Do Not Overinvest In Your Adult Kids

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woman looking sad

Parents love their children, and generally want to have loving and close relationships with them. Beyond that, there is a huge biological imperative to safeguard your kids and help them thrive in order to perpetuate your genetic legacy.

No matter how natural it is to want to keep your kids close, it is essential to keep a balanced view and see your children as separate people who are eventually going to grow up and have their own lives.

Parents who become overinvested in maintaining a very close relationship (by their definition) with their adult kids can be very hurt and react in dramatic ways when their kids try to individuate, whether that’s in adolescence or as adults.

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In this post, I state:

"I see many young adults in therapy that have difficulty with independence and confidence. Many of these young clients feel like they were babied and coddled throughout their lives, and overprotected from normal developmental issues. They were never made to do what they didn’t want to do, even down to getting a driver’s license, getting a job, or in some cases, even attending school. They do not look forward to new stages of development and consider it natural to grow up; instead, they fear maturing and try to stay childlike as long as they can."

This is accurate, but it does not end here. Many parents believe that they should and will have extremely close relationships with their adult kids, and they think that they will always be there to help the adult child with all life tasks of adulthood: money management/financial support, life advice, and grandparenting.

This leads to two things: an adult child who relies on the parent to the extent that their spouse is edged out of the picture, and a parent who cannot function if an adult child asserts boundaries or decides to live in a very different way than the parent predicted.

A common example of the latter is when an adult child chooses to move away or to have a different belief system than the parent.

If a parent is overinvested in being close (either physically close or regarding beliefs/values) to their adult child, they can feel personally attacked and grief-stricken if a child makes choices that repudiate this assumed closeness.

The parent can double down and act defensive, snarky, and outright angry toward the adult child, which pushes them away. Increasingly nowadays this distance may end in estrangement.

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Here are some situations that cause anger and feelings of abandonment in parents who have overinvested in their kids:

  • An adult child converts to a different religion, e.g. that of their spouse
  • An adult child decides to travel for the holidays instead of coming home
  • Adult kids decide to embrace a member of the extended family that a parent doesn’t like and has no contact with/feels betrayed by
  • An adult child parents their own kids in a very different way than the parent
  • An adult child confronts the parent about an empathic rupture in their childhood and the parent refuses to acknowledge this and takes the entire conversation as an attack

When parents do not have happy marriages, they are much more likely to overinvest in a close relationship with their adult kids.

This is in part because they are staying married for the adult kids, something I discuss in depth here, and therefore they feel justified in guilt-tripping their kids to visit or talk on the phone because it is in their mind a small price that the child should pay for having an intact family.

But the adult child is not making this choice and is not deciding that you need to sacrifice your happiness for theirs. So many adult children in this dynamic wish their parents would just “get a life” and be happy so that they could stop worrying about the parent constantly and feeling like their parent’s happiness rides or dies on whether they texted that day.

If you have elaborate fantasies of deep and constant engagement in your adult child’s life one day, keep in mind that these are fine to have but unhealthy to share. Certainly, you can commit to helping them if they need or want it, but you also need to put in a corollary about your plans if they want to have their own lives.

The wrong thing to say: “When you have kids, I will live with you and take care of them, like Grandma did when you were little!”

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The right thing to say: “I would love to live with you one day as Grandma did, but if that didn’t work out I also have other cool plans. I never saw Europe and I would love to travel.”

The wrong thing to say: “You can’t move to California! What would I do without you?”

The right thing to say: “What an adventure! I will miss you and would love to visit when you get settled.”

The wrong thing to say: “You really believe in that bullsh*t you send me about politics? Wow, I thought I raised you smarter than that.”

The right thing to say: “Wow, pretty different from what I believe but I am proud of your ability to make your own decisions and have your own politics. Many kids just believe whatever they are raised to believe, but not you.”

If you can’t imagine yourself saying the “right” things, therapy is a good place to start to examine your own thought patterns about what parent and child relationships “should” look like and how these beliefs may sabotage your ability to be loving toward your adult child.

Again, estrangement is more and more common, and this is a devastating outcome for all involved. To prevent this, openmindedness is often necessary, and therapy can help with this.

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.