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Emotional Adulthood

 You’re only as happy as your least happy child.

What happens when you—the parent—are the cause of that unhappiness, at least in the mind of your adult child?

After class last week I listened as two young women, both in their mid-20s, complained about their mothers.  One recounted how she was trying to be “nice and respectful” by calling mother before she got a tattoo: just a simple scroll design on her foot; nothing crazy. But the call backfired; her mother went crazy.   “My mother kept saying ‘You came out of my body beautiful and now you want to mutilate yourself.  Get one when I am dead if you must.’ The she started crying.” The young woman decided not to get the tattoo; it wasn’t worth all the drama.

The other young woman, shaking her head, added her own overbearing-mother vignette. “My mother is very religious.  I was dating a guy of a different religion.  My mother’s response: ‘Get rid of him. It’s not acceptable.’”  The couple recently broke up because of religious differences.

What happens when parents refuse to step back and let adult children make their own decisions?  We prevent them from reaching “emotional” adulthood, the point at which they make–and live with–their own choices, good and bad. Both parent and child often share in the blame.  The parents refuse to let go emotionally and the child craves approval, afraid to make a decision that might displease.  How can we break this cycle?

Mothering21 interviewed Linda Lewis Griffith, a marriage and family therapist with a practice with many young adults in San Luis Obispo, Ca. 

Q: What is emotional adulthood?

The ability to be an adult and make your own decisions, not relying on mom and dad for support.  Just as young adults need to break away and be financially independent they need to learn to become emotionally independent.

Q. What are the signs that your child has not reached emotional adulthood?

Petulant, teenage-like behavior, arguing, saying “don’t tell me what to do” and general ongoing tension with parents.

Q. How can parents offer advice without sending the message that the child must follow it?

It’s all in the way parents present the advice. Perhaps say “I’d like to share my observation or concern with you” instead of saying “This is what I think you should do.”

Q. Sometimes parents find it hard not to step in and take charge, in effect, rescuing  a child from a bad decision.

If your children are grown and out of the house, respect them as adults and stop being an overbearing parent.  If you have a serious concern gently say what’s on your mind and then step back. Watch from the sidelines as adult children take their own turns at bat. Think of yourself too: You don’t need the stress of their everyday problems and dramas so stay out of them.

Q. Can you offer some tips to help children—and their parents—grow emotionally?

  • Respect and honor your children and trust them to make good decisions.  They won’t always but let them learn from their mistakes.
  • Remind them that you love and support them.
  • Steer away from contentious topics and honor the decision of your child not to discuss those hot-button topics. Exert some self control.
  • Focus on their strengths. As parents we tend to harp on problem areas. Talk about what they do well,  not what they need to do better.
  • Find fun activities. Go to a spa with your daughter or a sports event with your son (or vice versa). You’ll strengthen the relationship and if you’re fun to be with, they’ll want to be with you more often.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dori April 26, 2010, 4:30 pm

    Thank you for this article. Being a mother of three adult children in their twenties I have been trying to step back for years. Most of the time I have been successful but still struggle with thoughts like, “will they think I don’t care ? ” or “should I wait until they ask for my advice?” I do a lot of lip biting and close that imaginary zipper on my mouth… good training for when (if) they ever marry and have kids! I do always try to remind myself that I am not perfect and I am trying my best!

  • Deb Moran May 17, 2013, 8:54 pm

    I could see how the Mothers were over bearing, but your blog points out the young adults role, which was needing their parents approval. You reminded me of how we all seek approval from others, Not just parents. Interesting blog. Thanks..

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