The most effective parents practice Authoritative and Attached parenting while raising their children [according to social workers, counselors and psychologists]. These types of parents produce secure, happy, well-motivated and successful children more often than do the authoritarian (do as I say); the indulgent (sure, whatever you want) or the neglectful parents. (I am too busy — don’t bother me. I will let you know when/if I am available]
But at some point, every parent must learn to let go of his/her emerging adult child. But what exactly does it mean to let go, to detach without becoming emotionally aloof or removed from their adult child? Let me suggest that attached parents (and specifically mothers) may have the most difficult time detaching because it goes against the vision and mission of being their children’s primary everything — educator, protector, defender, advocate, etc. These parents become accustomed to being the most significant people in their children’s lives and so reality can hit a bit harder when they are no longer needed or the most significant. Attachment parenting serves a great purpose when the children are growing up; it provides necessary safeguards, security, emotional attachment, direction, formation, and stability. Parents invest themselves in their young peoples’ futures as they help them explore career, vocation, education options. But at some point, this personal investment, the protective detail, the advocacy role has to end because the child has become an adult who no longer needs or wants these things.
What happens when parents hold the reins too tightly after their children are ready for adulthood? [The word ready implies the children are capable of acting like adults; this is not the same status as when teens, for example, think or presume they are mature enough to make their own choices maturely.] In some cases, these adult children may have to fire their parents in an adult fashion. When parents continue to hang on too tight or for too long, the relationship will become strained. Over-protective parents can really become quite obnoxious as they dote, hover, intrude and imply that their children are simply incapable of acting like an adult. However, young people need to realize that detaching well is a skill that needs to be learned one step at a time.
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I can readily relate to one mother’s recent social media posting in which she described the tears and emotions as her eighteen-year-old boarded the school bus for the last time in her high school career. Not for one instant do most parents want to slow roll their children into adulthood. So, why do the tears flow as our young adults grow up? Why the hesitance to let go? In my opinion, the tears and the hesitancy point out that we finally realize that our children are really not our own — and have never been — but wish they were. This reality hits with a mighty punch if we suddenly lose a son or daughter to tragedy or illness. It also hits hard as our young adults reach their milestones — graduation, marriage, parenthood, etc. The happy-sad tears remind us what Jesus said to someone: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) This describes the need to have a certain degree of healthy detachment to people, places and things in this earthly existence in order to desire to go to God. And since we do not know the hour when that will occur, we have to be ready. How can we do that if we are still firmly attached?
What’s the effect of refusing to detach on the young adult? The young adult bristles, in some cases moves cross country, or pushes the parents away — emotionally and physically. One young mother told me that she felt she had to move far away from home in order to force her parents to let go. She still has a difficult relationship with the parents because they make her feel disloyal for living where she does and marrying the man she did. They would have preferred it if she had married a local farm boy rather than a city slicker. But it’s not any better for her siblings living back home — they complain to her about the difficulty they have when trying to delicately [or not] extract the parents from their personal business. In fact, several siblings think that her relationship with the parents is best because she lives far away [no matter what, the parents can’t control that situation]. Let me give you another instance. During one cross country flight, I sat next to a lawyer who proceeded to dump his family troubles on me for the next several hours. He had been reading my editing changes to this book and decided that I worked on family matters. His family was being torn asunder because of a number of factors including his refusal to accept his son’s adult decisions with regard to his marriage, his choice of wife, or his career. While I didn’t get to hear his son’s version of the story, it was obvious that this man was still trying to control business no longer his own. His was a really sad story that gave me some things to think about.
On the other hand, some parents are too eager to detach too abruptly and too early. This often leaves the parents emotionally detached from the emerging adults; representing a contradiction of sorts as they push the notion that they are especially glad to finally have time for themselves again. Many adult children have told me that they continue to desire help and connectedness with their parents even after reaching adulthood but this is disrupted when/if the parents are too busy creating a life without kids lifestyle. Yet, these same parents often expect help when encountered unexpected health problems. Selfishness is not an age-related vice — that is for sure.
Neither should parents and young adults try and have it both ways — being at times detached but not really, and being attached but not really. Neither can parents blame emerging adults’ screw-ups on their lack of maturity (even the CDC seems to back this up) while at the same time detaching prematurely and letting the college student figure things out for themselves because they are all grown up! Neither can the young adult claim to be all grown up but expect the parents to pick up their tabs at college and elsewhere. Both generations need to seriously assess this business of detaching and talk about their expectations. If that doesn’t happen, results will probably be haphazard and confusing as we have learned from personal experience. We bought a cabin some time ago, wanting the whole family to share in this one great getaway — often. It had not occurred to us to really gauge our children’s interest level in the family cabin because we assumed they would all be gung ho about it. We learned a lot of lessons from this presumption. First, don’t make any assumptions ever again. Second, our goals with regard to family time are not the same as those of our adult children with children. Our son-in-law reminded us of these differences. While it is also true that certain feelings felt a bit ruffled by his honest assessment, we have all learned a lesson or two from that experience. This is a classic example of how enthusiastic parents can make mistakes unintentionally.
