When Our Grown Parents Disappoint Us

Another view of the generational relationship

Posted Nov 25, 2019

While much of my coaching practice and research focuses on relationships between the generations, it’s overwhelmingly concerned with the particular problems faced by parents of grown children who, for one reason or another, are troubled by their kids’ problems, which range from addiction to alienation. They’re unable to achieve or sustain the loving, authentic, mutually nurturing and rewarding connection they hoped to have once the turmoil of adolescent adjustment calmed down and both generations completed the psychological tasks of separation and individuation and moved into their next life stage–full adulthood for them and post-parenthood for us.

The disappointment many parents feel about their grown kids is the dirty little secret of intergenerational relationships. Much of it stems from the difficulty we face in allowing them to live their own lives, regardless of whether or not we approve of how they’re doing it.

Recently I received a letter from a minister in Texas: “We have loads of parents struggling with disappointing kids—addiction, divorce, re-nesting, legal trouble, etc. Thank you for your stark, honest assessment while at the same time inviting parents to reclaim their lives rather than pour it out trying to "fix" our adult children.” I replied, as I often do to letters like his, by suggesting that the parishioners who have or are suffering from what many frustrated and embarrassed parents call The Problem That Has No Name form a support group where they may find empathy, understanding, and fellowship from others dealing with similar issues.

What made the minister’s letter remarkable was the brief follow-up he sent a few weeks later: “What about When Our Grown Parents Disappoint Us?” he wondered. “I deal a lot with that in my own ministry.”

It's a very different perspective, from which derives this advice to adults of all ages: “It’s important to finish our business with our parents before they die, even if we only do it in our heads. That means forgiving them their trespasses against us, actual as well as metaphorical; acknowledging them for having loved us as much as they were capable of; and maybe, finally, letting go of the fantasy of the perfect childhood we never had,” I responded.

That being said, it's worth remembering that personality and even character don't usually change as any of us gets older, they just get more so. The problems we have with our aging parents are at their core the same ones we've always had, but the circumstances are different, complicated as they are by the role reversal that begins to happen as we and they get older.

We can handle it best by allowing both generations the privilege of adulthood, which means the freedom to make their own choices and decisions, independent of our or their judgment or restraint. We may not like the way they’ve chosen to live out the rest of their lives, the companions they’re doing it with, or the place they’re doing it in, the way they’re spending their money or allocating their assets, or any other aspect of their behavior. Whether it’s our grown kids or our parents, we can’t change them—we can only change how we relate to them.

If, and only if, the actions, conditions or decisions our parents make and our legitimate concerns about them are complicated by their inability to care for themselves, and if a strong case can be made for conservatorship, then do so. Let a judge or independent arbitrator, guided by the law as well as input from physicians, mental health practitioners, and eldercare experts, make the case for taking control of their affairs. That’s the kind of responsibility every adult child may ultimately have to assume.