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Adolescence, Parental Disappointment, and Parental Guilt

Parental disappointment or guilt can burden the end of adolescence.

Key points

  • When parents are disappointed by their kids, it's because they hold a set of expectations that do not fit the choice the child is making.
  • While parents are responsible for how they treat their child, the child is responsible for how they adjust to it.
  • A healthy intergenerational connection requires having an adequate separation of responsibility between a young adult and his or her parents.

Although children usually fear arousing parental disappointment ("I hate letting them down!") and adolescents tend to manipulate guilty parents ("You need to make it up to me!") the greatest impact of parental disappointment and parental guilt often arises after adolescence ends and young adulthood begins.

Disappointment is the outcome of parental investment. Guilt is the outcome of parental implication. Both can adversely affect the relationship with the adult child (in his or her mid-twenties) that is beginning to unfold. Start with the issue of disappointment.

Parenting is a process of investment. Parents not only invest their care, energy, and resources in their child, but they also invest their assumptions, ambitions, hopes, and even dreams about how this person will turn out when they're grown up. The more investment parents make, the more invested they feel, the more firmly wed to expecting, even deserving, a cherished outcome they can be.

For example, an extreme investment in an only or otherwise specially prized child can lead parents to an extreme expectation of return. It's like they're saying, "We worked so hard and sacrificed so much for her, the least she can do is give some of what we hoped for back!" They were treating her like she was supposed to fulfill whatever promise they thought she showed and owed.

Or what happens when parents, who assumed their adolescent would pursue a traditional lifestyle similar to their own, move into what sounds like a commune with other young people committed to living a more alternative way? Or what happens when parents, whose ambition was for the adolescent to go to college, have a son who decides after high school to scrape a living together making a go of it as a musician? Or what happens when parents, who hoped their adolescent would choose to return to their home city after college and live close by, have a son or daughter who decides to move much further away? Or what happens when parents, whose dream for their adolescent included launching a career and remaining single until it was established, gets pregnant, gets married, and gives up the profession they were wishing she'd pursue?

"Of course, we're disappointed," declared the parents in counseling. "This is not what we planned for our child! And we told her so." "And how did she respond?" I asked. They replied, "She acted really hurt like we had let her down when the reverse was true! And she hasn't talked much to us since." Then I suggested that if they wanted a close and loving relationship with their adult daughter they needed to ask themselves whether their daughter was supposed to fit their expectations or whether their expectations were supposed to fit their daughter?

Their answer to this question makes a profound difference. If they believe she should live up to their expectations and is not, they will feel disappointed, and communicating that disappointment to her will to some degree alienate the adult relationship. If, however, they believe that for the sake of acceptance of a daughter they love they must adjust their expectations to fit the individual path and lifestyle she has independently chosen, then they will affirm that relationship.

It can be hard for parents to remember that when a grown son or daughter disappoints them, it is not his or her doing but their own. They chose to hold a set of expectations that do not fit the choices he or she is making. When the child and adolescent lived dependent on their care, part of living on their terms was meeting their expectations. But once grown into a young adult, that son or daughter is living on independent terms.

Now, for the sake of enjoying an ongoing relationship, parents must do more adjusting of their expectations to accept those terms in recognition that the life they gave their daughter, and how she chooses to lead it, belongs to her, not to them. The grown child is no longer in this world to live up to parental expectations.

If the issue of parental investment can lead to problems of disappointment when expectations are not met, the issue of parental implication can lead to problems of guilt when parents hold themselves accountable for personal hardships the young person carries into adult life.

So the socially shy young adult bears the scars of being burned because, when they were a child, the parent was not being vigilant enough about what was cooking on the stove. Or a young adult, a child of divorce, keeps bolting from romantic relationships for fear of a partner breaking love's commitment the way their parents did. Or the young person runs into problems with substance abuse just like their parent who finally got sober and found recovery.

It's easy for parents to feel implicated in their grown child's travails when they believe there is a connection to be drawn between parental conduct in the past and adult child behavior in the present. The more deeply implicated parents feel in their child's lasting hardships based on earlier hurts that they caused, the more susceptible to guilt they tend to be.

Most parents have some guilt about their earlier conduct that caused temporary or lasting hurt for the son or daughter, some acts of omission or commission for which they blame themselves. "If only I had been more strict my child would not have run so wild, given up on school, and have such a hard time getting a good paying job now." "If only I hadn't been so strict my child would not have rebelled into so much trouble, running with the wrong crowd, and ending up with jail time on her record." "If only I hadn't been so involved in my career my child wouldn't be so starved for attention, looking for it in one bad relationship after another." The varieties of parental guilt seem endless.

