Letting Your Adult Children Walk All Over You

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Oh you just wouldn’t believe all the heartache Bob and I have had over our daughter’s wedding! We were shocked when our darling Debbie, who is 30, told us that she didn’t want to have her dad walk her down the aisle, she didn’t want any flowers to recognize special relatives including my mother who is 94, she only wanted to send out e-mail invitations, and she expected Bob and I to pay for 100 guests, most of whom are not family members, at a fancy restaurant as well as help finance their honeymoon to Italy.

Her fiance, George, a nice young man, hinted that there may be problems down the road with his relatives over competing for grandchildren if Bob and I didn’t accept their wedding plans. We were reminded many times, “After all, this is our wedding!” Bob and I both felt very used but of course we gave in. I just couldn’t imagine never seeing grandchildren. What else could we do?!

Most of my friends said, “Oh, Marge, they’re just going through a phase. You can’t control their wedding plans. That’s just how young people are these days.” Actually I didn’t feel we were trying to control things. We just wanted some consideration. Anyway life goes on. Now two years later we barely see our grandkids and Debbie’s younger sister announced that she and her fellow are talking marriage and of course she expects big things from us, too. I guess being used is just part of being a parent these days. My big question is, “When will it ever end?!”

Being used and blackmailed by our adult children is a living hell. It’s not a normal situation. You feel depressed and hopeless because you are in what appears to be a no-win situation. If you decide to assert your needs with your kids and ask for respect you may never see them again. If you let them walk all over you, you are continually put in the position of having to buy their love.

Often the power others have over us derives from our desperation to belong.There are no easy answers here. Either way your dream of having a secure and tender lifelong connection to your adult children is lost. This conundrum in today’s world is not a rarity. Many older parents these days walk on eggshells around their adult children so as to not be in this hellish situation. Many parents may feel their own children would never treat them the way Debbie is treating her parents and yet wonder how true that reality is. Many of us may question what these parents did so wrong to justify how they are being treated by their adult children. Obviously all of us would like to know as we have a strong investment in not having it happen to us!

The key to understanding this crisis is to realize that this wedding fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg. Marge and Bob are in fact excellent parents. Unfortunately they have just been too excellent! They have always given their daughters what they ever wanted without expecting any reciprocal responsibility from their daughters. Letting your children walk all over you in the name of love is a setup for heartache. It should be no surprise that when we parent our children out of guilt and insufficiency that they might take advantage of that. In fact, how could Debbie do it any differently?! Unfortunately very loving and well-meaning parents can give too much of a good thing and have very bad results.

Let’s be clear. All of us parents deserve to be treated with respect by our children as we respect them for being appropriately different from us. Obviously we must learn to honor ourselves before our children can honor us. It’s never too late to learn. Even if you’ve allowed your children to walk all over you, it’s possible to free yourself from the no-win situation of having to buy their love. There is a way out.

Why are we pushovers with our adult kids?

There are umpteen reasons why parents allow adult children power over them. In fact, I believe it’s rare these days that parents aren’t solving all their adult children’s problems. Some of us parents feel we have no other choice and assume that being used is par for the course. We may have insecure identities and have always catered to our children in a vain attempt to having them like us. In that way we expect our children to make us feel worthy. Unfortunately children cannot make us like ourselves and they become burdened by our neediness and expect special favors and compensation in return.

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Others of us parents are troubled by unresolved guilt. Perhaps we have gotten divorced, have been with an alcoholic partner, not made enough money, worked excessive hours away from the family or have had the audacity to be imperfect in some way. We may attempt to atone for our failings by giving our children whatever they want well into their adulthood and beyond. Unfortunately, such atoning doesn’t remove our guilt; it just allows us to be used.

On the other hand, some of us parents carry an emptiness inside ourselves. Perhaps we feel our lives have little significance. So we try to fulfill all of our needs through solving our children’s problems. Instead of focusing on ourselves, we focus on our kids to fill our void. Sadly this pattern of rescuing adult kids only keeps our children immature and dependent on us. In the long run such preoccupation only make us feel less fulfilled. In fact there is perhaps no greater futility than continually being responsible for irresponsible adult children. However, being locked into self-defeating patterns may not allow us to see other options.

