Friday, July 1, 2011

Feeling the Limits With Adult Children

She was sitting in the gym locker room, furiously wiping tears away, when Kim and I walked in on her the other day. This woman, whom I'll call Joan, told us that she was feeling overwhelmed with fears and regrets: fears that her cherished 30-year-old son was about to make a major commitment to a woman she considered unworthy of him and regrets that she and her husband had ever moved to Arizona.

Their Phoenix-based son was the primary reason -- at least for Joan -- that they decided to leave their home of 42 years in the New York City area to move to the active adult community where we now live.  Their son, however, has his own life: a live-in girlfriend, a home of his own, his own circle of friends. He likes seeing his parents occasionally, but they aren't the center of his universe.

In addition to wondering why she and her husband uprooted themselves to live near a son who can live quite easily, day to day, without them, Joan loathes the Southwestern desert with every fiber of her being. It didn't help that the outside temperature at that point was 113. "Everything here is hot!" she sobbed. "I want to go back to New York!" Yes, they had visited this community briefly -- for a weekend in February --  before making their decision to move to Arizona. But the real reason they came was to be closer to their son.

"So what do you think?" she asked us. "Should I speak to my son frankly and tell him that this woman is trouble? That she's taking advantage of him if she decides to go back to school? That I'm hurt about her moving all the pictures and artifacts I've given him for his new home into the spare room? After all, I'm his mother! Should I tell him all this?"

Kim and I answered as one: "No!"

We told her stories of mothers who stepped over the line and drove their kids away -- emotionally or otherwise. We speculated on the future of the British Mom-zilla, whose harsh, critical email to her son's fiancee went viral over the Internet recently and her dim prospects of a good relationship with her son and future daughter-in-law.  And we had stories closer to home. Kim talked about a friend whose potential mother-in-law made it clear that she disapproved of her son's relationship with her -- and although the marriage has been happy and the relationship between this woman and her mother-in-law was cordial, the closeness that both women might have enjoyed was precluded by that early hurt. And my childhood friend Mary told me that, in her happy 42-year-marriage, there has only been one dark cloud: the insistence of her in-laws that they continue to be the center of their son's life. That has meant more than four decades of annual vacations at the in-laws summer home in Maine rather than the trips Mary longed to take to a variety of places with her young family and with her husband when they became empty-nesters.

And it has meant that Mary learned to step back and let her own three children fly free of the nest. "It's a very hard, painful transition to make when your kids have been your whole life," she says. "But to let them go and live and vacation and love as they please is one of the greatest gifts I can give them.  And, interestingly enough, it has made us closer. When they spend time with us, I know it's because they really want to be with us rather than feeling this heavy obligation."

Letting your adult children go is one thing. Learning to keep your mouth shut is quite another.

Of course, there are times when you can't keep quiet: when your adult child is doing serious, even life-threatening harm to himself or others, with substance abuse or child abuse or neglect or is showing signs of mental illness. Those are times when you intervene with love and with professional help.

But in the choices and decisions of daily life, you may find yourself biting your tongue.

When you see an adult child maneuvering through the minefields of ill-advised relationships, financial mistakes, professional mis-steps, and questionable child-raising strategies, it's incredibly hard to sit back and be neutral. You want to scream: "He's a jerk, for heavens' sake!" or "You have HOW much credit card debt?" or "You quit your job???" or "If you keep giving her everything she screams for, you're in for a rough ride for the next 20 years."

If you can't stay totally silent, it's important to frame your concern in loving, but non-intrusive ways:

"I love you so much and don't want to see you hurt. Most of all, I want you to be happy.  Do you want to talk about your hopes and issues with this relationship? Or not?"

"I have faith that you can manage your life just fine, but I do have concerns when you tell me about this debt. Would you like some help in figuring out a budget or a payment plan that will get you out from under all that sooner?"

"What are you planning for the future? What did you learn from this job experience? How would you like the next to be different? How can I help you right now?"

"I know child-raising is different today and that you're totally committed to being a great parent. I'm just wondering how you set limits and when you say "No". How is she with 'No'?"

There are times, however, when it is just best to keep quiet, as excruciating as that can be. 

 As a parent, you know that no one will love or care for your son or daughter in quite the same way that you do. It's very hard to see kids get hurt or make mistakes, but such experiences add to growth and wisdom.  Your stepping in to spare them all that is not likely to be appreciated.

Adult children need the freedom to love and lose, screw up, and struggle with choices. As a parent, you can be there to offer support and even advice if they ask for it.  But unsolicited advice or what they might see as meddling can drive an emotional wedge between you and your adult child.

When your children were little, you taught them limits: not to interrupt when adults were speaking, to show respect for their elders, to pick up their toys, to hear the word "No" without backtalk or tantrums.

Now that they're grown, you're up against some limits. It can be a delicate balance: to express concern without overstepping into criticism and carping, to care without imposing, to support without smothering, to love and let go.

When Joan asked her, mother to mother, how to handle her doubts about her son's romance, Kim, the seasoned parent of adult children, put it all very succinctly in the locker room that day: "You shut up and pray."


