Since my last column and Web chat on parents and their adult children, I have been flooded with e-mails. So I have decided to revisit this topic from a couple of different dimensions. The concerned mother below struggles with guilt about her daughter’s risky decisions. My radio show today and Web chat tomorrow will include Jane Isay, author of Walking on Egg Shells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship between Adult Children and Parents.
How do you let go of the guilt you feel about an adult child and the choices they are making? I am consumed by guilt, even though I know I should not be. I was a mother who was always there. I always had time to help with her homework, listen to her, and coach her sporting teams. But now she is 23 and involved with someone who has gotten her involved with drugs in a way that is not only criminal, but could have deadly results.
I can’t sleep. I try and follow them, talk to my daughter, and do everything else I can think of, but nothing works. And all I do is keep looking for what I did wrong. There has to be some way I can let go. But I just can’t seem to do it. I know I should let them suffer the consequences, but I really don’t want to see that happen.
– A Mom in Sewell, N.J.
First, let’s talk about your guilt, and then your daughter’s behavior. For the first hundred years of our existence, psychologists have done nothing but blame mothers for everybody’s problems.
We were wrong.
We now are learning that many of our children’s problems are because of their parents’ genetics, not their neglect. So your guilt might stem partly from this misguided notion that lingers in our culture.
But it may also be because of what I call parents’ “delusions of influence.” All of us parents like to think we have more influence with our children than we really do.
And that takes me to the real pain behind your guilt. Often, guilt is the ego’s way of protecting us from the sheer helplessness we feel when someone we love is in danger.
As bad as your guilt feels, what’s underneath it may be even more painful. And if you can find a way to face your powerlessness and live with it, you might find the compassion for yourself that you need.
Several years ago, I worked with a woman whose son was gay and an intravenous substance abuser. She was beside herself with fear and was doing everything she could to keep him alive.
She paid his rent, arranged substance-abuse treatment repeatedly, stayed in touch with his friends, and begged him to change his behavior.
And in our work together, she wondered whether, if she had been a different kind of mother, would all of this have happened? Over time, she slowly released her grasp on her dreams for her son and cried bitter tears. Finally, she was able to be in a relationship with the son she had and not the son she wanted.
Her fear and sadness never went away and may not, but it no longer dominated her life.
Even when the stakes are not as high, the issues are the same for all of us. It’s about releasing our grasp and being in a relationship with the children we have.
That doesn’t mean you should simply turn your back on your daughter’s behavior, but lecturing never works.
Sometimes, listening to them is the only chance we have to maintain contact in times of crisis. And, as best you can, this act of listening should be nonjudgmental. Please listen with an open mind rather than just hearing the words while preparing your response.
Listen to your child’s story and imagine that it is you talking to a parent. Listening sounds simple, but it is extremely difficult, as you may be hearing things that are upsetting.
But just listening could be helpful to both of you. That is, if she is willing to talk.
I would guess that you think the problem is her boyfriend and that she thinks the problem is her mother! As with any family conflict, you must find common ground. A wonderful book on this topic is Difficult Conversations: Help to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, et al.
She needs to know that you love her no matter what happens and that you will do anything in your power to help her get better. But that you will not do anything to enable her to stay on this path.