Did Boomers Doom Their Adult Kids to Years of Therapy?

Is bad parenting the culprit?

Posted Aug 07, 2016

We always wonder. Unless we’re experienced at raising dozens of kids successfully, as parents is it our own perceptions, our (lack of) parenting skills, our child’s unique personality or some kind of disorder/deficit constantly in play when we’re faced with raising what we consider to be a challenging kid? Or is it all of them, creating a magic elixir that someday leads our kid to a therapist’s couch?

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In my case, our daughter had what was considered advanced verbal skills and a curiosity that was off the charts. Complaints about her began with sweet, well-meaning apple-shaped Post-It notes from day care ladies and pre-school teachers, and continued throughout her educational and social experiences until she finished high school. She had a short attention span when a subject did not interest her and sought negative attention when she couldn’t get it the usual way, but she was able to pull proverbial academic rabbits out of hats when she wanted to. This often left her teachers perplexed and her parents devoid of answers. This conundrum of good/troubling traits led her through a young adulthood of self-imposed experimentation, coming out of what I refer to as her “grunge” era by around age 21—thank God, unscathed. 

Like many other parents, I was a product of the times (the ‘80s and ‘90s) when it became easier and easier to slap a label on a child’s behavior rather than think my parenting skills were less than stellar.  These were also the “supermom” years, when mothers felt both liberated as well as compelled to work full time. We became aware that a two-income household might offer us a bigger, fancier home, more vacations, newer cars, and we took full advantage of after-school programs and new day care facilities that sprouted up on every corner.  In order to form a more perfect parenting persona despite not being a full-time stay-at home mom, I drew on my college courses in psychology, devoured books on parenting and did everything else I could think of to become the enlightened one.  This was also an era when teachers began taking more sophisticated continuing education classes in order to recognize signs of autism, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, dyslexia and Tourette’s in their students.

I was in foreign territory being a first-time and, as fate would play out, an only-time mom. My own childhood experiences left me flat-footed for all this. I simply don’t recall hearing the word “parenting” growing up. As for my own school-bound memories, I recall how dividing kids into the usual reading levels created for us were the only things that set us apart in the classroom. The most heartbreaking thing I recall witnessing (and occasionally being a part of) was when some kids didn’t get chosen for a sports team until no one else was left to choose. There were no pull-out programs with special curricula for kids with deficits, no lining up at the nurse’s office to be administered a daily dose of Ritalin, and the way a child learned that they were behind in school was being held back a grade—which seemed almost cruel to the rest of us at the time—but was the law of the land nonetheless.

In this “new age” of parenting I unwittingly entered, using a family counselor to get to the bottom of what was going on with our precocious kid seemed like an enlightened thing to do. Both my child’s teachers and I thought a more neutral third party could make a difference in helping our daughter adapt more easily and cause fewer problems at school. And since seeking counseling no longer carried the connotation that something was “wrong” with a child, I fell right in line, fascinated by what someone else would say was at play in her as each school year unfolded. I honestly think many of us modern mothers took an experimental approach to all this, hoping some key would be handed to us that unlocked the happier (more compliant?) child we thought lay latent within our offspring—akin to how an individual is liberated from suffering from some nagging condition when a therapist gets to the root causes.

In essence, however, what many of us don't understand is that this journey our child is taking to adulthood is not entirely our own to control no matter how hard we try. In the end, we are simply our kids’ tour guides, injecting common sense wherever feasible, trying to lead by example when the occasion calls for it, and offering encouragement when we see good things happening—or even when they aren’t.  Our intense love for our children becomes the undercurrent but not the driver for their lives. Once kids are grown, however, we often ask ourselves—did we overdo? What if we showered our kids with so much attention and kudos that we essentially shielded them from the painful things in life instead of having offered them tools to learn from each event?

Goodtherapy.org, in one of its parenting articles, defining what parents do, says, “A parent is often the most influential person in a child’s life, even after the child becomes an adult, and children will often look to their parents for guidance on ethical and moral topics as well as the typical concerns of daily life.”  Because my child is now in her 30s, however, this is the part that hit me hardest: “Many parents continue to offer support and guidance to children who have reached adulthood, especially in the case of a child who is coping with a chronic or temporary issue. However, some adult children may resent what they see as continued parental influence and refuse assistance. Some children may engage in risky or destructive behavior, and parents may be unable to reach them or be unsuccessful when encouraging them to seek help. This powerlessness is likely to be difficult and distressing for parents, but a therapist or other mental health professional can help parents explore ways to cope with these circumstances or reach out to their children, when possible.”

