Many parents are being asked to do the impossible, says Lynn Smith – raising kids in a crisis while continuing to work. There is no end in sight and we are not okay, says Smith, who urges all parents and caregivers to children to give themselves grace .
The last time my father hit me was seven years ago. I was in my late twenties, living in Vancouver and visiting my family in Alberta. My dad was drinking a little bit, and my sister and I got into a pretty big fight about our extended family. I was upstairs and I could hear my dad telling my mom that he was annoyed with me. My sister ran out of the house after our fight—and then, I heard my dad coming upstairs so I hid in a closet. Eventually, he found me. When my dad was mad at me, he’d often tell me to go kill myself. That day, he told me that when I got back to Vancouver I should jump off a bridge because I’m someone who just causes problems. After repeating that for a good 15 minutes, he
took a knife and put it in my hands.
That was it. I started screaming at the top of my lungs because I just couldn’t handle repeatedly being told to kill myself
. When I start yelling, he hit me because he thought I was going to get him in trouble with his neighbours. After he punched me in the face three times, I stopped screaming. Then he sat next to me on the bed, petting my head. It was fucking uncomfortable. I wanted to get away from him but after he hit me, I wasn’t about to move. My mom was there too, sitting on the other side of me. She had tried to intervene, tried to pull him off of me when he was hitting me, but it didn’t make a difference.
Growing up, my dad was the person I was closest to in my family
After that episode, my dad didn’t talk to me for three months. I think it’s because he felt shame and guilt. I don’t think my dad’s a bad person. He just hasn’t been taught how to handle his anger.
My dad came from India to Canada when he was in his 20s, and then re-educated himself in computer science. Growing up, he was the person that I was closest to in my family. When I was a kid, he would drive me to school every day, listening to my opinions on what I was being taught or what was happening in the news. When I was older, I didn’t hide much from him. He’d be the one to pick me up at 1 a.m. from a party so I would have a safe ride home.
He didn’t abuse my mom or my younger sister physically (or emotionally, that I’m aware of). It was just me. My sister wasn’t any more obedient than me—she was just a better liar. She would tell my parents she was studying at school for hours instead of saying she was out with friends. She never understood why I told them the truth, especially since that’s what often landed me in trouble.
My parents were pretty liberal compared to my extended family and some of the larger Punjabi community in my hometown. But I still struggled to conform to their expectations of being Indian—being accomplished at school, things like that. And when I didn’t conform, it caused problems.
When I was in grade five, I showed up crying at school one day and said, “I got in trouble with my dad.” My teacher brought me to the school counselor and I really underplayed what had happened. I don’t even remember what the root of the conflict was on that particular day, it was just that the kinds of questions my teacher was asking me made it seem like my dad was bad. I didn’t think my dad was bad. In fact, I thought I was the bad one and blamed myself for the abuse.
I’m just not a good kid. I’m the one that challenged him. I knew that would make him mad. I would never think, He was wrong.
The abuse would happen when I questioned him, asking things like “Why can’t I take band?” or, “Why can’t I go hang out with my friends at the mall?” I was never a rebellious kid by Western standards—I didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I just wasn’t willing to listen to someone telling me what to do. I wanted to know why I couldn’t do that thing, because if there was no reasonable explanation, well, then I was going to do what I wanted to do. But questions like these sent my dad into a rage—his violence was an immediate reaction to them.
I only started thinking he was the one who was wrong as a teenager, but I still didn’t seek help, until that very last time he beat me up. I’ve gone to counsellors over the years, but I felt like I was just being talked to as a diagnosis, not a person. Then I tried a life coach and her approach was very different. She helped me discover answers on my own and make me reflect on my life and circumstances in a way that felt transformative. I work with one now who specializes in childhood trauma.
I’ve always kept in touch with my dad no matter what
I’ve been living away from home for ten years, but I’ve always kept in touch with my dad no matter what was going on in our relationship. I could cut myself off from him, but that would also mean cutting myself off from the rest of my family, my mom and my sister, because they are all so close. My mother has never really acknowledged the abuse, other than advising me that I have just move on and let it go. She never let me process it. It’s impacted our relationship—there’s no depth to it. And I never even thought about talking to my sister about what was going on. She’s four and half years younger
, and growing up she just seemed like a baby to me. But two years ago, when she was pregnant with her first child, she told me she talked to my dad about it. She told him that if he had ever done what he did to me, they wouldn’t have a relationship. I was shocked. That night, I cried in bed because it was the first time someone in my family had even acknowledged what I had been through.
Even though my parents have hurt me, I don’t feel like their intention is to hurt me. I have a deep respect for them regardless of the shit that I’ve been through. It’s my responsibility to work on my shit, not for me to change them. And while the physical abuse has stopped, the emotional abuse hasn’t.
But my perspective has shifted. My work with my life coach has helped me realize I was living for my dad’s approval all the time. Now, if I don’t get it, I realize it doesn’t mean anything about me. I do my best and if I don’t receive his approval or acceptance, I can’t do anything about that. This has helped set a boundary with my father for the first time in my life.
I finally realized, No, this isn’t okay anymore
A few months ago, my dad and I were talking on the phone, and he was demeaning me about where my life is at—that I wasn’t far enough professionally, that I’m well into my thirties and not married. My initial reaction to that was to apologize, to say, “Yes, you’re right.” When we talked later that week, he blew up again. He said the problem with me is that I’m not the type of person who lets things go. Something clicked in me that day. Something that was just like, No, this is not okay. So I got off the phone, and I didn’t call him back right away to smooth things over as I would usually do.
Exactly a month later, he called me. After we talked for a while, I asked, “Hey, Dad. Did you want to talk about why I haven’t talked to you in a month?” He apprehensively agreed. Then I said, “I appreciate your concern for me, but maybe you could consider a different approach.” He told me to shut up and that he’ll never be sorry for being a concerned parent, but that he is sorry I’m unsuccessful in life, and then he hung up on me.
We didn’t speak for nearly four months—the longest I’ve gone not talking to my father. I didn’t really have the desire to call him. Before this, I would have just picked up the phone. This was the first time I ever called him out on his behaviour, and I was willing and open to talk about it. But he wasn’t. There wasn’t much else for me to do. Something changed in me during that conversation. Finally setting a boundary with my dad meant not actually standing up to him as much as it was standing up for myself. The decision to do this was a culmination of everything else that was going on in my life—my work stress was reaching a breaking point and I took a sick leave shortly after, and I was also having trouble with some key friendships. It was me finally realizing, No, this isn’t okay anymore. A parent can be worried about you, but they don’t have the right to verbally abuse you.
When he finally called me months later, he apologized. He acknowledged his behaviour, but still hasn’t acknowledged the physical abuse. He said, “I’m getting older and what will I do if I don’t have a relationship with my family?” I responded that that can’t be the only reason we have a relationship. We had a good conversation, but this time away has helped me reset how I interact with him. I’m being more cautious now—I don’t think someone changes after one conversation. I talked to him significantly less that I used to. Before this fight, I would call him out of habit. Now, I call him once every two or three weeks.
Looking back, my relationship with my dad has always been about trying to prove to him that I was valuable, that the warmth I bring to the world is meaningful even if I’m not achieving all the milestones he wants for me. I’ve done a lot of work on myself to know my worth—and now I know it doesn’t come from his approval.
Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger from abuse. If you’re in a abusive relationship—or want to help a friend who is—call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 for support; crisis counselling is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For additional, cross-Canada resources, check out this directory from the Ending Violence Association of Canada.
