Perhaps the most repeated phrase by parents of young adults after “why do they act that way?” is “where did we go wrong?” As a young adult, I heard these phrases from my parents in verbal and nonverbal ways. When I arrived home from graduate school sporting a poor representation of a beard (the best I could do at 21) my mother was frightened and said she had terrible dreams. My father took the nonverbal approach and refused to talk to me. My belief is that my father was reacting to what he saw as “hippie” behavior by using a tactic from his Amish heritage called shunning.
“Mom, could you ask dad to pass the butter” was how I needed to communicate at the dinner table. At one time or another, most young adults disappoint, frustrate, and create worry and concern for their parents. I can say this doesn’t go away as my mother, in her nineties, recently lamented “where have I gone wrong” to describe how far from her religious beliefs I have fallen. Such statements are rooted in false assumptions.
False Assumptions Cause Much Pain and Suffering for Parents
Parents struggle with how to respond when our young adult’s attitudes, actions, values, or beliefs conspicuously contradict ours. Our level of reaction to such differences is often rooted in two false assumptions:
- First is the belief that the parent can still control the young adult. Such a view will lead us to try to convince, cajole, threaten, attack, bribe, or otherwise get our kids to come around to our thinking. We somehow believe that we just need to find the right approach to get them to return to the straight and narrow path of our beliefs.
- Second, we feel we are somehow responsible for their departure from our ways. This is the source of the saying – “where have we gone wrong?”
In both cases, we’re denying their separateness and independence of thought and action. When they were about to do something dangerous as a toddler, we were responsible for intervening and changing their behavior, and there are societal norms that expect this. However, this same expectation doesn’t apply at the young adult stage. Another variant of the need to control is the need today’s parents have for their children to succeed. Although desiring your children’s success is not new, today’s parents often tie their feelings of self-worth and effectiveness as a parent to this need. These two beliefs and the need for young adults to succeed contribute to the parent’s difficulties in letting go and ultimately to the failure to launch. What can parents do if they aren’t responsible and can’t control their young adult children?
What can Parents do?
- Stop believing you can control and are responsible for your young adult’s behavior, values, or beliefs. Letting go starts here. It’s hard, but much suffering by parents can be linked to these two faulty beliefs and the need for young adults to succeed.
- Start with love, not judgment. Everything I write about related to parents and young adults is rooted in the importance of letting go in love. Expressing unconditional love despite the differences or behavior of the young adult is foundational. Our kids need to know they are loved no matter what- even if they don’t agree, even if they don’t succeed. Being in a relationship with your young adult is more important than being right. Love overcomes differences and is essential to sustaining the relationship.
- First, seek to understand before trying to be understood. This comes from St. Francis of Assisi, popularized by Stephen Covey in his book, Seven Habits of Successful People. This requires a reversal of our traditional roles of teaching and directing. What if the next time a subject came up that was controversial, you entered into a discussion on this by saying -“Let me just try to understand what you are saying” or “help me understand your point of view.”
- Although we can’t control and are not responsible for our young adult’s behavior, we should be open to influence. This cuts both ways. Open to their influence of our thinking as well as our influence of theirs. In the latter case, it’s important to couch our views within a qualification that we can’t control and aren’t responsible for their decisions. It’s good to use a “sandwich” approach to acknowledge our position of powerlessness over their opinions and actions, followed by our suggestions and ideas. Then finish off with a reiteration of our powerlessness and our commitment to not be mad if they don’t follow our advice. Here’s an example:
Parent begins the conversation: “John, I know that you have to make your own decision and I am not responsible for you anymore, but I would like to offer you some ideas or suggestions as you consider moving in with your girlfriend.” Can we talk about your decision to move in with your girlfriend?”
Parent offers suggestions: “It would be good to think through the pros and cons of this before moving ahead. It appears from the research, and you can check this out, that living together before marriage doesn’t reduce the rate of divorce. Once living together, if you do dissolve the relationship, moving out could be very complicated- hurt and rejection, ownership issues, rent, and other shared financial obligations. You may want to Google- moving in with a significant other- or check with friends as to how this has worked before making a final decision.”
Parent reiterates it’s up to them: “Well, it’s your decision, and I will honor this and not be mad at you if you don’t choose to follow my advice in considering or making this decision.”
Welcome Differences as Opportunities to Understand, Share, Love, and Let Go.
For more help with letting go, order the book Love to Let Go; Loving Our Kids Into Adulthood.