There was a time in my life when I nodded in agreement, but I’ve come to cringe when I hear these responses now. Why? Because it places the burden on the wrong person. Because it puts pressure on the kid/teen/young adult to have to appear to be happy to protect the parent.
Who is responsible for my sense of well-being? Not my spouse. Not my co-workers. Not my manager. And certainly not my child. I am responsible for my own happiness.
Granted, parents never stop parenting. According to a study[i] led by Karen Fingerman, A UT Human Development and Family Sciences faculty member, “Parents tend to view their offspring as extensions of themselves, even after their children are grown.”
So, how do we manage our concerns and anxieties about our children be they young or already grown?
Recently, I have been reading a book titled The Five Invitations: Discovering what death can teach us about living fully. The second of the five invitations is “welcome everything, push away nothing”. Author Frank Ostaseksi writes, “With welcoming comes the ability to meet and work with both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. Gradually, with practice, we discover that our well-being is not solely dependent on what’s happening in our external reality; it comes from within.”
What keeps us from welcoming everything? According to Ostaseski, “most of us have been taught that getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t is the way to assure our happiness.”
If we can accept that suffering is part of life…if we can learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, we are able to not only tolerate discomfort and pain for ourselves and our offspring, but we can be freed up to discover and explore options. As parents, we can loosen our grip by letting go of orchestrating “pleasant” circumstances for our children, and instead find ways to create space for them to become their best selves. We can open ourselves to the possibility of opportunity and growth.
This comes from a place of fearlessness…a place of courage[ii].
What happens when we don’t own our own happiness? In the case of the parent/child relationship (or even the spousal relationship), it can lead to hiddenness and distancing. I’ve seen teens and young adults choose not to share parts of their lives or their innermost thoughts with parents because they are afraid of disappointing their parent or they are afraid their parent will swoop in to fix “it”.
If you identify with the above scenario, I get it. When your child was younger, you may have limited their options out of concern for their safety. And, as time passed, you may have approached the task of parenting in a way that was less than effective and now there is baggage between you and your young adult.
And what if you are the parent of a teen or young adult whose tendency is to look to their parent to take over and fix things for them…what then? Meg Jay addresses this in her ground-breaking book, The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now. Jay tells the story of a young woman who called her mother for help—what psychologists call “borrowing an ego”. Jay explains, “She was reaching out in a moment of need and letting someone else’s frontal lobe do the work. We all need to do that sometimes, but if we externalize our distress too much, we don’t learn to handle bad days on our own. We don’t practice soothing ourselves just when our brains are in the best position to pick up new skills. We don’t learn how to calm ourselves down, and this in and of itself undermines confidence.”
In either case, we all need to exercise self-compassion, practice forgiveness, and then take steps to move forward. Let’s learn how to engage with our children as adults. These words of wisdom in How to Raise an Adult ring true--“…a critical part of parenting is knowing where you end and where your child begins. Nonanxious observation is so important. Wonder is the reward.” Specifically, here are some suggestions:
- Hit pause & reflect before you comment or jump into action. Ask yourself why you want to jump in. What fears/hopes are working in the background? Do your children “owe” you in some way (i.e., I sacrificed my career, etc., and I expect you to do your best (parent’s definition) as pay back)?
- Ask permission to comment/engage. Respect your young adult’s answer. Start with a question (coach approach).
- Manage your expectations…forget the fantasies that you have been harboring and take time to mourn your disappointment, and then embrace what life has brought you and your young adult child.
- Maintain healthy boundaries.
[ii] Parenting expert Jane Nelsen defines courage as “the movement we make in the direction of becoming our best selves.”