Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Parents and Adult Children: Clashing Expectations

Carol smiled faintly when I encountered her at the supermarket the other day and then sighed as we sorted through the late season peaches on display.

"I hear distress," I said quietly.

She sighed again. "I just feel so disappointed about my son. We pulled up roots and moved all the way here to be close to him and we never see him and his wife. Well, maybe once a month we'll have dinner. This isn't what I envisioned. We gave up friends and familiar places to move here and...well, you'd just think..."

"Did your son ask you to move here?"

She smiled ruefully. "No," she said. "It was our decision...well, really mine. I guess I had this fantasy of being close again. But he and his wife have their own life and that doesn't include us very often. I'd like to be part of that life -- to see the grandchildren for fun, not just babysitting them while they're sleeping. I wish we were included in some of the birthday parties and celebrations. I don't want to be a pain in the neck. I just would like to see them more. Moving here, I expected that we would..."

Listening to accounts from other parents of grown children and from adult children themselves, it's evident that there are many different clashing expectations causing disappointment and disagreements between the generations.

There are many parents like Carol whose adult children are doing well in life but who are just not as engaged with their parents as the parents might like.

And there are parents who listen in dismay as adult children express disappointment in them.

There are adult children who expect to be rescued financially, over and over again. There are adult children who expect their parents to babysit on demand, putting their own preferences and plans on hold. There are some who expect that their parents will enshrine their past, staying in the family home and keeping their high school/childhood treasures -- even their childhood rooms -- safe, untouched and awaiting visits.

And there are some adult children who are disappointed that their active Baby Boomer parents are so unlike the grandparents that they themselves had when growing up.

"It's a whole different thing with these Boomer grandparents," one young mother of a a toddler told me recently. "They're so busy doing their thing that they're not your typical grandparents. My grandma and my Nana both baked cookies and read me stories and couldn't get enough time with me. I feel I have to make an appointment with my Mom for her to spend time with Emma. She just doesn't seem into being an traditional Grandma. "

The distress that both generations can feel over expectations continually unmet or experienced as unreasonable demands can put an emotional wedge between parent and adult child that can cause pain that persists long past the conflicted relationships.

My friend Susan, who recently joined a support group for cardiac surgery patients, called me the other day to tell me about a woman in the group who talked continually about how much her parents had disappointed her throughout her life.  The woman, she told me, is 84 years old and her parents have been gone for many years. Only the sting of unmet expectations survives.

One elderly and ailing man contacted his lawyer recently to see about disinheriting his three children. The lawyer inquired about their transgressions. "They're all too busy living their own lives to be part of this family anymore," he said. "Yes, they call and come over once a week or so. They show up for major holidays. But they're all living away from home and getting into relationships that take up so much of their time and it's not at all what I had hoped when they were growing up..."

The lawyer looked at his distressed client and then closed the file. "I want you to think about this more," he said. "And I want you to consider that all of our children disappoint us in some ways. And we disappoint them, too. I imagine that your children might be disappointed that you aren't more supportive of them building lives of their own or getting involved in love relationships. It goes both ways."

What can you do if you find yourself disappointed in an adult child -- or your son or daughter is expressing disappointment in you?

Do a reality check. How reasonable -- or not -- are the expectations that you harbor? Or that they have of you?

 "I think both sides here are being a little unreasonable," Carol told me when we sat down for coffee after grocery shopping. "My son is treating us like unpaid, on-demand babysitters and I'm expecting that we'll be part of every family celebration they have, forgetting that some things they like to keep within their immediate little nuclear family. I guess that my own expectations are the only ones I can truly change. I can choose to take a step back, even though a part of me really doesn't want to do that. I think it would help the relationship with my son and daughter-in-law."

Another close friend recently ended a long unhappy marriage, a decision that sent their 37-year-old daughter into a paroxysm of anger, grief and disappointment that "my parents didn't try harder to keep things together, especially now that  I have two little ones who loved visiting their grandparents at the home where I grew up. All of that is changing now. And I think it's all just really selfish and unnecessary."

Her father disagrees. "My ex-wife and I tried very hard to be the best parents we could be," he said. "We stayed together many years after the marriage was emotionally over to see our son and daughter securely into adulthood. Now both of us are ready to have a last chance at happiness, whatever form that takes as we venture out on our own.  There aren't other people involved. We still love and want to spend time with the kids and grandkids. We just don't want to live together any more. I don't think that's unreasonable. At the same time, I'm not saying this split isn't painful for us and our family. But it's pain we need to work through together."                                                                  

When possible, work toward compromise.  You might express your desire to see your grandchild conscious, not just when sleeping or to participate in an occasional family celebration while respecting the need of your adult child's family to have time alone together.

It doesn't have to be an emotional confrontation -- just a simple request: "I'm happy to babysit the grandkids whenever we can arrange to do that, but I'd also like to see them awake and enjoy a get-together with them on a regular basis. How can we do that without interfering with their schedule and yours?"

This shows respect for their needs while setting boundaries for you -- sending the message that you may not always be available to babysit.

And changes that have your adult children already mourning a piece of their past are often a bit less painful if the kids have some voice in the matter.

If you're looking to move on and move out of a long-time home, compromise may mean giving your adult children the option of claiming their childhood treasures before you pitch them. "My mother threw away all my yearbooks, prom pictures and other treasures of my growing up years when my parents moved to their dream home after my brother and I finished college," my friend Pat told me, without rancor, not long ago. "I'm not a collector nor am I especially sentimental about high school. Still, it would have been nice to have had the option of being asked if I would like to have them. I have to admit I was a little disappointed when Mom informed me that these all went into the trash."

