A Huge Transition

Moving from childhood to young adult years delivers the transition into puberty. That is hard enough for many children and also their parents. But moving from teen years into adulthood requires another major change in parenting that sometimes is even harder. We (parents) go from being the ultimate authority, to trying to manage changes as our children mature physically, then are challenged to see them as adults. As adults our children make their own life decisions. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of rearing children…that they become adults. But what does that mean to us? Let’s talk about parenting adult children.

Loss of Control

adult daughter with parents
Adults to an Adult

Accepting our child as an adult means accepting our loss of control…and sometimes loss of influence. This can be relatively painless if we approve of the choices our child is making. It can be excruciating if some of our child’s choices go against what we assumed they would choose…to be like us! He may choose a career that is different than we planned for him. She may choose to love someone that looks different, acts different, has different values than ours. Or she may choose a challenging academic or professional path that makes any relationship at all difficult.

What if our child’s sexuality is different than what we’d presumed since birth? What if our child begins using drugs? Or drinking too much? Or is in trouble with the law? Who are we to be as a parent then?

Defining a “Good” Parent

For each of these stages or conditions we have to redefine what it means to be a “good” parent. When a child seems to us to be “going astray,” the impulse may take two directions. One is to try harder to exert control…to get her back on your version of the straight and narrow. This might mean lectures, shaming, reasoning or controlling by loss of financial support. It could mean posting bail, paying for legal help or addiction rehab. The other direction for some may look like total rejection…”Do it my way or the highway.” Disowning a child is the extreme rejection practiced by some parents due to their desperate attempt to reel a child back into a path that is more familiar, and therefore more acceptable to them.

A Higher Calling

Loving when it is easy to love comes naturally to most parents. Loving when a child’s choices challenge values we thought we had modeled and assumed would be duplicated by them requires a higher commitment to unconditional love. When producing the Relationship RehabTV episodes last year, I titled one Schools for Personal Growth (#34 can be viewed here.) When we fall in love and marry, and when we bring a child into the world, our expectation is that those two big life events will make us happy. Instead, they sometimes turn into the most vigorous courses for personal growth! Yet as the Course of Miracles says, “To change is to attain a state unlike the one in which you found yourself before.”

What is unconditional love? When modeled after God’s love for us, it means loving no matter what. Loving even when disappointed or frightened by a child’s choices. It does not mean always rescuing an adult child from the consequences of their choices. It does not necessarily mean “saving” an adult child by paying fines for careless driving, or paying off debts that are drowning them, or providing a home rent free. Barbara Stanny in her book, Sacred Success, shares the incredible journey of self-discovery and self-improvement that was launched for her when her wealthy father refused to pay off the enormous debts left to her by a gambling husband.

Conditional love results in ostracism, or as one mother tried, writing letters full of scripture verses with admonitions to “get right with God.” That clear message was “I’ll only keep loving you if you live the way I want you to live…the right way! My way!”

Samples of Unconditional Love

The biggest thing is to state clearly, “I love you no matter what. I will never stop loving you. I may not like some of the choices you are making, but that doesn’t diminish my love for you one little bit.” Then you demonstrate that love by doing your best to maintain connection without lectures, blaming or shaming. It’s too late for lectures! And shaming never produces a good outcome, so drop the shaming. Work through your own discomfort and do whatever you can to provide emotional safety and, when appropriate, supportive actions.

One parent I know occasionally dropped by her estranged son’s home with a homemade casserole and a hug. Another friend is allowing her son the freedom to find his own spiritual path, even though it hurts her to see him abandon the faith of his childhood. One mom and dad accepted their daughter’s lesbian relationship, even learning to love her partner, when that was not the adulthood they imagined for her. Another mom and dad visited their son in prison simply to maintain connection…to express their love, not to berate or shame him.

Love Never Fails

Choosing the higher path of unconditional love doesn’t mean automatic, instant success. What it means is that I am using the challenges of parenting an adult child as motivation to uplevel my own ability to love unconditionally. It means that I release my adult child into God’s care…to follow his or her own path through life, learning lessons that are uniquely his or hers to learn. Unconditional love may mean that I have to choose where I can give support and where it is best for me to not be involved…but it never means that I stop loving…whether or not it is received.

I wish I had a magic formula to share for managing the sometimes tricky transition into a loving relationship with an adult child. The magic of peace and hopefully the healing of any estrangement may only come after years of loving unconditionally. Releasing a child to their own path of learning while never losing their certainty that they are unconditionally loved is a very adult choice for a parent to make.

You have my love and support,

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