It is universally agreed that parents possess an elemental instinct to protect their children. Even before the moment of birth, and thereafter throughout their lives, children animate this instinct, which over time settles so profoundly in parents that it unconsciously becomes a default response long after children have entered adulthood.
As young children reach maturity and assume greater personal responsibility, active parental protection naturally wanes, as it should. To be sure, finding equilibrium in the parental protective instinct is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship with your adult children.
We would all concur that the suffocating (hovering) attention of a “mother hen” is detrimental to a child’s development and has the effect of establishing a relationship of harmful psychological dependency.
When parents do everything for their children, regardless of the fact that the children are quite capable of independent agency, children have little opportunity to test their limits and build self-confidence.
It is important to intentionally determine when parental assistance is truly needed and when it has become habitual. A friend once joked, “I spent 20 years telling my son what to do and the next 20 learning how to not tell him what to do!”
As parents, we would love to jumpstart our children’s learning by being able to directly transmit our greatest insights to them so they don’t make the same mistakes we did, but as wisdom would have it, some life lessons need to be viscerally experienced to be truly integrated as deep knowing.
On the other extreme, while children are still growing mentally, emotionally, and physically, it would be a form of neglect to leave them entirely on their own to figure out the complexities of life. After all, a manual of operating instructions was not provided to any of us!
Where does parents’ desire to protect their adult children find a healthy balance? How you respond to these two questions will shed some light on the answer.
As a hypothetical, let’s suppose that your daughter is having difficulty in her marriage. When she confides in you (assuming you’re one of her parents), you react by giving a barrage of gratuitous advice and your opinion on how to fix it.
While she’s struggling to decide whether to divorce or stay in the relationship, in this scenario she’s also sensing your stress at the possibility of a breakup in the family. Being hyper-attuned to your reactions, her problem has become weightier because now she feels the need as a daughter to alleviate your apprehension as well, which is one reason adult children often don’t open up about their troubles: they want to spare their parents worry.
On the contrary, if you can remain calm and learn to be an effective active listener – joining the conversation with a desire to understand how she’s feeling and putting yourself in her shoes in order to relate empathically – you will be providing a place of refuge where she can sort though her emotions candidly in an atmosphere of love.
No judgment, simply listening and asking questions that rephrase what she’s said for clarification or inquiring how she feels about what she’s conveyed.
Another hypothetical. Your son is very good at what he does and is succeeding financially, but he’s overworked and unhappy. In exasperation, he conceives the idea that becoming an artist (with no art background) and living off the grid in a remote area (with no previous experience of what that might mean) will change his life for the better.
Making such a move could bring with it a number of significant changes, potentially expansive or depressing: good fortune or impoverishment, the uncovering of a hidden talent or failure, new-found courage or loss of self-respect, peace of mind or loneliness. He’s increasingly adamant about actualizing his plan notwithstanding the acknowledged risks.
Again, with active listening. When he expresses his current frustrations, you might ask if he’s thought about taking a respite – is he suffering from burnout? Has he considered taking a leave of absence for a trial run with his new idea? Has he entertained enrolling in art classes to test the waters?
What you would do in his situation is irrelevant unless he asks your opinion. Your help in exploring possibilities will be beneficial only if you are not pushing your own agenda. The final decision will be his – you respect his right to self-determination – as will its denouement.
Though you may have doubts about the direction his life is taking or quietly be cheering his departure from a profession that never suited him, you cannot direct or control his choices, but you can offer your love, a listening ear, and your wisdom in trusting the perennial value of lived experience.
Finally, maintaining a place of balance in your own life that puts your adult children at ease will be a source of comfort for them. Being that haven of good sense, compassion, and emotional support that all families need creates an atmosphere of security and reinforces the understanding that they can share their lives with you willingly and freely.
Which type of parent are you – the overbearing or the empathetic? Is it easy or difficult for you to hold your advice and just listen? Has there been a situation where you really wanted to provide advice but thought better of it? Are there life lessons you would have rather saved your children from?
Tags Adult Children