  1. Loved your advice. I hope she was listening. Those last 5 words should be the 11th commandment.
    I enjoy the women who when the nest empties, they see it as an opportunity to maybe explore the interests they shoved aside in order to raise a family. It is their time to grow.
    I have friends like that and they are a delight to be around.
    Arkansas Patti

  2. This is a hard lesson to learn. Great advice, on all fronts. I especially liked the way you framed the retorts.

  3. Thanks so much for your comments, Patti, Rosaria, Sally and Linda! I'm glad it resonated! Yes, I do agree that Kim's comment should be an 11th commandment! I remember how, as a young adult, I used to get so irritated when my mother would try to advise me on fashion and beauty and urge me to get plastic surgery to reduce the size and shape of my nose. It made me want to dress even more haphazardly than I did! I also remember being humiliated when she showed up weeping on my wedding day, saying -- in front of Bob's parents -- that she wished I'd reconsider, that I was too young to get married. I was 32 years old. And it took some marriage counseling, early on, to help Bob and me get over some of the baggage of my parents' disapproval. So I had a visceral reaction to Joan's comments. I tempered my response and said what I might have said to one of my therapy clients. But I was really happy that Kim was there because Joan put much more stock in what she -- another mother -- had to say -- and I thought that her succinct advice was just right!

  4. You are so absolutely right! So many people our age find they cannot develop a life of their own and let their children have theirs. The thing about advice is -- it needs to be asked for!

  5. Absolutely bravo for this write. Yes you must Shut Up and Pray.. Thank goodness that is one thing I have learned in my life with my adult children otherwise I know it would be a whole different life with them than we enjoy now.
    Enjoyed my visit

  6. Its good to find people like you and blogs like this, where people share their personal experience from their encouters with different removalists. If you ask me that means a lot.

  7. Thanks, Broad, Maggie and Man With Van, for your kind comments! I saw Kim -- whose advise "Shut up and pray!" I used in the post -- and told her that her advice was much appreciated. She laughed and said "Well, I think I've developed TMJ from struggling to keep my mouth shut!" It's so hard, but as you all note, so important to let go and to give advice only when asked for it.

  8. What a great post! So true!!
    "Letting your adult children go is one thing. Learning to keep your mouth shut is quite another." I struggle with this every day but know it to be the key to having a good relationship with my girls.
    Thanks for your visit to my blog today. I´m your newest follower.

  9. Thanks, Betty -- and I think I'm your newest Follower! I look forward to many visits to your wonderful blog~ Thanks so much for your kind comments!

  10. Amazing post and wonderful advice. My youngest has a dilemma right now. It is tough to know what is best. Prayer is always the first answer.

    I have found that knowing where the line is on when to say and when not to say can be blurred in too many circumstances. The easy ones are the choice of partners, places to live, and even the debt issues. Of course let them live and learn.

    It is those times when you foresee and know that your adult child is about to make a wrong decision that will not only follow them for a long long time but also be a difficult one to reverse.
    To express your opinion and personal experience could push them into the decision or it may be the thing that saves them great despair, money, or even more. These are the times when I wish the line could be more clear.

    I am close with both of my sons and still struggle with "the line" between shut up and pray or just say!

  11. This really rang true! Great post! I have my oldest son in Los Angeles, my daughter and her family nearby, but who knows when they'll move due to the changing job situation. I have always thought I would like to be close to my kids when I was older, but the reality is that, like your friend Joan, I realize that I am not the center of my kids lives. Shocking right? Because of this, I try to be involved in activities that DH and I enjoy. I know that although my kids love me, they don't necessarily want me around all the time! As for keeping my mouth shut, you are so right! Learned that a long time ago, and it helps with both my kids and stepkids. Thanks for this post!

  12. Oh Kathy! What a timely post for me to read. Betty referred me to your blog, via her's... I too have two grown daughters and three grandsons. Two from the older daughter, and one from the younger one. Both are in the 30's and live in California with their families.

    My husband and I moved to Nevada for a job opportunity almost 6 years ago, with the thought if we did not like it, we could move back.... then the economy hit and the housing market crashed, he lost his job (retired) and we are "stuck" here.

    I know happiness is a choice and after much soul searching realized I take myself with me where ever I go, so I must "bloom where I am planted". My girls were my life, as I was a single mom and then married late in life after they moved out on their own. I am forever grateful we only live 3.5-4 hours away, instead of a plane ride...My daughters and I want to stay close, especially with the grand sons, so as long as we all make the effort, as we have, we will stay close. Both of them have told me to "back off" because offering my "two cents" was interpreted as not having faith in their abilities.

    It is the last thing I wanted to I bite my lip and preoccupy myself until I am asked for my opinion...and it is hard!

    My goal was to raise two independent, self reliant women, who could think on their own two feet,have common sense, decide what they want out of life and then to go get it. When they flew from the nest, they flew high and strong and I am very proud.

    We all make mistakes in finding our way to adulthood and as parents...because very few stop to ask for advice...myself included. I know their intent and what is in their hearts, so I am learning to trust in that...

    I realize now, it is my time to make the most of our life here. I am not getting any younger. I have been fighting it for so long, but know it is time for me to practice what I preach.

    I suppose all children look back on how they were raised and see how they could improve upon how they were raised... and living further away has helped me KNOW, "Shut up and pray" is excellent advice!

    Thank you for your wonderful post! Now I am your newest follower...

  13. Thanks, Donna! I'm glad the post was helpful and that you're now a Follower. I really appreciate that! Thanks to all of those commenting for your great insights and shared experiences!