Do you know an emotionally avoidant and detached parent/guardian? If so, what makes that person so emotionally unavailable? Is it a mental illness, personality disorder, or something else such as a job, career goal, or educational endeavor? Whatever it is, having an emotionally unavailable parent or guardian can lead to a lifelong journey of unstable or failed relationships, emotional neediness, empty voids, identity confusion, poor attachment to others, low self-esteem and self-efficacy (the feeling of mastery), etc. Research has identified the importance of all infants and developing children having an appropriate, warm, and loving attachment to a mother figure during the developmental years. Without an appropriate, warm, and loving parental figure, children are likely to develop multiple personality, emotional, and psychological difficulties. For many of my clients, the absence of a loving parental figure has resulted in an increase in psychiatric symptoms, school and academic difficulties, fear of abandonment, and many other challenges. This article will discuss the aftereffects or consequences of growing up without an emotionally available parent.
Parents who are emotionally unavailable are often immature and psychologically affected themselves. As difficult as it is to believe, emotionally unavailable parents have a host of their own problems that might go back as far as their own childhood. There is often a deficit in parents who are unable to meet the emotional and psychological needs of their child. In a sense, some emotionally void parents deserve sympathy as they are often emotionally burned adults who have no way of coping with their own emotional and psychological needs. As a result, these kind of parents become one of the following: rejecting, emotionally distant, immature, self-centered or narcissistic, or driven to succeed in life. These adults are not emotionally what their stated (or chronological) age says they are. They are pseudo-mature in many ways which often pushes the child to become adult-like and emotionally independent before their time. The parent maintains negative patterns of behavior due to lack of self-awareness, often affecting the child in more ways than one, while the child sinks further and further into despair. Sadly, these same kids develop into emotionally needy teens and adults who are longing for the love, security, and affection they never received.
Symptoms often representative of adults who are emotionally immature and detached include but are not limited to: rigidity (unwillingness to be flexible when needed), low stress tolerance (inability to tolerate stress in a mature manner), emotional instability with aggression (anger outbursts characterized by threats of physical aggression, suicidal gesture, cutting behaviors or other acts of self-harm), poor boundaries (desiring to be their child’s friend instead of a parent), unstable relationships (multiple partners or friends who create more trouble than peace), and attention-seeking (looking for accolades, recognition, or support at all costs) among many other characteristics. Tragically, the affected children often develop into teenagers and adults who also struggle with life.
Some of the consequences of growing up under immature and emotionally void parents include:
- Affected adult relationships: Believe it or not, our childhood(s) affect our relationships and how we interact with others later in life. If we were loved and cared for appropriately, we will most likely exhibit those same traits as adults. If we were abused and neglected, we will most likely develop characteristics to protect ourselves as adults such as being defensive or overly protective. Some adults become angry or struggle with long-term relationships which leads to a series of short-term and unstable relationships. It is important for me to mention that not every child with an emotionally unavailable parent will develop into an adult with problems. Some adults develop into better people than their parent(s) could ever be. Every situation is different and the variables in the lives of children with emotionally unavailable parents are also different. However, for the most part, children with emotionally void parents often develop into teenagers and adults with problems themselves.
- Fear of attachment and love: Children who have developed under an emotionally void parent will most likely develop into a teenager and adult who struggles to emotionally attach to others and receive/demonstrate love. While working within a nonprofit agency in which my clients tended to be abused (emotionally, physically, and sexually), I noticed a pattern in which many of these clients struggled not only to maintain appropriate peer and staff interactions, but also struggled to connect with me and other mental health professionals. Trust is a major component of positive emotional attachment. When you haven’t experienced the love, affection, and protection of a loving adult, you are more likely to develop defenses or protective mechanisms that keep you separated from other people in some way. Unfortunately, defense and protective mechanisms can prevent the individual from engaging appropriately in therapy or trusting that they can be happy and feel secure in their relationships.
- Borderline and narcissistic personality traits: Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are two disorders that can negatively affect everyone in connection to the sufferer. The unstable, emotionally labile moods often characteristic of BPD can lead to frequent arguments, paranoia, blaming, and physical or verbal aggression. The self-centered, overly confident, and arrogant behaviors of NPD can make developing children feel estranged emotionally from that parent. Without proper treatment/therapy, these two disorders can destabilize the household and many relationships.
- Selfishness: I’ve often regarded selfishness as a personality deficit as it is a characteristic that is not admirable. Not being able to share with others can lead to an inability to be emotionally detached and immature behavior. I previously had a 10 year old client who enjoyed playing games on his iPad after school. His mother, who has a childhood history of abuse, reported that she would not permit him to play on his iPad after school. Of course, many parents do not want their children to play games until homework or chores are completed. But to my surprise, this was not the reason for restricting access to his iPad. She eventually admitted that she did not like him touching her iPad because she had spent so much money on it and liked the fact that it still seemed brand new. She further reported that, as a child, she rarely had anything of her own and felt a need to “protect” her investment. This kind of selfishness resulted in many years of parent-child conflict. As her son grew older and began to question her behavior(s), he became even more resentful of her and eventually asked to live with his father. The relationship was destroyed.
- Substance abuse/dependency: In order to cope with pain and sorrow, many people turn to substances that “takes them away” or “dulls the pain.” Sadly, recreational use or prescription use of drugs become a habit and the need for self-medication becomes an addiction. Once an addiction happens, the life of the user then becomes more complicated as relationships, employment, and other important areas of life no longer seem important to the substance abuser.
- Lack of identity and direction: A former adolescent female client once asked me the following question almost every individual session we would have: “how do you know what kind of relationship you should have if all of the relationships in your life have been abusive or exploitative in some way?” I would always respond by highlighting the importance of having a strong foundation of morals and identity. Without understanding who you really are, you are more likely to follow the crowd and allow anyone with the slightest bit of interest of you into your life. When you know who you are, what you want, and what is best for you, you are likely to be more careful in choosing other individuals to be apart of your life. A lack of identity can lead to a series of unstable and shallow relationships that are short-lived.
- Loss of hope, faith, and joy: For many adults who were raised under an emotionally void parent there is a deep feeling of loss and grief. The “loss” of a parent who is still living and breathing can seem like the most tragic experience. To look a parent in the eyes or hear their voice and yet feel so far away, is tragic. The inability to connect to the very person who brought you into this world is tragic. It is like a tease. It is like a distant fantasy. Sadly, the adult child begins to feel a sense of grief and loss of hope, faith, and joy. Sometimes adult children internalize their emotions and begin to feel depressed, suicidal, or self-injurious. This is often when substance abuse begins.
It is truly sad that a child’s life can be affected by the emotional and psychological instability and unavailability of a parent. It’s as if this belief gives the unstable parent more power than they deserve. But decades of research confirm that children must have the experience, during early childhood development, of a warm caregiver/guardian in order to develop the appropriate skills (the ability to be emotionally available, connect with other individuals, understand the rules of social communication, etc.) needed for later in life.
Do you have questions regarding this? Have you experienced this? If so, feel free to post below as I always enjoy reading your questions and replies to each other.
As always, I wish you well
this is a great primer on the concept of “Enmeshment within families”.
Give it a read.
It’s a word most of us have heard before, often when describing families that are extremely close and tightly wound. But what does it mean? Aren’t families supposed to be close? Aren’t we supposed to try to please our parents or siblings? Doesn’t being a part of a family mean making sacrifices sometimes?
Well, the answer is “yes” and “no” to all three questions. Yes, the hope is that our families are our primary social communities; little (or big) clusters of individuals who are related by birth or adoption, and who define themselves as members of that clan. Ideally, children are launched into their adult lives from these families, prepared to think for themselves and with a well developed efficacy and identity of their own.
