How Parents of Adult Children Can Let Go of Faulty Expectations
Let me start by explaining my credentials. I am not a so-called "expert" in relationships. I do not have a doctorate in human relations. I do, however, hold a degree in theology with an emphasis in human behavior. I have studied relationships and behavior for more than twenty years. The majority of what I have learned has been through "real-life" interaction, not just theory taught in a classroom. I believe that understanding people and building healthy relationships is the key to success in life. When I say success, I do not mean wealth or reaching a certain level of status. Those things can be attained through relationships, and rightly so. I define success, however, in terms of enriching others, and being enriched by others in turn. With that said, I would like to speak about a particular kind of relationship that, if not handled properly, brings a lot of bitterness to all involved.
I am referencing the relationship between a parent and an adult child. In fifteen years of counseling and observation, I have found that this relationship is one of the most skewed. In most relationships, tension usually comes two ways: when there is a simple misunderstanding between two people, or when one person’s expectations of another is not lived up to. In the parent-adult child relationship (which I will refer to as the PAC), the latter is always the case. The former can cause light tension, but family usually moves past simple misunderstandings. That is not always the case with non-family relationships, which I will discuss in another blog. It is in the area of expectations that we find bitterness brewing with the PAC. So is there one party at fault? As with most relationships, it takes two to tango. That being said, what I have seen repeatedly is that more times than not, the parent is to blame. I will discuss the child's issues in another blog, but for now, let’s look at the parents.
The Faulty Expectation of the Parent
Parents have a lot invested in their child…money, time, memory, and most of all emotions. To most parents, their children are their world. What I have seen, though, is that most parents refuse to acknowledge the separation that occurs as their child moves into adulthood. It is the fact that they have so much invested that leads them to believe, subconsciously, that there are never any boundaries to be observed. To put it bluntly, after a child reaches eighteen years of age, the only rights a parent has in regard to input in that child’s life are the rights that the child gives them. When a child is underage, a parent is free to give advice and direction whenever they choose. They can lecture at any given time. They can give their opinion at any given time. However, if that pattern continues after that age, it leads to bitterness. The child is sensing their independence and wants the freedom to live their life. So only at invitation does a parent of an adult child have the right of voice or opinion.
What if they live in your house? Well, certainly there have to be rules. Chaos should never be tolerated. In respect to your property, you always have the final say. My son just turned eighteen. He lives at home, but there is an understanding. I do not intrude in his life unless he asks my opinion. I do not tell him whom he should date or not date, whom he should have as friends, or what career path he should take. I do, however, have the right to determine who is allowed on my property, as well as the boundaries of using my property. He can’t just take things as he wishes, nor leave things lying around. The point here is that parents of adult children need to learn that the rules have changed. A continuance of unsolicited intrusion will cause a major disruption of the relationship. I find it amusing that most parents I talk to whose PAC is strained honestly think their child is ungrateful. The truth is the PAC is strained because the parent has overstepped their bounds. The faulty expectation is that they should always have uninhibited boundaries with their child, no matter the age.
Overcoming Faulty Expectations
So how does a parent overcome this faulty expectation? First, acknowledge the problem. Ask others, not the child, if you behave in this manner. Take the criticism, and adjust accordingly. When you feel the urge to give your unsolicited advice, simply stop and keep your comments to yourself. Recognize that your child is not a child anymore. They should be free to succeed or fail on their own. Here is a good way to look at it: how would you like it if someone did that to you? Finally, apologize to your child for your behavior. You would be surprised how far an apology would go. What if you do not have an adult child yet? When your child reaches age twelve or thirteen, begin to prepare yourself for that change in life. Recognize that they are getting older and determine how you are going to react when they reach adulthood. I call this ‘preparing your heart’. It is a simple meditation exercise that is very effective. The best part is that no one needs to know but you. It really is that simple.
