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Learning to Let Go: The Key to Parenting Adult Children

“I’m totally devastated! I just found out my son Jeff’s wife Ella has been having an affair with a co-worker for the last year,” my friend Janet wept through the phone. “It seems like yesterday that we stood at the front of that church and gave our blessing on their marriage. She seemed just perfect. He was my baby so I finally felt free to live my own life – my husband and I even planned our second honeymoon for shortly after they came home from theirs. And then a few years later they had those precious little girls – I thought they would be happy forever.
“And now this – I’m so shocked I haven’t slept for three nights, and I can’t stop crying. I don’t know which has me more upset, Jeff’s news or the fact that he won’t let me help him. He was sobbing over the phone, and I just couldn’t stand it. I jumped right into ‘mother mode’. I told him I’d get on a plane tomorrow, and he told me not to come. I wanted to call Ella and he said ‘absolutely not’. I offered to help him find an apartment or a therapist and he said he could do those things himself. Mothers are supposed to fix things when their kids are hurting. I don’t know what to do – I’m climbing out of my skin. I’ve just got to find a way to make things better,” she wailed. “What would you do?” she asked me.
“Well, in a perfect world, I’d stay calm, ask my son how I can help and then follow his direction. But, since it’s not a perfect world, my guess is that I would probably panic like you did and then throw every suggestion in the book at him hoping something would stick. When they were little and fell down and split their knees open, we could take away their pain by holding them and giving them Band-Aids and kisses. It seems like the hardest part about parenting adult kids is that there is so little we can do to make things better for them when they’re hurting. Even though we’re terrified, we have to let go.
“Since Jeff isn’t asking for your help, maybe you’d like to look for the opportunities here for your own growth. These might include calming down and accepting that he is an adult and can handle this challenge without your help. Another would be to write to him, apologize for panicking and jumping into fix-it mode and tell him that you would be honored to listen if he needs to talk, but that you won’t intrude and will do your best not to offer unsolicited advice. Then call it a day.”
Janet responded, “I know you’re right. Thanks for the reminder – I feel better already.”
In order to maintain peace of mind as parents of adults, we must let go and allow our children to forge their own paths, no matter where those paths may take them. 
Wendy Boorn Associate for Mothers of Adult Children

Wendy Boorn received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Bucknell University in 1967. Following graduation, she married, moved across the country, and spent 11 years as a wife and stay-at-home mother of two. Graduate school followed and, in 1980, led to a Master of Counseling degree from Arizona State University.

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