When families are enmeshed, however, this doesn’t always happen. When children are raised to conform to their parents’ expectations of who they are, what they believe, and how they think and feel, that individuation so necessary to being truly independent doesn’t occur. Healthy families allow for differences in their members; adults and children alike.
Growing up is a process of exploration, and healthy families allow for a child to develop according to their own individual and unique characteristics. Children who love art are encouraged and supported in that interest, even if mom doesn’t value art herself. Children who love music or theatre are supported in those interests, whether dad had football and soccer in mind or not. Children are not told how they should feel or think, but are encouraged to make up their own minds and express what they are feeling without being judged.
As children grow older, enmeshed families can hit heavy walls of conflict when the natural healthy questioning of adolescents challenges parents with “too rigid” expectations for their children’s behavior. Teenagers are supposed to differ from their parents, and they often need a few years of wide variance from their parents before they settle into what feels right to them. That’s a healthy process.
Families that are enmeshed often have a set of spoken, or unspoken, rules that govern the member’s behaviors even into adulthood. Do these sound familiar to you?
- Don’t talk to outsiders about what goes on in our family. That is our business and our business only.
- What Mom and Dad say/believe/think/feel about you is what is right, never mind that you are 45 years old and have been on your own for 27 years.
- It’s okay for you to be a little bit different from us in some ways, but there is a line that you can’t cross in this family and still be accepted (maybe you can’t be a Democrat, or a gay person, or marry outside of our race).
- The cost of being different is to be cut off. We cannot accept differences that challenge our rigid sense of who this family is.
- Even as adults, you will conform to the wishes of “the family” instead of make your own mind up about how, where, and with whom you wish to live your life.
If they do sound familiar, it is possible that your family is enmeshed on some level. If so, there is good news and bad news about that. Change is possible, but it isn’t easy. Enmeshed families are rigid systems that become locked-in over time, and these roles and patterns can be very hard to break out of. If a family as a whole understands that this enmeshment is unhealthy and wishes to change, family therapy can be helpful in establishing more permeable, flexible boundaries within family relationships.
This is an ideal scenario; however, most often what occurs is that one family member recognizes that they are unable to be who they are or live as they choose without offending the family, and that person very often needs to make a difficult choice. In healthy families, members are supported in making choices for their own well being, even if members don’t agree with those choices.
Individuals who decide to divorce can often be judged by other adult family members who think they “know what’s right” for that person and that marriage. Adults who wish to change religious or political status can feel they don’t have the right to do so because their families will disapprove. Adult children can make well-meaning but wrong judgments about how their parents should be spending their money and retirement years.
If you are dealing with trying to make healthy choices for your own life and experiencing the fall-out of being “different” in an enmeshed family, you have a couple of choices. You could confront your family in a loving but firm way, tell them what you see happening, and then tell them what you need in terms of moving forward. Invite them to accept your decisions for your life whether or not they are the decisions they would make for you. If they resist, offer to do family counseling with them in order to ensure you all navigate through these changes and maintain a healthy closeness.
If your family members refuse, the choice for you is to remain in conformity for the rest of your life, sacrificing what is best for you and suppressing your own identity for the family’s collective identity, or to risk their disapproval and make your own choices. You can choose to do what is best for you; that is within your control. What you can’t control is your family’s response, but you have to be willing to let them deal with their response; it’s their business, not yours.
Over time, many families will be able to adjust to the changes and accept you on some level: “Oh that’s Jimmy, he’s a little ‘different,’ but he’s okay.” Some may not, but this is where the sacrifice part comes in. If you are in an enmeshed family and you have a need or desire for your life that isn’t in compliance with the family “rules,” you are going to have to make a sacrifice one way or the other. Choose your own well being, or choose a life of denial of your own needs.
If you are in this situation and need help with these decisions, individual therapy might be helpful to you. Therapy can help you determine what you need and want, and help support you through making the changes you need to in order to get where you want to be. Therapy can also help support you in staying strong in your own sense of who you are, no matter what others believe.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.
The following are criteria for Aspergers that have been excerpted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV):
- Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
- Marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction
- Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
- A lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people, (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
- lack of social or emotional reciprocity
- Restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities
- The disturbance causes clinically significant impairments in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
- There is no clinically significant general delay in language
- There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction) and curiosity about the environment inchildhood.
You’ve probably known quite a few. Maybe they are even in your family. There’s that brilliant professor you had in college who looked at his desk the entire time he was talking to you and whose office was so overflowing with stuff there was nowhere for a visitor to sit. How about your brother-in-law the mechanic, whose work is superb but who insists on describing in minute detail exactly what he did to fix your car — and doesn’t seem to notice all your hints that you’re trying to leave already! What about your uncle or cousin or the sister of your best friend who is so socially awkward that you squirm with discomfort whenever they show up at an event, wondering what they’ll do next to embarrass themselves?
They are often physically awkward and socially tactless. They seem to be perfectionists but often live in chaos. They know more about some obscure or highly technical subject than seems possible — and go on and on about it. They may seem to lack empathy, and are often accused of being stubborn, selfish, or even mean. They can also be extremely loyal, sometimes painfully honest, highly disciplined and productive in their chosen field, and expert at whatever they decide to be expert at. They are the Aspies, adults with Asperger’s Syndrome.
The number of adults with Aspergers is still difficult to determine. The syndrome wasn’t even officially acknowledged in the DSM until 1994, even though it was described by Hans Asperger in 1944. The result? Many older adults weren’t diagnosed — or helped — as children. Teachers found them exasperating because they were so disorganized and uneven in their academic performance despite often being clearly bright. Other kids considered them weird and either bullied them or ignored them. As adults, they are only now discovering that there is a reason they’ve had difficulties with relationships their entire lives.
For many, having a diagnosis is a relief.
“I never could figure out what other people want,” says Jerome, one of my Aspie clients. “People seem to have some kind of code for getting along that is a mystery to me.”
Jerome is a brilliant chemist. He has the respect of his colleagues but he knows that he’s not well-liked. The finely tuned intuition he uses to do research breaks down completely in relationships.
“I know I’m well-regarded in my work. As long as we’re talking about a research problem, everything is fine. But as soon as people start doing that small talk stuff, I’m lost. It’s good to have a name for it. At least I know there’s a reason.”
Jerome is now starting to put the same intelligence he uses in his lab to learning better social skills. For him, it’s an academic problem to solve. Like many other Aspies, he wants to get along and have friends. He’s highly motivated to learn the “rules” most people take for granted. He just never understood what those rules were. Having the diagnosis has given him new energy for the project.
The press coverage of the syndrome of the last several years has been very helpful as well.
“I was working on a highly technical engineering project with a new guy last week. In the middle the morning, he put down his pencil, looked at me and said, “You have Aspergers, don’t you.”
Ted was explaining a recent encounter to me. “I got real nervous, thinking he was going to leave.”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Well. I know now that’s my problem so I just said he was right. And you know what he said? He said, ‘I thought so’ and told me I could relax because he works with another guy who has the same thing. We had a great morning solving the problem. That wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago. I would have upset him somehow without understanding why. He would have gone back to his company thinking I was some kind of jerk. Things are just better now that there’s some understanding out there.”
Having the diagnosis has also saved more than a few marriages. Now that the kids are grown, Judy was ready to separate from her husband of 27 years when she first came to therapy.