The steps to assuaging guilt are these: declare culpability, express honest sorrow, commit not to act that way again, make appropriate ammends, ask forgiveness, and (most important) forgive yourself.

What good is guilt? At least the parents are admitting responsibility for their own behavior in relation to their child, and that behavior can make a difference. In the extreme, whether a parent hugs or hits, loves or resents, approves or abuses, nurtures or abandons a son or daughter can all have a formative influence. Thus the child who is hit, resented, abused, and abandoned is likely to have a less trustful response to parents and people in general than a child who is hugged, loved, approved, and nurtured.

However, even with these extreme distinctions, parents who automatically implicate themselves in the grown child's failings and woes make a fundamental error. While parents are absolutely responsible for how they treat their child, the child is absolutely responsible for how he or she adjusts to that treatment. Thus the child of parental divorce is not responsible for the adult break up but is responsible for his or her choice in adjusting to this difficult history. This is why different adjustments can be made to the same event, even in the same family.

For example, one grown child looks back and says, "When my parents divorced I lost all faith that loving relationships could ever last, so it's their fault that I have been distrustful of commitment ever since." Another sibling, however, comes away with a different choice for adjustment. "When my parents divorced I was hurt and sorry for them, but I learned how important it is to communicate better in my relationships than they did in theirs."

To the same adversity, different choices for adjustment can be made. This is why responsibility for that adjustment must be respected. In healthy parent/grown child relationships, this division of responsibility needs to hold.

When parents continue to blame their grown child's trials on themselves, they commit three errors. First, they make a causative connection they cannot prove since there are so many influential variables in play that determine a young person's behavior. Second, they reduce the power of responsibility of the young person by encouraging him or her to hold them accountable for his or her choices. Third, they may open themselves up to a young person exploiting the vulnerability of parental guilt for manipulation or even compensation, particularly when the young person is seeking rescue from the consequences of a poor life choice.

So, in counseling, the parents of a 22-year-old describe how once again they feel compelled to take responsibility for paying her credit card debts since they never taught her how to manage money. "She says it's partly our fault," they confess, "and she's right. We've always covered her expenses no questions asked, so how else should we expect her to act?"

The interaction of parental guilt and parent blame can be mutually disabling. The resolution, of course, is for parents to forsake their guilt by ceasing self-blame, in the process emotionally disentangling the relationship. They need to be able to say to themselves, "Whatever we did, how she conducts her life now is not our fault; it is her choice."

So the parent listens empathetically to the young person describing how frequent geographical moves—attending 8 schools in 12 years—created instability in the family. It left him with anxiety when confronting further changes in his life, like the change he is facing upon graduating from college and stepping off on his own. "If my home had been stable I wouldn't lack the confidence that I feel now."

"Maybe so," agreed the father. "I know all those changes must have been pretty painful, and that some of that pain carries on in the insecurity you feel. I certainly take responsibility for creating the hard circumstances you describe, making so many job moves. But at this independent stage of your life, blaming family history for what feels hard only gets in the way of responsibility to take. To free up your future you must accept the family hand that you were dealt. How you play that hand is not up to what I did or didn't do; it's now up to you. My acting guilty and inviting further blame will only slow you down."

It is hard for parents to be attached to their grown child and not become unhappily emotionally entangled in the process; disappointment and guilt among the chief emotional offenders. What is required at the end of their child's adolescence is the hardest act of parenting there is—letting be and letting go. But that is what they have to do to free up all concerned.

At the beginning of childhood, a stranger is born dependent on parental care. At the end of adolescence, a more independent young person departs from their support. In between these two events, a loving connection has been established that hopefully will sustain and nourish the parent/adult child relationship through the years ahead. A healthy intergenerational connection requires having an adequate separation of responsibility that recognizes the psychological independence between them.

Subscribing to this separation, parents can honestly say and mean this: "Our grown children are not meant to be ourselves, to repeat ourselves, to reflect ourselves, to affirm ourselves, to complete ourselves, to repay ourselves, to absolve ourselves, or to fulfill ourselves. They are simply meant to be themselves. And our job is to respect their right to independent choice and value the individuals they have turned out to be."

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