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Supporting in Times of Trouble

What’s a parent to do when an adult child behaves badly?

A number of years ago a colleague was called out of a conference.  He returned, his face ashen, and quickly gathered his belongings: his wife had telephoned that their teenage son had been arrested for drug possession.  He was meeting her and a lawyer at the police station. After he left, another colleague, the father of two lovely daughters in their twenties turned and said, “Your kids will disappoint in a major way at least once. But you and they eventually get over it.”

Imagine the disappointment that Kultida Woods, Tiger’s mother, must have felt as she watched her son apologize for his infidelities on national television last month.  Surely she was embarrassed as he talked about how the values she had taught him were thrown in a heap like dirty clothes. 

In all likelihood, none of us will ever have to watch our child apologize for misdeeds before millions of people (A point astutely raised by New York Times columnist David Carr who wrote that while he understood why an apology was part of the recovery process “I just don’t know what the rest of us were doing there.”

We all fervently hope that our children will never implode in such a devastating manner.  But like my colleague warned, most adult children manage to disappoint at least once in a major way (and we will probably do the same to them).  How is a parent supposed to react beyond wringing hands and whining “Where did I go wrong?” 

 Across the world adult children are spending their money (and sometimes yours) telling their therapists exactly how we went wrong as parents.  Are we supposed to offer a mea culpa? Perhaps we didn’t go wrong, our children did and it’s their problem to fix it.  Suggestions on how to encourage adult children to take “ownership” of their problems has spawned a mini-library of books:

Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents

“The Enabler: When Helping Hurts the Ones You Love”

“When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along “

“Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents”

 The message in yet another book, “When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us” from psychologist Jane Adams, is “To parents who are still trying to “fix” their adult children — Stop!” The book’s subtitle aptly sums up her approach: Letting Go of Their Problems, Loving Them Anyway, and Getting on with Our Lives

Easier said then done as for some of us separating from our adult children’s problems is like trying to remove Krazy Glue.   Of course, there are distinctions that need to be made:  The “bad things” done by adult children range from disappointing to difficult to devastating; from immature actions to addictions.  In many of those cases a self-help book is not enough and parents may need their own therapists and/or support group like Alanon to find their way through what seems like impossibly trying times.

Age is another distinction: bad behavior at 20 is different from bad behavior at 35.  For parents the hard question is where’s the line ? When it is no longer your responsibility, where you are taking too much on yourself and promoting the very immaturity/lack of self-reliance that may be part of the problem? That’s a question many parents ask themselves as they search out, sometimes over and over, help for an adult child caught in a quagmire of difficulties.

 After the press conference ended, Kultida Woods remained to talk to wire service reporters who asked her what she told her son as she hugged him.  She said she whispered, “I’m so proud of you. Never think you stand alone. Mom will always be there for you, and I love you.”

Isn’t that the message we all want to give to our children?  While we certainly don’t condone certain behavior we are always there for them, no matter what the circumstance.  That was the message of my colleague to his son, who solved his problems and is now a successful professional,  thanks to his own efforts and to the support of his parents.



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