“If Al and Tipper Gore could do it after 40 years of marriage, I figured I could manage it too. I don’t know what their problems were but I was just exhausted. I felt like I’d been single-parentingour two kids forever. Actually, I felt like I had three kids. Most of my friends couldn’t figure out what I saw in a guy who could only talk about one thing and who would rudely disappear in the middle of a social evening. He never seemed to be able to understand any of our feelings. Our finances were always a mess because he would lose track of bills. Yes, he was really sweet to me in our private life and he’s always been great about doing things like building the kids a tree house — that was really, really cool. But it became harder and harder to see that as a fair exchange for all the times I had to smooth things over because of something he did or didn’t do that bothered someone.
Then my daughter emailed me an article about Aspergers. It changed everything. I realized he wasn’t deliberately making life so hard. He couldn’t help it. As soon as he took an Aspie quiz online, he saw it was true. He does love us. He didn’t want the family to fall apart. He went right out and found a therapist who works with adults with Aspergers. He’s far from perfect but he’s honestly trying. He’s even apologized to the kids for not being more involved while they were growing up. I can’t ask for more than that.”
A diagnosis is primarily used to drive treatment decisions and to make it easier for clinical people to communicate with each other. But in cases like these, it can also be an enormous comfort to the individual and their families. As long as someone with Aspergers feels like they are being blamed or criticized for something they don’t even understand, they can only be defensive or bewildered. When the people around them feel offended or disrespected, they can only get exasperated, argue, or write them off. But when the thing that makes a relationship difficult is named and understood, it becomes a problem that can be worked on together. That shift can change everything.
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children
Do you have a child between the ages of 17 and 23 living with you? If you’re in constant conflict with an older child over everything from curfews (should they have one or shouldn’t they?) to getting a job to alcohol use, James Lehman offers advice on how to set reasonable limits, and how to coach your child to responsibility and independence.(Part 1 of a 3 part series.)
Parents feel they have to take care of their kids, whether they are 9 or 19 years old. But as kids get older, they engage in more risky behavior, and “taking care of them” becomes more challenging. When they’re five, they’re climbing the monkey bars and you’re worried they’re going to break their arm. At eleven they’re starting to play football or baseball and you’re afraid they might get hurt with a piece of equipment. At 16, they’re starting to drive, they’re often getting money on their own, and they’re around people with drugs. On the surface, they may seem much more independent, but actually they are simply much more able to put their parents off and hide what’s really going on with them.
Kids between the ages of 17 and 23 have a lot of thinking errors. Just like you can have a spelling error, and misspell a word, you can have a thinking error in which you misread life’s problems and come out with the wrong solutions. When kids start hitting their late teens, you’ll hear them saying things that indicate they see themselves as victims. “It’s not my fault.” “I couldn’t help it.” “I only stayed out an hour late and you want to punish me?” They become much more adept at manipulating their parents by blaming them for being too rigid and strict. You’ll hear kids say, “I’m getting older now. You should trust me more.” But the fact is, they’re not getting that much older. Teenage mentality lasts from early adolescence until 22 or 23 years of age. Most of the research shows kids are still using the same parts of their brain at 22 that they were using at 15. Their brain is still developing in their early 20’s. So they are not that much more prepared for adult situations. But parents can get sucked into the thinking error that “You owe me. You owe me a place to live. You shouldn’t be too rigid.” When parents hear this enough, they start to feel guilty for the rules by which they have chosen to live. They begin to think they’re too strict just for trying to implement the rules they’ve always had since their kids were young.
How to Enforce the Rules of the House with Older Kids
I think parents should have two levels of rules with their older children who are still living at home. The first are the rules of your household that reflect your values, structure and moral authority. For example: People don’t abuse people around here. That doesn’t change at 18 or 19. That rule never changes. No drugs and alcohol, especially if you’re under age. That doesn’t change at 18 or 19. That’s the rule. No stealing. No lying. I would keep those rules very clear, because you don’t want to start having double standards with older kids, especially if you have other younger kids in the home.
The second level of rules is the one that enables parents to live with young adults. Certainly, young adults should get more responsibility and independence, but they have to earn it. If you’ve got a job, you get more independence. Should kids be able to stay out all night because they’re over 18? Absolutely not. If they’re living in your house, they have to let you know that they’re okay. That may mean calling in if they decide to sleep over at someone’s house. You have a right as a parent to expect this.
The most important part of having rules with older children is the discussion that establishes those rules. When a child is about to turn 18, parents need to have a serious discussion about what the rules are going to be in order for everyone to live together. It should be a sit down, and you should write everything down that you agree to so that everything is clear. What can you do? What can’t you do? How will we support you in what you can do? What’s going to happen if you do what you’re not supposed to do? What is forbidden? These things should be clearly spelled out.
There’s a thin line between carrying your kids and being supportive of them. I think when someone is 18, if they finish high school, they should be supporting themselves financially. There should be no job too menial that they can’t take it until they find something better. Many kids don’t give a darn in high school, aren’t ready for a better job, and they resent the fact that they have to work at McDonald’s, 7-11 or some other starting out position. So they avoid doing it and think they’re better than that. This is a thinking error—a complete cognitive distortion that you shouldn’t accept as a parent. Parents need to say to older kids, “You made your choices in high school, and now if you want to better yourself, you’re going to have to go to school at night. If you want to better yourself, you’re going to have to start out in a junior college. If we can’t pay for college full time, you’re going to have to work and go to school part time.”
Everyone in the home should know what the rules are, and it’s important to lay it all out before the child turns 18. For example, the rule on drinking: “If you come home drunk, you will not be allowed to live in our house.” It can be you’re out of the house for a few days, a few weeks or forever. Just establish the rule, write it down and explain to the child that he is over 18, and this is how we have to live with this issue. If kids get belligerent and violent after 18 (or at any time, in my opinion) the police should be called.
Think of Your Adult Children as a Guests—Not as Children
If you feel compromised and taken advantage of by an older child, you need to realize this: the child is an adult now. He may not act it, but he is an adult. He’s living under your roof. He has to follow your laws. I want you to think of your adult children as guests. Not as children. That’s the most important thing to do. They’re done with high school; they are now guests in your home. How would you let a guest act? When would you draw the line with a guest? When would you feel you have to call the police with a guest?
When my son went to college, one of the biggest shocks he had was when we started to refer to his room as the guest room. I remember him saying, “But that’s my room.” We said, “No, that’s the guest room. You can stay there anytime you want, for as long as you want, as long as you live our way.” We said it with love and kindness, but we wanted him to see his role in a different way—as an adult.
For parents who are very anxious and have a lot of fears about their kids, this sounds like a difficult thing to say. I know that. But it’s really the best thing to say because you need to let these kids know that they have to start to make it on your own. In effect, you are saying, “You’ve had 18 years to learn how to make it on your own. Now’s the time to put it into practice. Whatever you’ve chosen not to learn or chosen not to do over those 18 years, you’re going to have to pay a price for that now.”
The bottom line is, sometimes kids have to start out small. There’s no shame in that, and you have to make that very clear. Even if it doesn’t match up with what you had hoped for your child. Many young adult children often have a false sense of entitlement. I met many kids in my practice who refused to go to school, and could only read and write at a seventh or eighth grade level at best. They told me they were going to be video game programmers, basketball players or rap singers. That’s how they were putting off their anxiety. If you’re talking to a kid who says, “I’m not making it in school, but I’m gonna be a rap singer. I wrote a few songs tonight,” that’s the way that that kid is postponing his anxiety. What he’s really saying is, “I’m so scared about the future, I have to make up this fantasy, and then I’m gonna cling to it.” Then, if you challenge that fantasy and say, “Wait a minute. There’s 20 million kids out there. What makes you think you can do it?” the kid says, “You don’t believe in me. You don’t have any faith in me.” He turns it right around on you until you’re the problem. His not studying is not the problem. You’re not believing in his fantasy becomes the problem.
