Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Parent, Adolescent, and How Each Other "Turns Out"

Accepting the outcome of the parent/adolescent relationship can be hard to do

A huge amount of personal time, effort, resources, and love are required to raise a little girl or boy from infancy through childhood and adolescence to young adult independence. In the process, parents are frequently called upon to set self-interest aside and respond to a daughter or son’s pressing need. They are called upon to give more of themselves when they already feel given out, often giving up what matters to them for the sake of the child.

Committed parenting is not for the easily tired, the indifferent, the self-absorbed, or the faint of heart.

I say all this because, as with any great human investment, with parenting there usually comes some expectation of return: how their grown child shall “turns out.” There is some positive outcome from their efforts that parents have in mind. For example, they may wish their daughter or son “turns out” as a young adult who is a happy, healthy, and hard working person. In this case, parents hope that because of all they did, in spite of all they did, and independent of all they did, their young adult will “turn out” feeling well, being well, and doing well.

But suppose, during the young adult years (around ages 23 – 30), which are often a time of struggle to settle oneself down, to discipline freedom with purpose, to find a job with a future, to form a committed life partnership, their daughter or son is still groping for direction, can’t catch occupational hold, and is without a stable attachment?

Suppose none of this was what parents were expecting? Suppose, at this important juncture, the young adult’s personal definition, goals, or lifestyle doesn’t live up to or fit parental expectations or hopes or ambitions to which they still hold fast? The risk is that parental criticism or complaint can follow.

Now, feeling anxious and let down, prey to worry and disappointment and frustration, they express all this to the beleaguered young person. “Why can’t you get your life together?” “All your friends are making headway.” “We didn’t raise you to flounder with your life!” When this response occurs, it can strain the parent/adult child relationship causing communication and even sense of caring to diminish.

It often turns out that how the young adult “turns out” has much to do with how parents feel their parenting has turned out. So the Parenting = Child equation is unhappily applied. In this case, how the young adult performs is treated as a reflection or measure of how well or badly parents feel they have done.

One of the hardest tasks at the end of Detachment Parenting their adolescent is to let any remaining vestiges of this false equation go so the young person feels free to pursue her or his individual and independent way unburdened by parental performance needs.

Of course, this adjustment is not all one side. The young adult also has some detaching to do because now parents are no longer as wonderful as when knowing them first began. In childhood, the tendency was to Idealize Parents as perfectly wonderful. In adolescence the tendency was to Criticize Parents as unsatisfactory. And in young adulthood the task is to Humanize Parents as people who, even trying their hardest and doing their best, made a mixed job of it. With all their caring and effort, parents gave a mix of strength and frailty, wisdom and stupidity, consideration and selfishness, commission and omission, making good decisions and bad.

Looking back on what they had with each other and missing some they wished for from each other, not the parent and not the grown child “turns out” perfect in each other’s eyes. Now both have to make the best of what they had and have.

Reflecting on how everyone “turns out” during this season for celebrating family, I become mindful of the “Gestalt Prayer” of Fritz Perls in his book, “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim.”

“I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.”

Except, I have found that last line doesn’t always hold because estranged parent and adult child can sometimes find each other after all. Giving and gaining acceptance is the way. They cease regretfully and resentfully faulting the other person for how she or he sadly is not. They begin appreciatively and gratefully valuing the other person for how she or he positively is.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2014.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Responding to Questions Adolescents Ask