What makes things so difficult?
There are no easy answers or solutions to how to detach well. After all, when does a child even become an adult? If we are confused about when adulthood starts, how do parents know when to begin detaching? Did you know that the CDC defines adolescence by three stages? Early adolescence occurs between ages 11-13; middle adolescence occurs between 14 - 18 and late adolescence occurs between ages 19-24. The CDC also admits that there is no scientific proof of adolescence; ‘neither is there a definite or set age boundary to these stages’. This statement reveals why parents [and even educators] get duped into detaching prematurely or too late. Not one of us is sure of when adulthood starts or looks like. How can the experts group 14-year-olds with 18-year-olds? Are we slow rolling adulthood because of these unclear definitions? Or are we fast rolling adulthood? For example, why do we encourage young adults to live without parental supervision by age 18 [on college campuses]?
On the other hand, why has legislation passed requiring parents to pay their adult children’s health insurance until the age of 26? By that age, my husband and I had graduated from college, bought a house and car, and had our first child. Neither does it help that different states have varying ages of majority; some feel eighteen-year-olds are old enough to be treated as an adult and if the crime is heinous enough perhaps even sixteen-year-olds are treated as adults. Consider the contradictions introduced when we refuse to allow eighteen-year-olds to drink but permit [by law] them to provide their own consent for sexual, drug or alcohol treatments and procedures before that. How do these various messages about adulthood help parents to know when/how to detach? Consider the mixed message involved with allowing our young adults to move back home after college — the new trend among young adults, and we have one of those living here right now. But is it a mixed message when the economic needs are real. Also, our young adults marry at a much later age than we did; their jobs don’t seem to cover nearly the amount of expenses that ours did, and neither does their education produce great paying jobs as ours did. And so large numbers of young people are moving back to their original home compared to a decade ago. The good news is that more than “72% of these young adults say that moving back home has been good or made no difference in the relationship they already had.” Perhaps this alone proves they are a fully-fledged adult - they communicated their situations and desires with their parents.
Yes, our adult children deserve to be treated as an adult at the right time. And parents need not be held hostage to the changing whims of fully-fledged adult children or to the two worst nightmares of parents: mortal danger to the adult child or estrangement from them. These fears effectively immobilize parents from having the discussions they need to have; from doing what they have to do; and from being the parent of adult children they have to become for their sake and that of their adult child.
The following summarizes a few pointers that I would like to leave you with as you ponder these matters.
- Most of you have yet to detach from your own children because of their young ages. For this reason, give some slack to your own parents if/when they aren’t doing that great of a job with detaching. If they are like me, they have probably messed things up while also doing things right. Just talk to them — adult to adult. Don’t make them always bring these matters up.
- When you hear your child exclaim — “See mommy--I can do it all by myself” — think about that statement in the years ahead and what that entails. What will be your response when they say this same thing at age 13, 21, 26?
- Learn to share your children unselfishly with the world — no matter their age. What do I mean by this? I mean, teaching / instilling in your children a healthy sense of who they are so they are prepared to help others and be actively involved in many different lives [not just their immediate families]. Teach them not to fear the future or the unknown. Teach them to be generous with others. Teach them to dream and to plan. Insist on timely maturation for them. Prepare them for life with and without you.
- Parents: do not fear!
- Talk about your feelings and expectations with your young adults. Ask them to share their feelings and expectations also.
- Communicate openly and plainly. Avoid giving mixed messages — ever. Say what you mean and mean what you say; they will learn to do the same.
- Don’t try to buy emerging adult children’s affections — ever.
- Get to know your adult children.
- Pray for your children and grandchildren always and every day.
- Forgive and ask for forgiveness.
- Say please, thank you and I am sorry — readily no matter the age.
- Children are exhorted to “Honor their father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12
- “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4
And yes, the Catholic Catechism has a lot to teach us with regard to building relationships with our children — of any age. The Catechism reminds parents of any age that we are to:
- Model obedience to the will of the Father in heaven.
- Regard our children as gifts from God himself.
- Create a home of tenderness, forgiveness respect, fidelity and selflessness.
- Model self denial, sound judgment and self mastery
- Teach how to subordinate material and instinctual dimensions to interiors and spiritual ones.
- Be our brothers’ keepers.
- Give good example.
- Guide and correct when necessary.
- Give good example for personal, civic, and familial responsibilities.
- Avoid compromising and degrading influences.
- Evangelize and pray for others.
- Bear in mind that while family ties are important ; they are not absolute.
- Respect the call of our children’s vocation and be encourage them on that walk.
Blessings to you and your extended families.
Copyright 2016 Linda Kracht
About the Author
Linda is a wife, mother of seven, and grandmother of 23. Linda is founder of Fortifying Families of Faith, LLC and her books include: Daughters Forever, Sons Forever; The Art of Breastfeeding, published by the Couple to Couple League; Mothers Forever, Fathers Forever; Surviving College; Black and White; and A Book for All Seasons.