We’ve all experienced that cliché with our adult children. Their problems—life, love, work, emotional, economic—become our problems and, as recovering helicopter parents, we too often rush in with the magic solution.
But suppose our help is actually harming them. Maybe adult children need to live on a budget without parents bailing them out. Maybe they need to stop giving us excuses why they can’t get a job. Maybe we should stop commiserating so much. Suppose “Step Away from Your Child” is the best way to actually help. Perhaps we need to redefine exactly what we mean by “help” and in the process think a little bit more about our needs, not theirs.
That’s the blunt message from psychotherapist Linda Herman who has spent almost two decades offering counsel to parents who are trying to figure out exactly what it means to parent adult children in the 21st century: How much is too much?
Ms. Herman has taken her experience and turned it into a wise book, “Parents to the End.” Using a combination of case studies, research and personal experience, Ms. Herman provides a no-nonsense, tough love guide for parents struggling with adult children who seemingly won’t grow up. She urges Baby Boomers to consider their own needs with a “Bill of Rights for Parents of Adult Children.” The mother of two adult sons, Ms. Herman spoke to us last week from her home in a Seattle suburb.
Q. Over the course our children’s lives, you write, we need to make the transition through the “three Cs of parenting,” from choreographers to coaches on sidelines to consultants referred to for expert advice. Instead it seems like many Baby Boomers have adopted the role of concierge, and at a luxury hotel! Why is that?
A. As a result of our helicopter parenting, some adult children need more hand holding and are not self starters. Parents have the expectations for them, not just of material success, but also happiness and self fulfillment so they try to help their children achieve those goals and avoid the pain of hard times. Because Baby Boomer had more than previous generations, they felt could do more for their children. We don’t want them to struggle.
Q. Why is it that some adult children are not self starters, and need constant prodding?
A. I worked as a school psychologist and saw the self-esteem movement first hand. Yet research has found that praising people may boost self esteem but it also sometimes erodes motivation, and that’s what we are seeing now. That dependency may also have as much to do with the signals we are sending as parents as with a lack of work ethic.
Q. Many parents get caught in a cycle of doing more and then when it doesn’t get the intended result, feel used and taken for granted. Still it’s very hard to land the helicopter. How do you advise parents do that?
A. The first step is taking a look at one’s self and figuring out how much of what you are doing is for your own sake rather than the child’s. It’s hard to stop that level of parenting and sometimes that means grieving that the time has come to let go and to start backing off. I also suggest that parents ask themselves, “Is what I am doing working to help my child?” If it’s not, then it’s time to rethink the relationship.
Q. We’ve all heard children, especially teenagers, claim they have “rights.” Your book cleverly turns this around and you’ve come of with “The Bill of Rights for Parents of Adult Children.” Is there one right that summarizes the list?
A. If I had to pick one I think the “Right to Peace of Mind” is my message. Peace of mind means claiming your peace; giving yourself permission to enjoy yourself. That means giving yourself permission to enjoy yourself at your job, have fun with your friends, and so on. When you refuse to worry 24 hours a day about your adult child then you are claiming your peace.
Q. Sometimes our adult children criticize our lifestyles, how we spend our money, how we spend our time and so on. You acknowledge this with “The Right to be Imperfect.” Why do they to feel so free to criticize?
A. We’ve encouraged openness with our children and we often seek our kids’ approval, much more so than our parents did. Parents tell me that they feel closer to their kids than they did to their own parents; it’s much more open culture. Yet that doesn’t mean we can be a dumping ground. We can put limits on what they say to us by setting boundaries and calling a halt to criticism. Sometimes when an adult child suddenly becomes more critical it’s a tip off that they feel too emotionally dependent and are trying to do a dance of differentiation, to separate themselves. That’s how they do it, by being very critical. But again we should not allow that.
Q. It’s easy to feel guilt about things we did –or didn’t do–raising our children. You recognize that in the “The Right to be Free from Guilt.”
A. Guilt is an occupational hazard for parents. When our children were growing up there was an influx of parenting books that we read and became determined to be perfect parents. Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes parents are rejected by adult children and they don’t even know what they did wrong. If you really feel you’ve done something wrong that your child is still holding against you, try to make amends. It is your right not to live with a burden of guilt.
Q. Your book title, “Parents to the End,” acknowledges that parenting never ends but the exact nature of that role is something we struggle with.
A. You will always be your child’s parent and have a role in his life but determining that role can be difficult especially with young adults who are not ready or not choosing to assume responsibility for their lives. My message is that parents need to acknowledge that this is new time in their own lives. The relationship with our children can be great but it helps if we do more listening than talking. Listen to them talk about their lives and their goals for themselves. Those goals may not be what we had for them; not everyone wants to be the CEO. A tremendous gift we can give as parents is to accept them for they are. If they can sense that then the more receptive and open they will be to us.