The fact is, well-meaning parents will continue to question themselves into oblivion even if they know they gave 100% of themselves to the task, and all the therapy in the world cannot turn back the clock.  Nothing, however, is more gut-wrenching than the realization that—if our adult child now has a lot of unresolved issues that from time to time wreak havoc in their lives—we may have been part of the problem.  In the 2015 Los Angeles Times article, "Narcissistic kid? Blame the parents, study says," it is noted that parents set the stage for both current and future behavior in their kids. The article quotes Ohio State University’s Brad Bushman as coauthor of a paper that found a direct correlation between parents who overvalue their children and children who are narcissistic. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks at the origins of narcissism, tells us that kids are not born narcissists and that upbringing can actually predict how narcissistic kids turn out to be.  Eddie Brummelman, a participating researcher in this study, says, “Narcissism is not a disorder that people do or do not have. Rather, it is a spectrum on which adults and kids from the general population gradually differ from one another.”

What the study does not take into account, however, is how forces around us contributed and even supported those of us who kept telling their kids how amazingly special they were.  First, MTV, with its rock videos, took them on journeys of fame, fortune and ego-driven fantasies. Then social media kicked in, with sites like MySpace. Teens and even 'tweens of the ‘90s with personal computers on bedroom desktops found kids creating "personal" pages documenting their activities, flashing pictures of themselves with friends and at parties, plastering cyber-wallpaper and pumping garage band music into their little online rock star images and—voila!—these kids became convinced that just about anything was possible. (This may not have always had a deleterious effect, however, since the kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s were drivers of the digital generation, producing entrepreneurs that invented and developed ideas that have changed all our lives). There is hope, however, for parents who may have overindulged their kids, according to Brummelman.  "Although narcissism is often seen as a deeply ingrained personality trait, it can certainly change," he says. "When you are narcissistic at one time in life, you're not destined to be narcissistic decades later." As we all know, life can change on a dime, forcing us to face things about our reactions to what comes our way while teaching us powerful lessons. That happens for our adult children as well.

In the Sydney Morning Herald article, "Bonsai parenting: Why so many children end up in therapy," clinical psychologist/researcher Judith Locke identifies a new breed of children that end up on therapists’ couches, created by parents' desire to make their children happy. It cites, “Overly involved in their children's lives, these parents are constantly trying to solve their problems and harbor unrealistic expectations of their potential. When they are confronted by their child's shortcomings or difficulties, these parents seek out clinical diagnoses.  A sense of melancholy is labeled depression; any trepidation is labeled anxiety. A friendship fight is bullying."  In her book The Bonsai Child, she speaks of children who are over-nurtured. "Many [parents] are labeling any experience of difficulty as a mental health issue."

My singular-but-intense experience in parenting tells me that one of the best gifts I ever gave my own daughter, after years of treating her like a cherished science experiment and often sending her all the wrong messages, was simply to let go. Yes. That meant waving goodbye when she wanted her independence at age 18 and not supporting her financially when I found her copping out instead of pursuing meaningful work or a college degree.  This willingness to permit my child to live and let live is not something that was common in my Greek-American family—especially with daughters, so I am grateful my parents were already gone during these challenging years. While I often helped to pay for her move to a new locale because of a different direction she wanted to take and tried to hide my disappointment when she quit/got fired from gainful employment scenarios, I swallowed my own opinions and worked hard to act more the observer than the former coddling mother.  The dance we do to this day is a delicate one, but it’s a good one, having formed a bond that we hope will withstand what’s to come for both of us. Because let’s face it—there is no ideal parent and no ideal child.  "A child who has been given the perfect childhood can't cope with the less than perfect realities of adult life," Locke says.

With the wealth of experience and information available to us both online and with trained professionals to help us in our parenting challenges, my take on this is to look for advice that helps offer your growing child tools to individuate, just like chicks that get pushed out of the nest just in time to make them realize they can fly on their own. We are handed these tiny lives for a very short time, and it’s our job to help them face what life hands them. After teaching them all we can, let’s simply learn to get out of their way.