A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

How and When Can a Parent Stop Parenting?

Should parents ever give advice to their adult children without being asked?

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In a newspaper advice column, a letter writer asked Dear Abby:  “At what point does a parent stop giving unsolicited advice? It is painful to watch my "child" repeatedly make choices that aren't in her best interest.” The writer's daughter was 43!  

After describing some self-destructive behavior by her daughter, the writer added, “Although I am trying to keep my mouth shut, she tells me she "feels" my disapproval… Must I duct tape my mouth shut?” 

The relationship between parents and adult children is by its very nature a bit of a minefield. In order to rear their children properly, parents have to discipline them. Parents have to tell children what to do, what not to do, and how to behave in various social situations. Parents have to find ways to make their children follow these parental directives.

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Good parents continually set limits with their young children. The difficulty is, when is this supposed to stop? Does the child suddenly become capable of making his own enlightened choices by virtue of having lived eighteen years? Should parents ignore the wisdom of their added years and never advise their adult children about anything? If the parents do persist in giving counsel, how upset are they going to be if the child chooses not to follow their sage advice? If a parent suggests a course of action over a particular issue, will the adult children feel infantilized? 

Even with peers who are not relatives, the issue of when and when not to give advice can get to be problematic. In Eric Berne’s psychotherapy model, transactional analysis, he shows how asking for and giving advice can become a “game.” On the surface, two people may seem to be engaged in an “adult to adult” conversation, but the subtext may be entirely different. One member of the dyad may be acting like, say, a helpless yet petulant child trying to frustrate the other member, who may be acting out the role of an exasperated parent who thinks he or she knows what is best for the other person. 


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When the two parties actually are parent and child, the question of whether or not there is a hidden agenda being acted out becomes that much more complicated. The parents may claim that they are “just expressing their opinion,” while the adult children believe they are being told what to do as if they had no valid opinions on the subject themselves. Is the parent’s advice merely an opinion, or is it a directive (a command telling the child how to behave)? Unless parents and adult children are adept at metacommunicating about this issue (talking about the way they talk to one another), tension is bound to develop. 

This situation becomes compounded exponentially in those situations where the parents themselves are highly conflicted about the advice they are giving. They may be unsure of and unhappy with their own choices in life, but cannot admit that even to themselves - let alone to their adult children. In such a case, two events frequently transpire: the parents bring up the issue involved rather often — because they are themselves preoccupied with it — and they give out a double message.

The offspring usually interpret the advice to mean “Do it because I did,” but almost simultaneously, the way the advice is given may also have elements suggestive of “I hope you don’t do what I did and become miserable like me.” Whenever this chain of events takes place, a question about the motivation behind the parental advice giving is invariably created for the child. The child must choose between two possible presuppositions.

As mentioned, either the advice is meant as a directive or it is merely the parent's opinion about a controversial issue. The frequency of the advice giving will most usually indicate to the child that how he or she behaves is a matter of grave concern to the parent. Therefore, the younger family member will presuppose that the parent's statements about the issue are directives or instructions. But which part of the double message should the children heed?

In situations where the advice is given ambivalently or is part of a double message, they will then make an effort to determine, using principles of ordering environmental cues that I describe in my book, Deciphering Motivation in Psychotherapy, and on a previous post, which side of the double message to follow.  Consider the example from that book of a woman I will call Trudy and her mother.

Trudy was having all kinds of anxiety symptoms over making a decision to really commit to her boyfriend. Her mother had said on numerous occasions that "marriage is a mixed blessing: one has to take the bitter with the sweet." One could interpret this as sage advice on the wisdom of not expecting perfection and retaining one's equanimity in the face of unavoidable adversity. Nothing in the words used in the statement indicates that Trudy's mother was commanding her to behave in any particular fashion or make any particular choices regarding marriage or spouse selection. The statement can be viewed as an expression of the mother's opinions about life and as good advice - nothing more.  

On the other hand, the fact that the mother seemed compelled to drive this point home by repeating it over and over again suggested otherwise. The statement began to sound like a warning: "You'd better watch out! If you get married, you'd better be prepared for all the bitter you're going to get along with any sweet!" Every time the mother would talk about the good points of relationships, she seemed to be throwing in a warning about it. Not only that, but her frequent repetitions indicated to the daughter that the mother was very concerned about whether the message had been heard loud and clear by Trudy. Perhaps she was worried that Trudy had not understood it the first twenty times it was said. 

Naturally, Trudy began to worry about the consequences of getting involved with men. She became concerned not only that she might be in for a rough time, but also, for some reason, that her mother might become very upset about it. What Trudy did not realize was that the mother's repetitions indicated that she was trying to convince herself, not Trudy. In any event, the motivation presupposed by the mother's statement was in question, and the patient had been forced to guess what was correct. A good therapist would be alert to the possibility that Trudy may have guessed wrong. 

An even more difficult situation ensues when parents feeling guilty about one thing or another become overly involved with their children to the point where they become what has lately been called ‘helicopter parents.” They constantly hover over their adult children trying to make sure that said children do not suffer in the least, or have to endure any adversity. The children of such parents often keep exposing themselves to problematic situations just to keep the parents from feeling like they are not doing their parental duties. Therefore, they seem to desperately need their parents’ advice. I have alluded to this issue in many previous posts, but will focus on it more on a future one.  

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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