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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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I have 4 adult children ranging in age from 34-41. The oldest is the only one with children and he definitely wants less of me in his life. When his children were first born I was part of their care taking while his wife worked. I have 3 granddaughters and up to them going into first grade I had each of them individually once and week. Now they are 8, 10 and 12, busy with sports and school so I see them maybe once a month. I’m not upset with that. I’m just happy to have them whenever they let us. We also share taking care of them when my son and his wife vacation. My problem is that my son has drawn very strict lines in the sand and I do adhere to them because if I don’t I would be out. I am having a very hard time not being hurt by his excessive rules. For example, I’m not allowed to have the girls sports schedule so that his father and I can pick which games to see, we have to wait to be invited. We already know we’re not welcome so we would only pick a couple of games per season but our son and his wife apparently fear that we would show up all the time. We live in the same town as they do, 2 miles away from them and that makes them really mad. They didn’t want us to move here but at the time we had the girls 3 days per week and the driving back and forth was a pain for me. We have lived here 5 years now. We have never bumped into them anywhere. We never ever stop by there house as to avoid any problems with them. We walk on eggshells with them. Honestly, we only do it to keep our relationship with our granddaughters intact but it is very draining.


I committed to letting go of big expectations when my boys both got married. I firmly believe we need to let go with love and let adult children be free to make their own decisions and be independent. My oldest son almost divorced twice because his wife has mental health problems. Suddenly they were pregnant! And now that grandchildren were going to enter into the picture I was very excited, even when they moved six hours away. I feel like I have done a great job of just being present when needed even if meant a $400 plane ride and $350 rental car to babysit, planning elaborate vacations when they had little money, buying the two granddaughters all of their clothes, shoes, toys, etc. I never had any issue with any of it until it became apparent that her parents were planning every holiday with my son and his family, excluding us, and that they were pressuring the kids to move back to their rural property to live next door to them, even though that meant my son would have to leave his job. The tipping point was them driving five hours to her parents’ property (40 minutes from our home) last weekend and not telling us, without giving us the option to see the grandchildren. I realized that a strange competition had become an issue with her parents and a possessive, manipulative, unhealthy push and pull was effecting me. Thankfully I am able to process and I was able to let go completely of any expectations yet again. At the same time I will no longer be the on call babysitter and housekeeper, vacation planner, and financial supporter. It’s time they make their own decisions and live with the outcome. And I’m doing it with love and acceptance.

Teresita Abad

Honestly, detachment from my children makes me whole as a mother. It makes me feel liberated and complete even without them. Don’t get me wrong. I love all my children so much. This love and care that I feel for them is the true reason why I let go of them and yet still make them feel that I love them and will always be there for them. I want them to be enough detached from me that I give them chances to live the life they want. Give them that freedom to spread their wings and fly. We are a close family and yet to each his own. It is doable and workable without not loving them.

Mary Lou

It is most difficult to stand by and watch your adult children make huge, costly mistakes. The balance I struggle with is whether or not to give them advice that I know is reasonable or sit back and watch them make a complete mess of things knowing that at some point I will be asked to help them out financially with my limited means. What to do?

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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