A Word For Your Parents (#12 of 12)

12 Lessons on Marriage

I’d like to share a word with my generation - the parents of those adult children who may be struggling.  Being the parent of an adult child is far more challenging (and exciting) than I ever thought it would be.  As the parent of an adult child, you have the same emotional bond as you did when they were a newborn, but you have utterly no power or control. Its a wonderful-horrible situation to which it takes time to adjust.  As the counselor who may be trying to help your adult child in their marriage, let me tell you how you can help and hinder your adult children’s growth process.  

First, I want to be clear that you are no longer responsible for your adult children’s decisions.  More specifically, you are not to blame for their bad behavior and bad decision-making.  You are not responsible for their struggles today.  They’re adults now and only they can be responsible for their choices.  To blame yourself is to take adult power and responsibility from them; to blame yourself is to make them a victim.  Please don’t cry over how you failed them - at least not in front of them; doing so disempowers them, creates insecurity and fosters unhealthy dependency.  If you become aware of mistakes you made, own them, ask for your children’s forgiveness and move forward from it.  It is critical that you release any guilt, shame or indebtedness you feel for those failures and move on; if you can’t, they certainly won’t be able to.  You may have launched them into adult independence with more baggage or less baggage - certain emotional, relational and material deficits or assets - but they are adults now and it is up to them to sort it out.  

Second, know that the family is God’s medium for transmitting His truth and facilitating development; no one had a more significant impact on your child’s relational and emotional development than you did.  When your child is in my office telling me about you, my assumption is that you loved your child as much I loved - and continue to love - my adult daughter.  I assume that you bonded deeply and gave to your children to the best of your ability.  At the same time, I know that you were - and are - a broken, fallen person marred by the curse; as a result, you failed your children in specific and concrete ways.  You have a heart that deceives even you; there are trap doors, fun-house-mirrors and hidden defenses within your heart and mind to which you are blind.  So, it is very likely that some of your adult children’s relational and personal struggles were created on your watch.  You were a contributor - perhaps the most significant contributor - to those relational/emotional issues with which they now struggle.  They’re not struggling because they are an Enneagram 2 or an INTJ or because they made the wrong friends in college or because they were just a victim of some unfortunate circumstance.  If they are consistently struggling with some thematic relational issue, their vulnerability to this issue was likely formed in your home and, more specifically, in the context of their relationship with you. 

Third, as you see your adult children struggling, allow it to provoke reflection on who you are now and who you were then.  Be a student of their thematic struggles.  Not so you can advise them, but so that you can be schooled by them.  Let their struggles be like a flashlight shining into the darkened corners of your heart.  Get in counseling with a therapist who understands parent-child dynamics or attachment theory and ask them to help you figure out how you may have contributed to your adult children’s issues and then change/grow yourself.  Don’t try to rescue your adult children, give them unsolicited advice, tell them what they’ve done wrong or buy them something expensive.  Let them deal with their own consequences while you deal with yourself.  It is the kindest thing you can do for them.  While your ability to to directly guide your adult children is minimal, you are still a powerful person in their world and witnessing your growing humility, change and growth will effect them more profoundly than any bit of help or advice you might offer.

So, if your marriage is difficult, work on it.  If you struggle with anxiety or depression, work on it.  If you drink too much or spend too much or have a secret sexual struggle, work on it.  If you’ve withdrawn from Christ, work on it.  If you have unresolved trauma from your own past, work on it.  Without personal change, your words to your adult children are ineffectual at best, alienating at worst; but your actions - the freshly broken and beautiful way you will learn to interact with them as you grow -  will be disruptive and inviting.   Repent and grow - it will be a far more powerful agent for change than your advice or your money. 

Previous: #11 How Your Past Informs Your Present

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