“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”
― Elizabeth Stone
The mother of a nineteen-year-old sits in my office sobbing and wondering how her Eagle Scout son has ended up with a warrant for his arrest, dealing drugs, and threatening suicide. From the moment we bring a child into the world and bond, we invite the inevitability of suffering that comes with losing that child. Most tragically, illness, accidents, suicide, or horrific events such as what happened in Uvalde, Texas, can take this one we love away from us in the blink of an eye. We can’t protect our children at any age from some of the tragedies, and yet we must try. At the same time, we need to begin the practice of letting go from an early age and trust the daycare center, the school bus, the school, the church, the playground, or a friend’s house will be a safe place for them. We wonder if the fears, concerns, and frustrations we have for our children as they enter the teen and young adult years will ever stop.
We must begin to let go as our young adults begin to invest in friends, hobbies, interests, different values, and beliefs that increase separation and the necessity of letting go. When they move into young adulthood in the late teens and twenties and their freedom increases, so do the risks, starting with driving a car. Exposure to addictive video games, pornography, and experimentation with unprotected sex, alcohol, or illicit drugs disrupt and impinge upon the progress toward the developmental critical asks of identity, independence, and intimacy. As parents, we worry about our young adult children. According to one study, 65% of parents experience pain related to parenting and nearly suffer daily or weekly.
What’s a Parent to Do?
Can one avoid the inevitable suffering that comes from letting go and losing our bond and the dreams we dream for our children?
The short answer is no. Tears are shed when a Magna Cumulate high school graduate leaves for college in another state. Sure, the tears come from a place of pride as much as a place of sadness when we say goodbye under these conditions. When we give birth to our children and invest in their lives, we risk the pain of letting them go even under the best of circumstances. We can reduce the suffering or sorrow in several ways beginning with adopting certain beliefs or assumptions often at the root of our suffering. Whether we admit it or not, our actions often prove that we subscribe to certain irrational beliefs. In the Buddhist tradition, suffering is inevitable and is associated with attachments. Along these same lines, our attachment to certain beliefs, assumptions or expectations are at the root of parental suffering.
- Irrational belief #1 is we continue to believe that we can still control our young adults and their actions. The fact of the matter is at some point during the adolescent years, they can defy our efforts to control them, run away or otherwise leave home or act out in ways we can’t control. When they are eighteen, they can do what they want, refuse to share any part of their lives with us, and shut us out whether living at home or not. Several fathers with whom I have worked have attempted to exert control over their adolescent or young adult and have ended up in physical confrontations with irreparable emotional consequences for both parties. Consequences can work if the young adult is still at home but the most significant leverage, we have is our love and concern for them. One parent said, “the problem with young adults is just that; they are adults.” Lesson one is to give up the need or belief that control is possible.
- Irrational belief #2 is equally important. Give up the belief that I am responsible for their behavior. This comes from a faulty premise that I have done something in the past that is the cause of their current inappropriate behavior, or I must be doing something wrong now. Although we may deny that we believe we are responsible for their behavior, we avoid discussions with friends and extended family when our young adult continues to live in the basement, playing video games, and has no plans for work or education. Or more shameful for us is the situation where there is substance abuse or mental illness. Why won’t we talk about this when other parents share the successes of their young adults because we feel like failures. Lesson two is to stop believing we are responsible for their actions or inaction.
- Irrational belief #3 arises out of the first two, a belief that we need to fix their problem. If we can’t control them and are not responsible for their behavior as adults, why do we still think it’s our responsibility to fix them. I’m describing these faulty beliefs not to beat up parents of young adults; we do a good enough job ourselves. Rather that such beliefs cause unnecessary self-inflicted harm. We must challenge these beliefs whenever they appear in our thinking or actions. Parents, let go of these myths and suffer less.
Letting Go of Expectations
Another practice that can reduce the suffering we experience as parents are to let go of expectations and actions to map out their future. Many parents invest heavily in ensuring their children get into the right schools, take the right subjects, and play the right sports to get to the right college or earn a scholarship eventually. All the planning and programming can be for naught when your child chooses a different path in their young adult years. I’m always amazed when parents who tell their children not to follow the crowd and be their own person are upset when they follow this advice but choose a different direction than the parents desired.
We can’t have it both ways. More and more parents of Millennials and Zoomers continue to invest heavily in an imagined future for their children that does not include their child’s input or influence. We know from neuroscience that there is a much greater firing of neurons when an individual makes a choice or decision than when one is imposed. In addition, efforts to challenge a decision to take a different path by a young adult can inadvertently harden that resistance or strengthen the wiring of the young adult’s thinking. Parents let go of expectations and suffer less.
3 Proactive Measures
Parents can further reduce the suffering of experiences in parenting a young adult by three proactive measures.
- First, parents need to increase self-care and an investment in their lives. Some parents, particularly if they are not working outside the home or don’t have some significant interest, make the young adult their project. To these parents, I say- get a life. In such circumstances, the young adult may rebel and do the opposite of what you want to resist being a project.
- Second, join the young adult in any actions they take that represent positive forward momentum, even if not in line with the dream you have had for them. Lift up these actions, no matter how small, to reinforce their efforts toward greater independence and self-sufficiency. Write out a letter in which you take responsibility and apologize for any past actions, express your love for them no matter what, and share your hopes for their success and happiness in whatever decisions and choices they make.
- Finally, take some time to say goodbye.
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