Every parent eventually ends up as the parent of adult children. You know, those little guys grow up and become big guys. One minute they are smearing chocolate frosting all over their toddler face and then BAM! Out of nowhere, your little boy is a man or your little girl grows into a beautiful woman.
And for some parents, this is the moment when they rejoice. Done! Completed! Empty nest and all that! I totally get the joy of that moment and how much fun it is to be able to put yourself and your spouse as the top priorities in the household. Being an empty nester is quite a lot of fun…if you know how to let your kids be adults.
Let me give you an example: Monday morning my oldest daughter Alex walked out of her condo to her car and found the remnants of a ‘smash and grab’. Her driver’s side window was shattered. Her pack of cigarettes and a bag of clothes were missing. Her passenger side window was no longer functional. This is no way to start your Monday morning.
You can guess what happened next: she called her mom and dad and asked what to do. We encouraged her to call State Farm immediately and let her know that she’d probably have to file a police report. Then we told her to keep us informed about what happened and then we hung up the phone. You have no idea how hard it was for me to not cancel all my clients for the day and help my daughter handle her disaster…but I didn’t. I told her that I was available if she needed me and then I hung up the phone. Her father also went to work, but encouraged Alex to call or text if she needed him.
What’s the big deal, you ask?
Well, Alex called at 8am…and at 11am I had an appointment with a 22 year-old client of mine who recently broke up with her boyfriend. Since the breakup, this young man has threatened suicide, driven from another state to show up at her front door unannounced and unwelcome, feigned amnesia so that he could deny the breakup, posted unreasonable requests and private information on her social media pages to cause humiliation and drama, and finally attempted suicide just last week. Clearly this young man is unbalanced, and you’d think my client would be beside herself just trying to deal with the results of the breakup.
She’s in my office overwhelmed and crying because her mother keeps interfering in the breakup, taking sides with the young man and yelling at her daughter for all the distress she’s caused him and stating that she knew her daughter would ‘screw up’ the relationship. The fact that her daughter doesn’t love the young man anymore apparently doesn’t figure into the equation.
That’s right: her mother wants her to stay with the unbalanced young man even though she doesn’t love him anymore! But that’s not all:
Mom takes calls from the young man and has interfered in the splitting up of property her daughter and this young man owned while living together, leaving her daughter with no bed and no desk simply because they young man requested that the furniture that he no longer wanted be donated to Goodwill…even though my client would have no bed otherwise.
Now…mom is free to think that her daughter has made a mistake in breaking up with this young man. Mom is free to mourn the fact that she thought her daughter had finally found the one and let him get away. Mom is even free to tell her daughter that she thinks her daughter is making a huge mistake that she will deeply regret later.
But all that interference? Really?
Imagine if my client was 42 instead of 22. Imagine she lived next door to the woman who is actually her mother, and imagine that they are not related but simply neighbors.
Would you view the mother’s behavior differently if I told you that she took calls from her neighbor’s ex-boyfriend and then went next door and yelled at her neighbor, swearing that she knew her neighbor would ‘screw up’ the relationship? Would it be inappropriate if she went next door and demanded that her neighbor get rid of her bed just because the ex-boyfriend didn’t want her to keep it—and then hauled the bed out the door to take it to Goodwill?
Can you hear the police sirens yet?
Long about the moment that mom showed up at her neighbor’s house to verbally harangue her neighbor, things would have gotten problematic. Forcing her neighbor to get rid of furniture? That’s where the police show up.
Remember: this furniture doesn’t belong to mom. She didn’t buy it. So she has no right to decide what happens with this furniture. And this young man is not requesting that the furniture be shipped to where he is living. He wanted the furniture donated to Goodwill—except that if he actually doesn’t want the furniture, why should he care whether his ex-girlfriend keeps it or donates it? What business is it of his what happens to things he no longer wants?
Why am I detailing this mess for you?
Listen closely, parents. When your children are adults, you need to remember that healthy adults do not allow random outside people to interfere in their relationships or with their possessions or in their decisions. Adults like to be allowed to decide what is best for themselves.
This is true for your children! Once your children turn 18, they are adults. I know that 18 isn’t very old, and that they may still be living with you, but by law your 18 year old child is an ADULT. This means that you have to allow them autonomy in making decisions about their own life and their own possessions (and if you are supplying their furniture, car, etc…those are not their possessions. They are your possessions that you are letting them use temporarily. Your child owns something when they buy it for themselves or you put the object in their name, i.e. a car.)