When you have these different currents coming together in a home where parents are living with an older child, it can get very uncomfortable for everyone, if not hostile. The way to keep that hostility at bay is to have clarity beforehand. Get the expectations and the consequences down on paper–literally. Write them down and expect the child to live by them.
I have known many parents who couldn’t get their adult children out of bed. They think that they’re helping their adult children by giving them a roof over their head and not making them be responsible because they’re afraid for their kids. But what they’re afraid of can only be cured by that kid getting out of bed and doing something for himself. The parent is afraid the child is not going to amount to anything, that he’s not going to find a good job, that he’s not going to make it in school, that he’s going to get into trouble socially. But the thing that addresses those fears is to get him up at eight o’clock in the morning and get him out there looking for a job. Tell him to leave with his lunch, a cell phone and the internet want ads and don’t come back.
This may sound harsh. You’re pushing someone out into a world that they have to deal with. But you’re not pushing them out of a plane without a parachute. You’re pushing them out into the street without any money. The solution to that problem is getting a job. Many times parents use their own fears, anxieties and sense of guilt and remorse to justify not doing what they would do to a guest. Out of fear, they choose not to expect out of their child what they expect out of themselves and each other every day. (Part 1 of a 3 part series. Please also see “In Response to Parents of Older Children” and “Rules, Boundaries and Older Children: Is it Ever too Late to set up a Living Agreement?” .
There has been overwhelming response and interest in last month’s article on adult children. It was viewed over 10,000 times, was our second most emailed article ever, and has received the most reader comments of any article we’ve ever published. I must say I’m not surprised about this, since in my private practice I dealt with many parents who had terrible problems with children who were over 18 and still living at home. I believe this phenomenon has become a national problem. As the cost of living goes up, adult children who are not really prepared for the workforce have to make some sacrifices. Unfortunately today, kids don’t like making sacrifices and parents don’t want to enforce sacrifices.
A few notes before we begin. In this forum, I will not address individual cases or parents. The reason is that this forum is not counseling or therapy and should never be misconstrued as such. Rather, this is a place where I can offer you my personal opinion from 30 years of professional experience. What I will do here (and what I believe will be helpful for the most readers) is respond to the important themes that recurred within many of your responses. This will be a long article, because I see so many issues that call for discussion. If you posted a question after Part One of “Rules, Boundaries and Older Children” last month, or if you are struggling with an adult child, I hope you’ll take the time to read my response to readers here, and that it will help you and your family.
For Readers Whose Adult Children are Verbally Abusing them and Destroying Property
The theme that stood out most is the tremendous amount of verbal abuse that adult children are laying on their parents. Along with verbal abuse and cursing, I saw many of you writing about destruction of property and your adult child’s refusal to communicate and respond. This may sound harsh, but I think it’s amazing how people will make excuses for that type of behavior. It’s understandable that parents make excuses for younger kids who are abusive, hoping they’ll grow out of it. But I think once these kids are adolescents and adults, their behavior patterns are very set, and you need to know that adult children won’t take the time and trouble to learn new behavior patterns unless they’re forced to.
Adult children who use verbal abuse, aggression and destruction of property to deal with their parents are still using intimidation and force to solve complex problems. When you’re 18, 19, or 20 and all the things your parents told you are coming true—that you’re not prepared for the work force, that you should have studied harder, that you need to push yourself—it is easy to get resentful and blame and intimidate your parents. Because that’s easier than getting a job and working your way up. That’s easier than learning how to live with a roommate because you can’t afford your own apartment and a car at the same time. One thing we know about human beings is that they will, by their nature, take the easy way out. In this case, the easy way out is being oppressive to your parents so that you don’t feel any stress.
I think that parents also have to take some of the responsibility for this behavior. In the last twenty years, so many parents did everything they could to ensure that their kids didn’t feel discomfort because letting your kids feel discomfort was considered a bad thing. I know because I’ve dealt with so many of these parents. They fought with the schools. They protected their kids from consequences. In many cases they let things slide that they knew were wrong. They made excuses for the kids. And what they ended up with is a kid who is not prepared to deal with the injustice, stress and discomfort of life. Making a transition from adolescence to adulthood is very stressful, uncomfortable and difficult. It involves solving some very complex problems about how you’re going to live, where you’re going to live, who you’re going to live with, and what you’re going to do with your life. Although many kids solve those problems in a non-destructive way, there is a sub-group of kids who still make it their parent’s problem and society’s problem and everybody else’s problem. If you’re dealing with one of these adult children, it will take all the strength and commitment you can muster to force this child to become independent.
I noticed in one of the responses that the parents thought I was telling them to throw their kids out. I am not saying that at all. But I am saying that your kids won’t change until you do something drastic. Making them leave the home is one of those things that may have to be done.
As a parent, I understand the difficulty, fear and anxiety of sending your child out into the world. But also as a parent, I know that the best personality characteristic that you can give a child is independence. The best knowledge you can give them is how to solve life’s problems. If they’re still at home cursing at you, abusing you, not getting a job, sleeping until noon and playing video games all day, they are not independent and they are not solving life’s problems. There’s no gray area there. Parents have to be very strong in demanding that their kids start to face their situation in life before it gets worse.
Let’s be clear: from an adult child’s point of view, this is a great life. Somebody’s paying the rent, there’s food in the refrigerator, they get to party with their friends, they don’t have to be anywhere at any time. They get to avoid all stress, and if their parents give them a hard time, they bully them. Nice life. If parents are willing to live that way, you don’t have to read any more of my articles. You’ve found the solution that works for you. But if you’re determined not to live that way, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have a lot of choices. You need to make a drastic change.
Here is my recommendation on what that drastic change looks like. Number one, you set some simple structure and some rules for your child. Rules like: You need to get up at a certain time. You need to go out and look for jobs. You can’t sit around and play video games all day. Be specific. “I want you to put in three applications a day. I want you making three follow-up phone calls a day. And if you verbally abuse me, you’re out of the house for 24 hours.” You don’t care where they go. Let them go to their aunt’s house or their friend’s house. Let them figure out where they’ll stay. They’re out of the house for 24 hours.
I want to make a distinction here. What I just suggested is a consequence. It’s not preparation for life. If they’re verbally abusive a second time or destroy property, they’re out of the house for three days or a week. You don’t care where they go. They’ll tell you they’re partying at their friend’s house. Let them party. All you know is that they can’t stay in your house. This is a consequence for disrespecting your home and your values. This is not a preparation for independence. (See the discussion below and in part two of my article on “Rules, Boundaries and Older Children”, which will be featured in Empowering Parents in a few weeks, for suggestions on how to prepare kids for independence.) This is used strictly to get some control in your house. If you have adult children who are verbally abusing you and breaking things, your house is out of control. I don’t know how you can live there.
Use the police. Put his bags out on the sidewalk, call the cops and say, “He doesn’t live here anymore.” Don’t play games or you’re not going to own your own home.
I’ve worked with plenty of parents who had to do this. They were all afraid to do it. I understood that. They got into their situation because they were mortally afraid their kid would face discomfort. But when all other efforts failed, they had to call the cops to get the kid to change.
Let me be straight with you and offer you some empowerment. You’ve raised this kid. You’ve invested everything in him and now you have to tiptoe around the house? That is unacceptable. To the parents who are willing to live this way, I tip my hat to you. But I personally could not live with that, and I’m not willing to.
