You will always love your child, whether he or she brings honor or disappointment. Your child will most likely outlive you and, in many cases, take care of you as you age. Difficult to think about, isn't it? Yet this is the reality that soberly guides us in appreciating the big picture. In that broad view, your child will always be your child, however old he or she grows. And you will, in this life, always be older and steps ahead in experience. God made it so.

It is also natural to wonder and worry about how your child will fare when you are no longer able to assist or provide. When children function marginally as adults, their parents fear about their survival and well-being. The truth is: you can only do so much. As your child matures into his or her own life, your role changes from supervisor to observer and recipient. Learning to recognize, participate, and yield in this process is neither formally taught nor generationally transmitted in this culture. Discovering how this is done can be liberating and rewarding.

Remember my earlier statement about how you deserve to be rewarded for the hard work of parenting? You can give this to yourself, regardless of how well your child is doing as an adult. Despite any pragmatic entanglements you may still have in your adult child’s life, he or she still needs you to developmentally let go and declare that the child is his or her own person.

There is another saying (from Texas, I believe): "You ain't a man until your daddy says you're man." It goes for women, too.

When will you make that declaration?