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Adult Children: Taking a Step Back Can Be Healthy

Is your parenting style a holdover from their childhood?

In the very simplest of terms, codependency is a “complex pattern of excessive selflessness and preoccupation with another person that does not serve both people optimally” (Wikipedia). It's actually considered an inverted form of narcissism. Narcissism? How do selflessness and narcissism even occupy the same definition, you may ask? When you think about it, it does make sense. If you’re one of those parents (like me) who spent half a lifetime monitoring and fretting about a child’s every move and then carried that into their adulthood, maybe it’s time to shed your own sense of self-importance even though you’ve never truly slapped a name on it.

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I warn you, however. This is a touchy topic for parents of adult kids who often don’t see the forest for the trees. Psychology Today’s Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, who has written about the topic several times, says the question of whether you are a codependent parent is a topic that sparks heated debates. The three red flags he says you should look for are: (1) shouldering debt for an adult son or daughter caught up in a pattern on non-productivity, (2) their habit of borrowing money from you because they can’t sustain consistent employment, and (3) disrespect is the rule and not the exception to it, but you use the excuse that your grown kid has “problems” — giving you the leeway to let them off the hook. In the real world you would never permit another grown adult to treat you similarly.

The issues I had with my own grown daughter were slightly different and had nothing to do with finances. They had to do with my not thinking she could solve her own issues without my suggestions, which were rejected by her about 90% of the time anyway. So I started looking for a more expert opinion on signs of codependency that might apply to me. Of course, one of the hardest things for most of us to do is hold up a mirror revealing our own habits and obsessions. Some food for thought:

  • If you feel under-appreciated/rarely validated after all your efforts to help your grown child navigate his or her own life, you may simply be in denial. Refusing to acknowledge there is a problem by not questioning it means you may be ignoring what truly benefits your child. I hate to say it, but if others are telling you that you are codependent, you probably are.
  • Codependency, in simple terms, is an addiction to another person. I know moms whose entire lives revolve around the accomplishments and emotional welfare of one or more of their children, as if their own lives and interests ended long ago. It may be time to shift the focus on you since your child is now well past fully formed but you evidently haven’t moved on.
  • Is the thought of doing anything that willfully or even accidentally alienates your child horrific to you, as if all those years of giving unconditional love meant nothing and your child’s very foundations will crumble without you? Now maybe you can see where that narcissism kicks in. If you did all you could as a parent when they were growing up, there comes a time when you have to have faith they can find their way without your constant attention.
  • Do you put your foot down on an issue and then backpedal because you fear losing your child’s love and don’t want to look like the bad guy? Let’s take the example of when parents feel their nearly grown child is not acting responsibly regarding their future. A mom or dad might feel very assertive when telling their able-bodied adult child in no uncertain terms that if they don’t get a job -- any job -- within six months of high school or college graduation, he or she would have to find another place to live. While issuing that edict sounds logical at the time, however, following through with an ultimatum is not as easy as it sounds. This is the kind of issue that blows up in parents’ faces over and over again, like a scene out of the movie Groundhog Day when the main character wakes up every day to the same events but doesn’t realize he is the key to making things come out differently. It makes perfect sense that once a grown child knows his parents don’t really mean all that tough stuff, their promises merely become idle threats. Now. Think for a minute -- by example what kind of future parent are you teaching them to be? It's sobering.

Simply speaking, my daughter loved to vent and I loved being the person she turned to. It was what we did. For years -- from her tweens through her 20s. She wasn’t looking for my commentary, suggestions or stories, but of course, I offered them anyway, since I was taught from an early age that conversations were dialogues between two people. When her response to my hovering and unsolicited advice was “Mom, why are you making this all about you?” it gave me great pause. I didn’t understand what she meant.

Now I do. It took a while for me to fathom that she wasn’t the problem. I was. Even as I took steps to stop my helicoptering, however, convincing both myself and my daughter to navigate these new protocols was no cake walk. We both went through some discomfort at first. The frequency of our communications lessened and when they did take place, they were not the types of detailed discussions that led us to juggernauts with one of us hanging up. Honestly, I had to learn to shut up, which is not easy for me. I was, after all, the voice of reason. My own reason.

In the end, I knew I had raised a kid who both knew I cared deeply about her but was also savvy enough to get in touch in an emergency. In the process, an interesting thing happened. A new kind of ease took place when speaking or texting with her. We communicated when we actually had interesting news to tell. Pleasantries. Like grown adults. This may not sound like a huge revelation to you, but for us, it has been transformative.

You may ask if I miss how communicative we were before. Well, yeah... I think there will always be a part of me that wants to hover and protect not just because I’m a mom but also because it makes me feel important. However, I just had to come to the conclusion that that part of my job was done. It's a comforting feeling to think that however my daughter remembers me when I’m gone, she might recall that at one point her mother finally figured this out.

Take heart. Your investment of love will not suddenly disappear just because your adult child doesn’t get the rapt attention you poured on her all those years. Over time, he or she will learn to rely on other people or other methods to get through her daily life without making you the default sounding board, and that’s a very healthy thing. Strength can come from the idea that your child knows that while you will never love them any less, your faith in his or her ability to figure things out without you is alive and well.

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