Kids learn best when parents use parenting roles such as teaching, problem-solving, limit setting. On the other hand, parents who are martyrs and excuse-makers wind up with children who won’t and don’t know how to respond to the demands of young adult life. And nothing changes if nothing changes. For your sake and the sake of your child, demand change now.
For Readers who are Struggling with Getting their Adult Child to be Independent and Move Out
Once you’ve established that they can’t abuse and intimidate you and train you to give into them, then you have to help them prepare themselves for adulthood, even though they’re young adults. First, you have to force them to find work, no matter how menial they think that work is. The way that you force them to do that is you establish a time when they get up in the morning. Then they read the want ads, they go out, they put in job applications. On weeknights, they can’t stay out past a certain time. They have to live as if they have a job. If they’re not willing to do that, you fall back on the consequence structure that I outlined for you earlier. Number two, once they get that job, they have to pay room and board—not to add to the money of the household, but so you can put it away and have enough money for them to talk about moving out. They have to sit down once they have a job and work with you on doing a budget. The kid should have so much money for recreation, so much money for room and board, so much money for his savings, even if it’s only ten dollars a week. If he can’t open up a savings account yet, he gives the money to the parents to hold. He doesn’t put it in his drawer. And he has to live on that budget. You should not rescue him. You’re already providing a safe place to live. These mundane, basic skills make the difference between the kids who learn how to survive out there and the kids who can’t seem to make it.
Again, if this seems harsh to you, think about it this way. If this kid gets a job and spends all his money and can live at home, why would he ever move out? If you have a job at $12 an hour and you’re living at home for free, that’s like having a job for $25 an hour. Kids are going to want to live that way if you don’t make them uncomfortable. If you don’t demand change.
I want parents to think of the future. Not what are you doing for your child today. But what are you doing for your child tomorrow? If you’re supporting him today and making excuses for him today and buying his excuses, what you’re doing to your child of tomorrow is continuing his crippled attitude toward life. I can’t do it because…then fill in the blank. Because they don’t pay enough. Because they don’t like me. Because I don’t like doing that kind of work. Because I won’t work in fast food. Just fill in the blank. By not demanding change, what you’re doing to your child of tomorrow is not forcing him to prepare to learn how to live independently. He has to solve the problem of learning how to support himself. Make no mistake about it: If you tell a kid he has to work and he doesn’t, and you tolerate that and just continue to fight about it, you’re saying to him, in a non- verbal way, that he’s a cripple and you know it. You’re saying to him he’s not as good as the other kids, and you know it. You’re saying you’re willing to put up with this because you know that there’s something wrong with him. That’s the message he’s getting. So, he thinks there’s something wrong with him because he doesn’t know how to deal with discomfort and stress.
So, to push him, make demands of him, hold him accountable and give him consequences, are all really ways of saying, “You can do it and I expect you to. In fact, I demand you to.” It’s never too late to deal with children in a teaching, limit-setting and coaching way. If you don’t know how to do that specifically, we offer a program that can help you here on the Empowering Parents web site. Parents can start anytime, as long as they’re willing to deal with the discomfort of demanding that their kids change and holding them responsible. It may feel like the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. But it could save your kid’s life.
As a parent, I’ve had my ups and downs with my son. He’s self-supporting now, but that situation has been on and off for many years. He’s 31 years old, and he’s a real nice guy. I love him. But if he lost his job and he moved back home, he’d have to pay rent, come up with a budget and get a job. And I’d help him in any way I could. But if he verbally abused me or his mother, he’d have to go. It’s just that simple. I’ve worked all my life. I’m not going to take abuse now. So when I urge you to push your kid, understand that it’s exactly the way I pushed mine. If you don’t want to do it, that’s your choice. But, once I offer you a solution, if you come back and say you can’t do it, I don’t have another solution. Forget all the razzle-dazzle and the hype talk of the 80’s and 90’s. If you don’t work hard, you fall behind. If you don’t learn how to solve problems, you get stuck. If you don’t know how to deal with discomfort and stress, you’re going to have a hard time making it until you learn how to deal with these things. That’s the reality for adult children.
What to Do If Your Adult Child Is Stealing from You
Many parents wrote in and told of their struggles with an adult child who steals from them, be it credit card theft, stealing money from the house or forging checks. Stealing is absolutely intolerable. Whether it’s stealing from parents or siblings, it’s a crime. Know this: the laws don’t change inside the walls of your house. If I steal $20 from you on the street, that’s stealing. And if somebody steals $20 from you in your home, that’s stealing. And if it’s an adult, it’s a crime. It’s called larceny.
If your adult child steals from you, first of all, you should tell him, “Go upstairs, pack a bag and come back downstairs in five minutes.” When he comes back downstairs with a bag, say, “Here are your choices. You’re out of here for a week, and if you don’t stop stealing, you’re not coming back.” And I would call the police. I would pack a bag, put it on the curb, call the police and say, “He doesn’t live here anymore. He stole from us.” I’ve worked with many parents whose kids broke back into the house and they pressed charges for burglary. You have to be really clear with the police and tell them that he doesn’t live there anymore and you have to put his stuff out on the sidewalk. It’s going to cause a scene. You’re going to be embarrassed. But you can live in a little prison where you’re being abused and where there’s a predator stealing from you, or you can break out of that prison. It will take some noise, but you can break out of that and not be a victim.
Parents need support and help, and I understand what they’re going through because I came from this kind of family and I’ve worked with these families for three decades. But you also need to understand, you didn’t work like a dog all your life just to be in prison now. Ask yourself: is this what we worked for all our lives? We dealt with discomfort. We dealt with stress. We dealt with unhappiness. We had to come up with humility. Is this what we worked for now? That our adult son is going to live with us, steal from us, abuse us and make our lives miserable? If the answer is yes, I say go to it. I’m not here to contradict that. But if your answer is no, then you need to make some changes, and you need to make them now. It begins with getting him out of bed tomorrow morning and calling in the authorities if he gets abusive.
Parents are supposed to have a certain amount of power in our society just by virtue of being a parent. Sadly, in many cases, that is not the story. If you’re living with an abusive adult child who is committing crimes against you and your home, he obviously does not respect your power as a parent. So, you need civil power. You need the civil authorities. Don’t hesitate to use them. Everybody else is going to use them. Why shouldn’t you? Let me tell you one more thing that’s going to sound cold. If your kid does ten days in jail, good. Because he’s not going to curse at people and intimidate them in there. If success is having a job and being productive, then failure is sitting in a county jail. Ten days in jail can teach your child that it’s time for him to reach for something in between.
Let him share some of your pain and discomfort and see how he likes it. Because this is important: if you’re willing to do something about it, he will become willing to do something about it. He will not become willing to do something about it as long as you remain unwilling.
Fear of Responsibility: Adult Children Who Hide out Playing Video Games and Sleeping
In adolescence, kids want to be independent and free. They can’t wait to get out of their parent’s house and tell them what a pain in the neck they are. But the fact is that many kids, before they graduate from high school, do some acting out and show some anxiety or depression because they’re terrified of what’s on the other side of that. They’ve been safe in grade school, middle school, high school and in their families all their lives. Many kids are able to deal with these problems and they prepare to grow into the next stage of life. But there are those kids who, for whatever reason, are not prepared to grow into the next stage, and it shows in their behavior. The kids who are not prepared to take responsibility in their lives become angry, resentful and do irresponsible things. They’re terrified of change, and they’ll do anything to avoid it, including partying all night, sleeping until 2 pm and doing nothing but playing video games when they are awake. But these are the kids who have to be pushed the most.
