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Letting Go as a Mom of Grown Children: Is There Ever a Time When Detachment Is a Healthy Idea?

By Christine Field September 21, 2023 Family

When I think of detachment, I think of a husband unlovingly detached from his wife, or a depressed mother who is detached and uninvolved with her child.

In these contexts, detachment occurs in unhealthy relationships. Indeed, the ‘problem’ in each of these situations is the detachment itself. But are there times when detachment can be a healthy thing?

I initially bristled at this idea. I approach my relationships and pursuits with passion. The ability to invest my energy totally or give my heart fully is such a part of who I am that functioning with detachment was unthinkable.

But there is another way to look at detachment.

The Attachment of Mothers

When I became a mom, I studied the ‘attachment theory’ as I was trying to decide how I would mother my family. While balancing career and motherhood, I wondered if being available, especially to young children, would be of value to them.

The research suggested that there are enormous benefits to the child. I read about a British researcher named John Bowlby who studied maternal deprivation. He looked at how separation from mothers affected children in the 1950s.

Bowlby warned against separating children from their mothers, even less-than-perfect mothers. His reasons were that such deprivation put the children at increased risk for physical and mental illness.

He thought that such separations thwarted the child’s instinctual need to keep mom close by. This was demonstrated by such behaviors as sucking, clinging and following mom.

In a landmark work on the subject, Bowlby outlined his underlying belief that a child needs a reliable, ongoing attachment to a primary caregiver and that she suffers, perhaps irreparably, if that attachment is interrupted or lost.

Bowlby believed that the young child’s hunger for his mother’s love and presence is as great as his hunger for food, and that her absence inevitably generates a powerful sense of loss and anger.

Bowlby was the first in a long line of experts whose research substantiates what mother wisdom has told us all along. Our babies need us. In fact, her emotional attachment to you is crucial to her emotional development. The effect of parental absence on children can be devastating.

It was obvious to me that children need the consistent, available love of their mothers. Without it, they feel unloved and may experience difficulty in intimate relationships for the rest of their lives.

Based on research, as well as the longings of my own heart, I left my career to be a full-time mother to my children.

Too Much Attachment

Having raised four young souls to adulthood, I am now asking if there can be such a thing as being too attached.

Sometimes, this attachment to our children can become problematic. As the child grows and their universe expands, moms can have trouble letting go. With mom remaining too strongly attached, the bond can become unhealthy.

For some of us, that attachment functions almost like an addiction, serving to make us dependent and unhappy. What happens when we are overly attached to our child, and that person rejects us, or becomes estranged from us? We can begin to feel anxious and depressed, frustrated, irritated or angry.

When we feel less than whole without the love of our child, we can feel fearful, jealous, hopeless, and disconnected. So, is there a way to care, yet not care? To love, but be detached in a healthy way? If you have suffered the loss of love or the estrangement of a child, what can we learn from this?

Black and White Thinking

As we process our feelings about our children, we can grow in our thinking as well.

In his book, therapist Ryan Elliott, MSW says, “It’s not an either/or dilemma. This is preoperational thinking – in other words, thinking characterized by children under the age of 7. Black and white thinking, right vs. wrong thinking, either or thinking, once something is one way it can’t be changed kind of thinking, the law is the law type of thinking. Mature thinking is mediated by mercy and understanding.”

The choice is not just to love, or not love. In other words, thinking our only choice is to love or not love is immature thinking. It is not a black or white issue.

As a goal of detaching from an estranged child, we can learn to love, but not have the behavior or estrangement make us crazy. It requires maturity on our part. And maybe some therapy.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you too attached to your grown children? Has that attachment caused problems for you? How does the idea of detaching from your child make you feel? Please share your thoughts below.

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Catherine Vance

Well-written article. Thank you. I am a family law attorney who sees way too much
enmeshment (“Your father left us,” and it gets worse from there. But I want to say that,
for the most part, all kids should go through the “separation and individuation” thing and,
yes, it can feel like a bad thing but it is not. Generally, they will pick apart everything you did as a parent (accusing you of smothering or disinterest; doing this wrong or that wrong).
A friend of mine, when we were comparing my “free range” parenting style compared to his
very short leash style, we realized our boys had the same misadventures, made the same
bad choices, and ultimately turned out reasonable well, and we have reasonably good
relationships with them as young men. My friend concluded: “Parenting is irrelevant.”
I don’t quite believe that as a bright-line rule, but there is a shade of truth in it.


I think there is another rather insidious way of failing to detach from adult children and that is when we become too emotionally dependent on them to help us – for advice, to bounce ideas off, to handle technology. I do this – I am divorced rather alone and know my kids have my best welfare at heart. It gives me excuses to make contact,to get reassurance from them. I am not sure that they didn’t start it with deep concern over my finances – at first I was angry but now have given in and use it. Not healthy.

Evelyn Rogers

I am having this exact issue with my 37 year old daughter. I’m divorced from her father who passed 6 years ago. She and my son-in-law have helped with a lot of things.many times and I’m grateful of course. It seems I can’t give her advice about anything as she reiterates that she is 37 years old and can make her own decisions. I know this but have a difficult time to stop being a mother. She yells at me and it does make me sad and depressed. This happens way too much. I’m upset right now as this just occurred with us over the phone. I live alone and she doesn’t call me regularly either. I could be dead and she wouldn’t know. Thanks for being available to hear me out.


Hi Evelyn! One day, I was trying to tell my son how to live his life and not make the same mistakes as I did and he responded by saying “I learn best when I make my own mistakes!” Well, it is their lives and I think we would be wise to leave them be and learn themselves. One day, they will say “I should have listened to mom!”

Good luck!


In England we call the feeling of losing your adult children abd Grandchildren ’empty nest syndrome ‘. I suffered from it badly when my eldest left hone for 2 years and my lovely Granddaughter leaves to go to university tomorrow and, yes you’ve guest it. The syndrome is back. I often think that had I not been so close and involved, the despair I am going threw now, would not have been so devastating.

Margaret Farmer

Good morning. I am a mom of from a 41 year old daughter down to a 25 year old daughter who is my housemate. I know it is a line between mothering and babying. I work full time, usually 50 hours a week, will be 66 in February. There are daughters in all. Being available for questions for me is still important. As I needed to clarify how to do a cheesecake last night with the 33 year old who was out of parchment paper. I live with my 25 year old, she is in college. I do not meddle in her business, but am available to talk with when she needs me, and visa versa, she is quite wise for your young age. My biggest mistake with both of the youngest is still helping out financially, but I do make limits when it has gone overboard. Not sure how much any of my sharing helps. I am on the quest for living and thriving a long time. Been a widow since 2000. Now, I am going to get ready for a short day at work. Blessings to all.

The Author

Christine Field is an author, attorney, speaker, listener and life coach. She has four grown kids, mostly adopted, mostly homeschooled. She provides MomSolved© resources and reassurances to moms facing common and uncommon family life challenges. Christine helps moms rediscover their mojo for wholehearted living after parenting. Visit her website here

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