With a late life divorce, while the decision to split is very much your own, working out details involving children and grandchildren together may ease tensions with adult children who feel blindsided and aghast at the demise of a long marriage. "Our grandchildren, who are too young to understand what divorce is, seem to be doing well and are having more grandparent time because my ex-wife and I often see them separately as well as together at family celebrations," my friend told me recently. "And our daughter is starting to relax and to realize that we're still her parents and still her children's grandparents. That love never changes."

Begin to let go of your guilt and your hurt. Whether you are an adult child or the parent of an adult child, moving on with your life is not a betrayal of those you love nor is your child's independence or different lifestyle or clashing concepts of what it means to be family a betrayal of you. We all do the best we can at the time, whether we're trying to balance the needs of a young, growing family with the needs of aging parents or whether we're aging parents feeling the pain of angry accusations of not doing enough or facing a sense of exclusion from a busy adult child's life.

Friends and co-workers often bend my sister Tai's ear with their complaints about parents who weren't -- or aren't -- loving enough or young adult children who are unexpectedly challenging -- knowing that Tai grew up in a family plagued with alcoholism and abuse. But she tends to have little patience with those who get mired down by family of origin pain and disappointments. "I guess I tend to be blunt," she told me recently. "I usually say something like 'Put on your big girl pants and move on down the road. Grow up. Get over it. We all did the best we could at the time. Parents usually do the best they can for their children, even if it feels woefully inadequate.'"

Coming to terms with unmet expectations is not a matter of saying that certain actions or expectations weren't hurtful.

It's a matter of learning to live with the pain that is inevitable when loving but fallible people share their lives.

It's a matter of giving yourself a chance to let go of the pain, often little by little, and get on with your life and grow in new ways, finding wisdom and insights in both painful and rewarding life experiences.

Sometimes this growth through pain means doing what you consider to be the right thing, whether or not you feel your adult children (or your parents) deserve it. This can mean keeping in touch, even from a healthy distance. It can mean expressing love, even though you might not like your parent or your child at that moment.

There is no instant cure for the pain of clashing expectations between parents and their adult children. But there is a way to start the healing process. Instead of yearning for what could be or what might have been, take those first tentative steps toward making peace with what is.


  1. What a wonderfully cogent, insightful and kindly post! As a grampa and father --our offspring are in their 30s and 40s-- I have learned exactly what kind of idiot I am, which is a privilege. My wife and I have learned so much from these experiences that we cherish workable compromises as we value understanding and forgiveness --all mechanisms for repairing the future when it needs it. Future looks good.

  2. this really hit home for me today and my hubby and I are already discussing ways to do things we have to get the kids on board, hehe.

  3. So much wisdom in this post!
    There should be a whole book on this topic.

  4. We raised our children to be independent, and now they are! Wish I saw them more often, but they're grownups now.

  5. Hi, I wrote a long comment and promptly lost it.. Duh!!!! Anyhow---I sometimes think that there can be more friction between parents and adult children than at any other times in those childrens' and parents' lives... Some parents expect too much from their kids and grands--and some kids expect too much from their parents... OR reverse that!!!! Some parents expect too little from their kids --and some kids expect too much from their parents. OR--maybe the parents just don't know what to do with their own lives after their entire priority had been raising the kids... They have to fill that void --and don't really know how. OR--maybe the adult kids never leave home, and sponge off of their parents rather than making a life for themselves... There are just so many things which CAN happen... Kathy, maybe you should write a book about this... I'm not sure that anyone has dealt with this 'hard' subject... I may piggyback on this blog post (again) --and blog about this since it has affected me and my life tremendously.

    My situation is that after raising my three sons and after being a work-a-holic all of my adult life, I finally found a life for ME. Everything changed --and my kids and grandchildren didn't understand what had happened to their mother/grandmother. There has been a lot of friction between us. My life went on --and I was extremely happy ---yet my children/grands thought that I had abandoned them. It hasn't been easy --but it is what it is... I now have a great relationship with my sons, but it has taken some hard work from all of us....


  6. Goodness you tackled a pile of problems in this post I don't have children, after reading this I think I may be lucky. I know my siblings always seem to be in the middle of some drama or another. Like you stated so well, compromise but mostly communication--not nagging or whining seems to be the key. Great post.

  7. Good advice. We considered moving to where our daughter and grandchildren live, fortunately we took our time and decided that it isn't a good move. There's no guarantee that children will stay in one place, and most retirees can't afford to follow them around the globe year after year. The grandchildren come to us in the summer. We fly to see them several times a year. It's not perfect, but we have a close relationship with our grands.

  8. Dear Kathy, I wrote a long comment and then hit the wrong key and lost it. Basically I just wanted to say that as a single woman I had expectations in moving back home after 51 years and I've come to realize how unrealistic these expectations were. So now I'm trying to live in the present as I know it, not as I wish it to be. And that brings peace. Peace.

  9. Well stated, Kathy. So far, so good on our end. But I suspect that as time goes by, things can evolve and this is one that I want to keep at hand as an easy reminder!

  10. Much wisdom here, Kathy. Our two children live within a few hours drive of us which works really well. Far enough away not to be in each other's pockets, but close enough to have regular, if not always frequent, contact. It works for us all.

    1. Well put…we should not be in each others' pockets. I have seen that happen with families and it makes everyone unhappy. Distance can be a good thing.

  11. So, so wise. It is a good thing to ask ourselves how we disappoint, instead of just focusing on how they might be disappointing us. We're blessed in that my parents live a pasture away from us and we all eat together at least twice a week, but you can never be too assuming.

  12. Excellent advice. I wish my older brother who is currently estranged from our dad could read it and take your advice to heart.