I’ve dealt with many adult children in my office who had this fear, and I empathize with them. I do tell them that it’s a part of the process and that they have to face it. How do you face a fear of making it in the adult world? You get a job. And you do that job. You take a job for three months and you say, “I won’t quit. I’ll deal with all the craziness and I won’t quit. And at the end of three months, I’ll have some experience and then I’ll decide what I want to do next. And what I want to do next may be stay at McDonald’s or go someplace else. I won’t leave my job until I have a new one.” Eight months out of high school that kid is going to have some skills, experience and independence. He’s at work dealing with adult stress and mommy’s not holding his hand. That will prepare him for the next stage of growth. Maybe a more responsible job or going back to school. A lot of the work that I did in my office was coaching and teaching these kids on what they had to do. I literally had kids fill out three job applications a day then call me in my office to say that they had done it. And they would, because I gave them the clear message that accountability matters. While I empathized with them, I didn’t accept their excuses as to “why” they were stuck in life. Because “why” didn’t matter. Everyone has to be independent, no matter how afraid they are and what challenges they have in their lives.
I worked with mildly mentally retarded adults in my practice who lived in group homes with staff. They had to learn how to have a job if they wanted money because the state paid for their group home but did not give them any spending money. They had to learn how to have a supervised job if they wanted money. They had to learn how to talk nicely to people if they wanted to go out and do things and have privileges. They had to clean their rooms and make their beds every single day. They took turns cooking at night with staff support. They did these things because they had to acquire independence. So don’t tell me kids can’t do it. Not only can a kid do it, he has to do it.
Yes, these kids are afraid. They have a false sense of entitlement that they should have all of life’s niceties without having to work for them. They don’t know how to be independent. They haven’t learned how to solve social problems. But if they don’t start learning to solve them today, it’s not going to happen. So parents have to draw the line because the adult child will not draw the line. They’re having too much fun and they’re too afraid. If the parents can’t draw the line and the kid pushes it, then the police have to draw the line. It’s that simple.
Adult Children with Children: When You Have to Parent Both
I’ve worked with quite a few families who were living with 17, 18, 19 and 20 year olds who had their own children. The adult child can’t make it or the marriage falls apart and they move back in with their parents. This is a really tough situation, and I don’t want to minimize the emotional pressure everyone is under. These are innocent grandchildren. The role of parents and grandparents is very different. A parent sets limits, goals, and gets the kid to meet objectives and be productive. A grandparent is benign and indulging. They also set limits, but not in a full-time, around-the-clock manner. It’s a very difficult situation and I just want to make some observations that may be helpful.
Grandparents should do what they can to help out with child care. But only with the goal that the adult child pays room and board and that the money is put away until the adult child can move out. The adult child has to have a job and needs to look into daycare or public daycare. Parents everywhere go back to work when their kids are six months old. So you have to demand that your adult child do something to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in, and not just jump into the hole with them. Too many grandparents jump into the hole that their adult child has dug and stay there. And that doesn’t make any sense. You have to help or get out of the hole. The first way to get out of the hole is to stop digging.
So, your adult daughter who has a toddler can’t run around all night. She has to live a work schedule. If she wants to go out at night, she has to get her own babysitter. Grandparents should not be babysitters for adult children living in their home. Let them pay for that. Have them live on a budget and let them pay for that. The adult child is not going to like that, but that’s where you draw the line. We’re not here to parent. We’ll help out while you work if we can. But you’re going to have to pay for that. If the adult child becomes explosive, call the police.
And there’s one more very hard thing that grandparents have to do. If the adult child is not taking responsibility for their own child and putting that child at risk, you have to call the state. Call the Department of Children and Family Services or whatever it’s called in your state. If the state comes in and does an investigation and finds the mother is not fit, they’ll first turn to the grandparents to see if they’ll take custody, or a family member. They will offer the mother supportive training and help. They don’t remove kids that easily. They don’t want your adult child’s child. Grandparents are terrified that the state will take their grandchildren. They don’t want your grandchild unless the mother’s strung out on drugs or committing crimes. They want the child with the mother. Because that’s where the child should be by nature and that’s the least expensive way to deal with the situation. The state does not want to take on the cost of raising your child’s child. Don’t fear that.
I’ve worked in states where state agencies have taken kids and they’ve needed to take those kids because they were in danger. But as soon as they take the child, they come up with a plan on how the parent can get the child back, whether it’s substance abuse treatment, career counseling or parent training. Just as you need to turn to a greater authority if your adult child is abusing you, you need to turn to a greater authority if your adult child is not caring for his or her own child. Understand this: you’re doing it for the welfare of your grandchild.
You may read my suggestions here and call it “tough love.” But that’s not what this is. There’s nothing tough about love. This is responsible love. It’s saying to your adult child, “I love you, and I’m going to be responsible. You can love me, but you have to be responsible.” Responsible love means demanding that your adult child learn how to solve his problems. Responsible love means demanding change. Now.
This is the third and final installment in a three part series of articles by James Lehman, MSW.
For those parents who haven’t set up a structured agreement when their child turns 18, it’s never too late to set one up. Even if your child is 23, living under your roof and staying out until the wee hours, it’s never too late to sit down with that kid and say, “We’re going to have to have a talk about our rules here and what parts fit you and what parts don’t fit you.” If a kid is 23 years old and he’s not working, he can’t be up until two o’clock in the morning with friends in the house, keeping other people awake. You may feel obligated to provide that child with a roof over his head. But you have the right to let him know that “This is not your home for that anymore. We’re going to bed, we’re tired, we worked all day. If you’re going to live here, you have to live within our rules.” If he tries to put you down for it, you need to put your foot down. If that means taking the car keys, then that’s what it means.
When parents lay out these rules with kids after the age of 18, they should expect the kid to be resentful, resistant and to blame them. The older child will try to make them feel like the parents are jerks because he still has a lot of thinking errors, is hiding from responsibility and postponing the anxiety of accepting it. Parents should simply disregard the child’s thinking errors, and not give in and tell the child that everything is okay.
Likewise, parents shouldn’t get into making a lot of excuses for themselves. They should say, “This is our expectation. We’re sorry we didn’t do it before now, but we’re here today and this is what we’re going to have to do. And we can’t go any further until this agreement gets made.” The expectations should include what time the kid gets up in the morning if he’s not working. Older kids who are avoiding responsibility will stay up all night and sleep until noon. When you ask them why they sleep until noon, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not working.” As the parent, you have to make it clear: “That’s why you’re not working. Because you sleep until noon. Get up at seven o’clock like everybody else and find a job.” It’s never too late to be this direct with your child.
Remember: do not take the kid’s accusations and blaming as fact. Expect to hear plenty of accusations and excuses. You’re going to be compared to his friend’s parents. You’re going to be told you’re hateful and uncaring. But don’t forget, this kid is fighting taking responsibility, and he will fight it fiercely. Young adult children who don’t feel competent will resist taking responsibility for anything, and they’ll keep doing it as long as you let them. Parents should be prepared to deal with this, not through yelling and screaming. Not through making excuses for themselves. Just by calmly saying, “This is the time we’re meeting. We need to talk.” If you have to, take the kid’s car keys until he is ready to talk.
The agreement you develop with the child should allow for adult privileges. Specifically, if the kid is working and being responsible, then your agreement with him should be very flexible. On his day off, he can sleep all day for all you care. But he can’t stay out all night without calling you because you’re going to worry, and it’s his responsibility to let you know he’s safe. If he doesn’t want to do that, then he should move into a more independent living situation. You don’t get complete freedom and the support of living at home at the same time.
