Before a child is born, most parents are already carrying a heavy burden. They recognize that a great deal of responsibility comes with bringing a child into this world and typically believe that every choice they make from the moment of conception onwards is going to play a role in how their child turns out.
For the most part, they may be right. Some choices made during pregnancy can definitely influence a child’s physiology and future health. Consuming alcohol, using drugs and some medications, eating nutritiously, among others, can all influence the health of an unborn child. However, as of the moment of conception, some unique personality characteristics and physiological potentials are already pretty much fixed, regardless of pre- and post-birth parenting choices that are made.
If you are the mother or father of an adult child who is not making the choices that are necessary for a sound future, this can be a heavier burden than any of the earlier ones you carried. When your child was young and misbehaved, you probably knew how to discipline your child. Whether the effect was lasting or not, you probably felt that at least you were “doing something.”
As an adult, your child is no longer legally your responsibility, but you may actually feel an even heavier burden of social and emotional responsibility for him or her. Depending on how far from your personal measure of “good” your child falls, your personal level of anger and shame may vary. Some parents resort to hot anger and recriminations of “I didn’t raise you to be like this!” Other parents fall into a trap of accepting the blame that some misbehaving adult children want to place on them. Some parents may be bled dry by meeting the financial assistance pleas/demands from children who are habitually showing up in the judicial system and need money for court/legal fees. (And they may hope, often in vain, that the money goes to the stated purpose rather than buying their child more trouble). Some parents carry great shame about their children’s mistakes – believing that if they had just done a better job somewhere along the line, this problem/incidence/pattern/behavior would not have appeared in their child’s life.
Two Essential Truths
Okay, the first truth is that we all make mistakes as parents. Yes, it is true – good parents are not perfect parents. All of us could do a better job, in some way, than we do. But once a child is grown, you cannot have a re-do or an undo.
The second truth is that once a child is an adult, they have all the power they need in their lives to make smart decisions. And as a corollary, adult children have no right, whatsoever, to blame their parents for decisions they are making today. A wonderful perk of adulthood is that adults get to take responsibility for themselves and make their own decisions! And most behaviors are choices – sobriety or stupidity? Addiction or detox? Fighting or loving? Honesty or deceit? Working or slacking? Building up or tearing down?
Seven Suggestions for Coping
1. Remind your child that it was their choices, not yours, that placed them in the circumstances that currently surround them. Emphasize that it is their conscious decisions, not just “happenstance” or “bad luck” that led them to this place. Interventions can be effective when you let your child know that their bad behavior affects everyone in the family and in his or her social and professional constellations, as well. One of the most important aspects of an intervention is that it is one of the family’s steps towards health — it is a sign that a family is moving into the recovery process.
2. Offer assistance and support only to the degree that you are financially able and that will move your child towards a better life. Don’t give money that you know will take them further down the road of bad behavior. Some people suggest that parental funding be tied to a child’s good faith efforts to improve their situation. However, if you feel guilty for not giving your child money for food, because you are fearful it would only be spent for illegal drugs, buy her a bag of groceries instead of giving her cash.
3. Offer to help your child find support services, but don’t blame yourself if they refuse to use them. You cannot help someone who does not want to help themselves. Honestly, you cannot, as much as you would like to be able to do so. It simply does not work that way.
4. Love your child. But remember that loving your child does not mean enabling your child. It means holding him accountable for his behavior and refusing to allow him the power to dismantle the family.
5. Do not assume that you can “rescue” your adult child . . . that is simply not possible and attempts to do so are definitely not the way to encourage autonomy and responsibility for any adult.
6. Protect yourself and the rest of your family. Not every adult child has to hit “rock bottom” before turning around her life, so do not allow your child to bring you or the family to “rock bottom,” either! No longer is “rock bottom” seen as a necessary starting point for changing an addict’s life; your family does not need to hit “rock bottom” before getting stronger, either.
7. Love yourself. Parents truly do the best they can, but should not hold themselves accountable for the poor choices of their adult children. Once you become a parent, that role has no end point. However, the responsibilities of that role definitely shift over time as a child matures. They lessen, not expand. Loving yourself and accepting your limits will keep you from spiraling down as a result of your child’s choices.
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Is alcohol a problem for your family-of-origin? How did alcohol or drug addiction affect you and your siblings growing up? How does it affect those relationships today? Share your sibling stories with me for an upcoming book project on family relationships: