A mother is helping her son with lawyer fees. The relationship with his girlfriend ended shortly after they had sex, and she did not tell him of her pregnancy for over a year after their son was born. This new father filed for custody because the mother was a drug addict and unable to take care of the boy. What ensued was a protracted legal battle with accompanying costs, and this father had to ask for financial help from his mother. How old do you think the mother and her son were? Read on to learn more about this challenging situation and the outcome.
This mother was ninety-five years old at the time, and her son was fifty-nine. My guess is you thought that the son was likely a young adult, maybe in his twenties, and the mother was possibly in her fifties or sixties. The son did eventually win custody of the young boy. The story raises the question: Do we ever really let go of our love and care for our children when they are in need, no matter what the age. If we are honest, the short answer is “no.” It’s wired into us even if we try to deny it or cut off our contact with an adult child. Deep inside, we love no matter what. So how can we continue to show love and concern but not extend these in ways that undermine our young adult’s journey of independence?
Letting go is more than ushering a young adult out of the home and wishing them well. Here are some of the ways we need to let go throughout our relationship with them as adults. Letting go begins with supporting and requiring their assumption of responsibility for their physical, social, and financial needs. Living at home is not the litmus test of responsible independence. Many young people live at home and demonstrate independence by working, contributing to the household, and maintaining a positive relationship with parents.
We Need to Let Go Emotionally
But letting go must extend beyond the physical, social and financial needs of the young adult. Parents need to emancipate their young adults emotionally. By this, I mean that parents need to resolve emotions that keep the parent, and ultimately, the young adult fused to the parent. Examples of these emotions that keep us stuck in the letting go process may include guilt, hurt, resentment, anger, frustration, shame, sadness, grief. When these exist, and we don’t do the homework necessary to resolve these, our actions toward and relationship with the young adult will suffer. For example, if we feel guilty because we did or didn’t do something when they were growing up, and we have not apologized and forgiven ourselves, we will be tempted to give in to requests and provide support beyond what is helpful. Not because it helps them, but because it makes us feel better. In such cases, parents give money or valuable gifts or services that undermine the young adult’s responsible independence.
We Need to Let Go of our Version of Success
Another “letting go” practice that parents need to undertake is the control and responsibility for the young adult’s success or the parent’s version of their success. All parents have expectations and visions about what their young adult will become. As they enter high school and begin to make plans, we may feel compelled to steer them in a direction that “we” think they should go, rather than a path they choose. A father and mother I know saved for college with expectations that their son, a good student, would attend the father’s alma mater in another state. For reasons including a local girlfriend, the son decided to stay at home and attend a community college. The parents had to adjust their vision of the path their son was on. This phenomenon of young adults taking “stutter steps” in their journey to try out different options is becoming more common. Taking a “skip year,” where the young adult takes time off from college or specific educational plans, was not a concept that existed twenty years ago. Such a deviation from a traditional young adult path would have been viewed with grave concern in the past.
Young Adulthood is a time of Experimentation and Exploration
Today’s young adults are taking advantage of a greater acceptance for using this stage of life to explore and experiment before settling into traditional roles. This new stage of exploration and experimentation is not a bad thing. It is better to find out who you are and what’s important in life before making significant commitments. One case in point is that the age of first marriages today for men is twenty-nine, and for women, it’s twenty-seven. Later marriages are helping lower our divorce rate. Through recent research, we know that the development of the executive function in the brain, the source of rational and logical thinking, doesn’t fully take place until the mid-twenties. This may explain why some of us may have married too early and then divorced- we didn’t have a full brain.
So, What can we do to Let Go?
Take a deep breath, have patience, give them some slack, and express a belief in their capacity to be successful. Weigh our decisions and actions by asking two questions. First, are my decisions and actions motivated by love or fear, guilt, and a need to control? Second, are my decisions and actions likely to promote responsible independence or dependence? We’re both on a journey, which is new for many of us with first time young adults. As parents, we must pursue our task of letting go while supporting their journey toward responsible, emotional independence.