Paying rent is a very good habit for an older child to get into. I think there are two ways to look at the issue of when and if your child should pay rent in order to continue living at home. If the family needs the money and the kid is working, he needs to contribute. It’s just that simple.
If you don’t need the money, charge him room-and-board anyway, and then put the money aside and save it up until you’ve saved enough for a security deposit on an apartment and the first month’s rent. Then when he’s ready to move out, you’ve already got his money. Hold onto that money. That way, he pays for himself, and he gets into the habit of paying rent and being responsible while money is being accumulated, so that both he and the family are prepared for his next step.
When you come up with the agreement on living arrangements, I think it has to be really clear that the child is here to contribute, not just take. So, parents need to be clear about specific chores the older child will be responsible for. Parents can offer their ideas, and the young adult child can come up with his own ideas. Maybe he offers to take the younger kids to school in the morning, and you ask him to be responsible for bringing in wood and taking out the trash and recyclables each week. Write it down and be clear about consequences if he doesn’t follow through, because everyone who lives in the house has to help out.
The understanding should be very clear about alcohol and drugs, and it’s simple because the law makes it simple. In most states, it’s illegal to drink under the age of 21. You don’t have to say, “I know it’s illegal, but…” and wink your eye. The best thing that you can do for your young adult child is follow the letter of the law and say “No drinking under 21. If we catch you drinking and driving, we’re taking the car keys. If you fight us, we’re calling the cops.” He’s going to say you’re rigid and unreasonable. But it’s better that your kid lose his license for 90 days than die or kill somebody else.
When Is It Time to Ask Your Child to Leave Home?
The decision on when to ask an older child to leave the home has more to do with a family’s morals and values. First of all, if he violates a cardinal rule, he should leave. If he’s insulting you, abusive with a family member or breaking things, he should leave. He should go stay with a friend. The kids who are going to be most likely to be asked to leave are the kids who are going to tell you they have nowhere to go. Because the abusive behavior won’t be an unexpected anomaly in their life. It’s not like their whole life is great, but they hit their brother. The abusive older child will most likely show a pattern of this behavior and demonstrate a host of thinking errors. So when you ask him to leave, he won’t know where he can go, because he is unable to solve that problem.
Secondly, if things are going well with the living arrangement, the child should be told to think about leaving once he has the means. Once the first and last month’s rent and a deposit are set aside and he has a car and he’s driving, he should be told to start looking for a place with a roommate. I’ve worked with many college graduates at agencies who were not able to own a car or have their own apartment at the same time. They had to make a choice because they didn’t make that much money. They had to accept either having their own car and living with a roommate and learning how to live with other people, or not having a car and living close to their job and just having their own apartment. But they can’t have it both ways, and parents should not take responsibility for that.
Independence is a decision you can make as a family. If a young adult child is doing well, living at home and meeting the family’s expectations, then there’s no problem. But someday he will want to be independent. The way you get there is to sit down and have the child set some goals. Where do you plan to live? When do you plan to move out? How much does the child need to pay for rent or room and board while living at home? Measure progress toward the goal by the objectives. If the child has a goal to move out and he’s not meeting any of the objectives, it’s a joke.The greatest gift you can give your child is knowing how to be independent and take responsibility. If a child fears independence and responsibility, you can solve that problem by having a written agreement that shows the child how to live by your rules, and have ongoing discussions about the goal of independence and how to meet it.
Read more: http://www.empoweringparents.com/In-Response-to-Questions-about-Older-Children-Living-at-Home-by-James-Lehman.php#ixzz2ZMNGp7ak
Read more: http://www.empoweringparents.com/Rules-Boundaries-and-Older-Children.php#ixzz2ZMMkhZx1
The influence of our parents is on my mind right now. Even as we become fully functioning adults and parents ourselves, it’s intriguing to consider how much of who we are is directly attributable to beliefs and experiences we encountered as children of our parents.
I’m reminded of this in reading Into My Father’s Wake, by journalist and author Eric Best. Best leaves his job, buys a sailboat, and sails solo from San Francisco to Hawaii and return in an attempt to resolve his relationship with his parents, especially his father.
A respected journalist, Best’s marriage is failing, he feels dead-ended in his job, and he struggles with alcohol and anger. The 50 day, 5,000 mile solo journey is his attempt to find himself and correct the path of his life.
Adult Children of Abusive Parents
Interspersed with fascinating descriptions of his sailing adventures, Best shares pleasant childhood memories of long sailing voyages with his father and disturbing memories of brutal beatings with a rubber hose at his father’s hands. He recalls his mother’s silent support of her husbands discipline, and struggles to come to terms with both parents’ treatments.
Most children are raised without the abusive behaviors demonstrated in Best’s book, yet don’t we all grow up carrying mixed images of our parents’ behaviors?
Psychologists offer an explanation that makes sense. Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. is a psychologist in private counseling practice who has authored several parenting books exploring the various phases of parent/child relationships as a child moves from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.
Pickhardt explains that the child idolizes and worships her parents, the adolescent criticizes and blames her parents as she begins the process of independence, and the adult rationalizes parental behaviors as she begins to understand the complexities of parental behavior.
The children of abusive parents experience conflicting and inconsistent adult behavior, at times nurturing and caring, at other times abusive and hurtful. Given the child’s total dependence and natural tendency to look up to her parents, the abused child is confused, ceases to trust, and may even assume she’s part of the problem. Best demonstrates how these conflicts carry into adulthood.
Children of non-abusive parents also experience conflicts. We see behaviors that are loving and caring as well as darker behaviors such as anger. We see our parents’ faults, tend to focus on those in adolescence, and may even carry their faults into adulthood as the reasons for our own failures.
Life Purpose and Our Parents
Looking at more positive aspects of parental influence, in The Celestine Prophecy, author James Redfield suggests that each person’s life purpose evolves from and extends the life purpose of their parents. Intrigued by this, I followed the suggested process of examining what each of my parents stood for (their strong beliefs and values) and where they fell short (weaknesses and limitations).
Sure enough, I could clearly see how my own life extended what each of my parent’s stood for and how I’ve developed interests and strengths which they lacked.
Since this analysis was valuable and informational to me, I added the process to my Purpose in Life Workshop content, expecting that others would also find valuable insights.
I was surprised by the responses of workshop participants. Though some found the process positive and helpful, a majority reacted strongly against the hypothesis, even resisting my encouragement to keep an open mind and explore the possibilities. It seemed a large number of people attribute their life’s problems directly to their parents.
Coming to Terms with Parents
What does this all mean? To me it simply means that parents are human beings, with the full range of human strengths and weaknesses. Parenting is tough work. Our parents made some mistakes along the way, as we have in our parenting roles.
On the road to adulthood, we’re exposed to many examples of behaviors, including the very influential examples of our parents. Whether they were outstanding parents or lacking in many ways, as adults our behaviors are ours alone. We can chose whether to copy behaviors of our parents or discard them. We can chose whether to cherish their parental talents or denounce them.
Eric Best reaches this conclusion near the end of his solitary 50 day voyage, deciding to cherish the love and care his father displayed in teaching him to sail, while forgiving his brutal discipline as a terrible weakness of his father’s own personal struggles.
Into My Father’s Wake is a good story of a man’s journey of self-discovery. Those without sailing knowledge may struggle a bit with the sailor’s terminology, but all will appreciate the vivid imagery Best conveys as he describes the beauty and danger of solo-oceanic travel. I found that sharing Best’s struggles with the human frailties of his parents stimulated useful self-reflection on the influence of my own parents on my adult life.
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