I want to give you some ‘real-life’ examples of this faulty expectation. I know a man who has two daughters. He is very wealthy and is used to people doing what he tells them to do. I had a conversation with him and during the course of the conversation I asked him if he still had plans to sell a business he had. He said no, because when his youngest daughter married he was going to make her husband run the business. If this occurs, and the young man does not want to run the business, do you think it will cause some tension? He then went on to tell me how he decided which house his oldest daughter and son-in-law should buy. What is amusing is how he doesn’t understand why some people do not like him. He actually told me he thought it was because he was successful and wealthy!
Another example is of a couple I did premarital counseling with. Now, going into this I knew she was a ‘daddy’s girl’. I have known this family for a long time so I knew that about her. I talked to her about that during counseling. I explained that getting advice was okay, but not at the expense of her husband. She agreed. A couple of years later, I discovered they were getting divorced. I talked with both of them separately at their request. I got pretty much the same story from both. Her father was giving advice on everything. It began to make the husband angry because he did not ask for the advice. In his words, he got advice from him when he needed it, but did not want it on everything. Basically, the father gave his opinion on everything. It caused problems in the marriage two ways: first, the daughter should have stood her ground when advice was given without being asked. Second, the father should have kept his mouth shut until asked. The second would have prevented the need for the first. What happened was that when the father gave advice contrary to the husband, the daughter always sided with ‘daddy’. All of that could have been avoided by the parent. The marriage ended in divorce. They had a child together, so now we have a family that is split. I could go on and on with more examples, but you get the gist.
Let me say this so no one will misconstrue what I am saying. If you know your adult child is being abused, by all means step in. I have a fourteen year old daughter. When she becomes an adult she will be free to date and marry whomever she wishes with no unsolicited input from me. However, if her boyfriend and/or husband of choice manhandles her, I am getting involved for her safety. So I am not saying to overlook extremes. I am saying to let your adult children be adults.
I hope this has been informative. Please look for my other posts about relationships.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
I was a terrible Mother, now I am estranged from my adult daughter. It is heartbreaking. I can find no help. Everything written is about good parents who are estranged. Surely bad parents need forgiveness. Are there any articles for bad parents?
I am sure there are articles for that. But, you have to realize in your situation that they have the right to not respond to you. Even a good parent can have that happen to them. I have seen it happen. You are dealing with another individual's will. They will have to make the decision to have a relationship with you. All you can do is apologize, ask for forgiveness, and show them you have changed.Helpful 1
Our adult daughter has chosen to live a different life style (gay). I as her mother don't have a problem with what she has chosen. I was and am very heartbroken the way I found out. Her father and I have been divorced for many years. I am curious and wondering if her father is aware of what our daughter has chosen. Should I contact her father to see if he is aware or what he thinks or feels about it?
I would not contact him. That is a personal decision on your daughter's part. I would leave it alone. I think it would be alright to ask her if she has told him, but I would not ask him. I see it as a boundary issue.Helpful 13
I stopped talking, texting, or dropping by to my young adult children's houses, does that make me a bad parent because I am not willing to tolerate disrespect?
If they are being disrespectful you have every right to determine how to interact or not interact. You determine your boundaries.Helpful 3
My daughter is 45 years old, bipolar, divorced 3 times from bad relationships. She always rushes into new relationships and has just told me she is getting married again. I have always picked her up in the past and I think she is making a mistake now. She has only been seeing this man 4 months. What should I say to her?
Just ask her if she has thought it through and leave it alone.Helpful 7
Our son’s girlfriend gets her feelings hurt about comments that are truthful. For example on a trip the mother and son took together, the son was on the phone with the girlfriend most of the time. When a comment was overheard staying he was on the phone with her a lot during the trip, she was offended. What should the mother do when the girlfriend gets angry or her feelings get hurt easily?
I am not sure there is anything she can do. In that situation she could have waited until the call was over and spoke to him about it. In other cases, a person needs to weigh out whether saying anything in a given moment is necessary. I suspect there is more going on with the girlfriend. Either she is very immature or there are other issues she is dealing with emotionally. How old is your son, and does he live at home? I would add that if he was on a trip with his mother to spend time with her then that should have been his focus. But, you can't dictate that either. These things are rarely easy.Helpful 3