As you know, being a parent does not stop when your child leaves the nest. Whether your child is fifteen, thirty, or forty-five, it is upsetting to watch him or her make unhealthy decisions. When your ‘adult’ child is in a bad relationship, for example, it can cause you extreme stress and worry. Of course you want to help. But how?
The first question to ask yourself is whether your child is actually in a bad relationship. If your child is mostly happy and stable, and is learning and growing, it is likely that your own preferences and judgments are clouding your viewpoint. Try to let go of what you want for your child, and support his or her choices.
If you have separated out your own judgments, and still believe that your child is in a relationship that is unhealthy, codependent, or abusive, you may desperately want to do something to change or control your child’s choices. The problem is that you do not have control over another person’s relationship choices.
You do, however, have power in the choices that you make in your own relationships, including your relationship with your child. Doing your part in creating a healthy parent/child relationship is the best and most you can do to help. This relationship can be an incredible source of strength, stability and perspective for your child. It also shows, through example, a model of a healthy relationship.
So, help your ‘adult’ child make better romantic relationship choices through building and improving on these basics of a healthy parent/child relationship:
- Compassion. If it is taking time for your child to learn or make changes in whom he chooses as partners, or how she behaves in her romantic relationships, it is for a good reason. Relationships are complex, confusing, and powerful. ‘Bad’ relationship choices are rarely simply an indication that a person has low self-esteem, is stupid, is crazy, or is stubborn. They reflect a person’s deepest fears and challenges; in order to move forward, those issues will need to be addressed and worked through.
- Respect. Your child has his or her own path in life, and it is not your job or place to decide what that path looks like, or with whom he or she shares that path.
- Honesty. Tell it like you see it. Ignoring an issue and pretending it does not exist will take a serious toll on your relationship with your child. The relationship loses its foundation of truth and ‘reality.’ Be clear about how you perceive your child’s partner relationship, while also ‘owning’ the fact that these are your subjective perceptions. Once you express your thoughts and feelings, trust that your child will ask if he or she needs to hear it again.
- Support. Support can be giving your child a place to stay temporarily, paying for counseling, directing him or her to mental health resources, or talking about all the different and conflicting feelings and thoughts he or she has about the situation. Support may be welcoming your child and his or her partner into your home for holidays or including them in other family events. Support can also be a willingness to just spend time with your child, and talk about things other than the ‘relationship problems.’
- Boundaries. Giving support in a healthy way means that you also must take responsibility for paying attention to when you feel resentful, overwhelmed, depleted, or ‘in over your head.’ For example, if you feel like you can’t cope with talking about the relationship any more, tell your child that you are at your limit. If it is too much for you emotionally to have your child and his or her partner attend family events at your house, do not invite them. If you don’t feel comfortable allowing your child to sleep on your couch after a fall-out with his or her partner, say no. If you fear for the safety of your child, your grandchildren, or other children involved, you will have to call the police or Child Protective Services. Just try to set these boundaries based on your limits, rather than in an attempt to change or control your child’s relationship choices.
- Letting go. It is incredibly difficult to let go when your child is suffering or even in danger. Letting go of trying to control his or her choices can feel wrong and irresponsible. You must remind yourself, however, that the option to control your child’s choices is not available. So, you’ve got to choose the option that is available — to help by using your power to build the strength of your parent/child relationship.
If you find yourself struggling with these relationship basics, and even needing support to develop your own relationship skills, do not be surprised. None of this is easy. Furthermore, as a parent, your stress and worry will probably continue forever. As you invest your energy into your healthy connection with your child, however, be assured that you are doing everything you can to help.
Photo by Nick Horne, available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license.
Danielle B. (Klotzkin) Grossman, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, provides psychotherapy for California clients who are looking for a way to move forward through relationship issues, problems with alcohol, drugs, or managing money, eating and body issues, trauma, grief and loss, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. She consults by phone for mental health professionals nationally. Contact her at (530) 470-2233 or truckeecounseling.com.