There are complex relational causes of catering to adult children. Sometimes we over give to our adult children to try to offset wounds from our growing up years. If we were overindulged as children we may expect that we owe it to our own kids to do the same for them. If we were deprived in childhood we may over give to our adult children to try to take away our own childhood pain and give our children what we never had. Such efforts never work. Allowing our adult children to walk all over us today only recapitulates what happened to us long ago in childhood; it does not heal.

Another cause, perhaps the most frequent contributor to parental disempowerment, is chronic marital discord. When one marital partner has a lasting gripe with a partner, he or she may turn to the children to fight with the other spouse. Possibly he or she becomes nicer to the children to get emotional needs met that aren’t being met in the marriage while the other partner becomes harsher with the kids to offset the leniency of the other spouse. Naturally the children assume too much power in the household from this divide and conquer strategy when parents don’t work together. Such triangulation of kids into the marriage, whether overt or covert, is a leading cause of catering to adult children.

Also, enough cannot be said about the immense cultural pressures on parents to allow their children to run the house. Most TV advertising is directed at children to get them to buy. Often kids are portrayed as savvy consumers and the “real experts” in the home while their parents are depicted as bumbling fools from another era who are just ripe for manipulation. Selling to children starts at a very young age. Advertisers feel that if they can hook them when they’re young, they will have kids for life. Indeed what parent can resist the pleas from their charming three year-old daughter to get a complete Barbie set just like all of her friends have? The “princessing” of America renders many parents helpless.

Making changes: Is it even possible?

Let’s face it. The problem is not with our children; it’s with ourselves. Most our children are actually pretty good people if we don’t use them to solve our own problems. We need to solve our own problems and expect our adult kids to be mature enough to handle life’s challenges with minimal help from us. Too many of us don’t trust our children to become mature because we’re projecting our own immaturity and helplessness on to our children. Adult kids may act young, but that’s what ‘s been expected of them. We need to trust our kids to be mature even if they are giving us abundant evidence to the contrary. Believe me, our children are way more capable of taking care of themselves as adults than how they present themselves to us. The rule of thumb with adult kids is to not do for them what they are responsible to do for themselves even when they seem incapable. Kids will find a way to mature if we let them.

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So believe in the power of “No.”Clearly adult children do need our moral support and compassion as well as special assistance when they have real handicaps. However, they do not need us to solve their problems, especially when it comes to earning and managing money or finding living arrangements. If you do offer concrete assistance, it’s best to partner with adult kids who are still hanging around the home but want to be independent. When we partner with our kids we say things like, “If you work to pay for your room and board through a summer job, we’ll pay for a portion of your college tuition” or “You can live at home as long as you agree to our rules and pay some semblance of rent.” Taking a “No free lunch” approach with adult children is the way to go to launch them into adulthood and respect ourselves. For guidance on where to draw the line, read Arlene Harder’s Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do Is Never Enough.

Obviously, it’s not easy to stand up for your rights as a parent if you have continually indulged your children when they were young. However it’s never too late to start and a lot better than never starting at all. Indeed, if you don’t allow your children to walk all over you they may fly the coop and disown you. Keep in mind that our kids can’t disown us as they carry us around inside themselves 24-7. They inevitably come back. So believe in the power of “No.” Interestingly enough your standing up to your kids and expecting them to be responsible for themselves, despite all their venom, is exactly what they crave the most from you. It is your vote of confidence in them. Some parents dread the sudden loss of contact with adult children and will do anything to avoid it. Inevitably loss must come. That’s where healthy relationships with a spouse, trusted friends and with ourselves comes in. When you set limits with your adult kids you will need to find a way to live in an empty nest. This is no easy task, especially for mothers who have devoted their entire lives to mothering. It can feel just as bad as men who are asked to retire from their lifelong jobs. We empty nesters all need a back-up plan and a lot of friends.

A very wise saying applies, “Be grateful for what you don’t ask for, as it just might heal you!” Let’s realize that each of us is more than the job we do. There are neglected aspects of ourselves that have lain dormant for all the years we were mothering or fathering. Now is the time to embrace those aspects as we reconfigure our relationships with our truly adult children. What was lost can now be found.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).  

This article first appeared in the April 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.

Last Updated on April 19, 2022

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