If you wouldn’t do it to your neighbor…if you wouldn’t speak those words to your neighbor…if you wouldn’t take that action with your neighbor…DON’T DO IT WITH YOUR ADULT CHILD.
Please understand: it’s your house, and if they are living in it, they are like any adult living in the house. The owner of the house determines what behaviors are acceptable in the house…behavior outside the house is none of your business unless it’s criminal. And when I say criminal I mean against the law, not outside of your moral code.
Seriously, I spend more time in my office trying to get people to stop inappropriately interfering with other people. The funny thing is that no one comes in my office and says to me “Today I inappropriately interfered with my spouse/child/sister/mom by …blah blah blah.” Nope, they come in and say things like:
“I just don’t want him to feel bad so I told him that he can come by the house anytime, even though we’re divorcing. I just don’t want him to feel alone. And then he goes off on me because I changed the living room!”
I just don’t want him to feel… Stop right there. What do you mean that you don’t want someone to feel? That’s strange. Do you want someone telling you how to feel? Do you want someone attempting to control your emotions? What if you need those feelings to help you move on? To help you get over the loss?
This is not merciful. It is attempting to control another person’s experience emotionally, and it is unhealthy and unwise. It is also codependent.
“If she doesn’t go to school now she’s not going to be able to do it later. She’ll end up married and having kids and then she’ll never get an education. She has to go to college now while she’s young.”
She has to (do this thing I want her to do)… Stop right there. What do you mean that you know what is the best course of action for this person? That’s strange. You can’t possibly know what is best for another person because you can’t accurately predict the outcome of this decision. Do you want someone else making major decisions for your life? Do you want to be forced into certain actions and choices by a third party that doesn’t have to carry the burden of that action/choice?
This isn’t wisdom. It is attempting to control another person’s life journey, and it is unhealthy and unwise. It is also codependent.
“He can’t divorce her. She’s the best he’s ever had and he isn’t going to find anyone else to put up with his crap. If he divorces her, he’ll end up alone for the rest of his life. Besides, the whole family loves her!”
He can’t divorce… Stop right there. Do you really want him to stay with someone that he doesn’t love? Do you really want them together if they fight constantly? That can’t be good for anyone in the relationship. Do you want someone else choosing your life partner? Do you want to be forced to stay in a loveless marriage? And if you know so much about what’s right for the relationship, why didn’t you step in and help them before they got to the point where they want to divorce? Maybe you don’t know so much after all.
This isn’t helpful. It’s requesting that someone else remain miserable so that you don’t have to endure loss or discomfort or shame or whatever. This isn’t you knowing what’s best for them, it’s you wanting to do what is most comfortable for you.
And that’s what codependency comes down to over and over. The codependent person/parent wants to be comfortable, pain-free, and anxiety-free. And in order for that to happen, the adult child/other person has to make sure that they don’t do anything that makes the codependent person/parent uncomfortable, sad, disappointed, anxious, fearful, sorrowful, frightened, frustrated, or angry. Dear God! How the heck is anyone supposed to control their behavior sufficiently to prevent another person from feeling anything uncomfortable?
It’s not possible. That’s the whole point. And attempting to do so…is codependent in and of itself.
Life is uncomfortable. Life is filled with things that make us anxious and fearful. Life is also filled with things that are exhilarating and surprising…and if you ever want exhilaration or surprise, you are going to have to endure some anxiety and fear. Do you see my point? All the negative emotions have their positive counterpart, and getting to that positive counterpart usually involves enduring a certain amount of the negative. You can’t fall in love without enduring the uncertainty and fear that you will not be loved back. You can’t have a child without enduring the discomfort of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. You can’t raise a child to adulthood without a few sleepless nights…okay, a lot of sleepless nights…and tears, and fears, and anxiety, and anger, and sorrow. But let’s admit it: raising children is worth everything you go through because the joy and love you get back from those children is stunning and powerful and one of the most amazing things you’ve ever experienced. In other words the gain is worth the pain.
Please, for the love of God, if you are a parent, stop acting in codependent ways with your adult children. If you are behaving like this with others who you love but who aren’t your children, stop! Stop interfering in their decisions, in their emotions, and in their actions. Give them the same respect and autonomy that you want to have in this world. And when you think they’re being stupid or doing the wrong thing, tell them honestly and directly how you feel ONCE…and only once, and then shut up about it.
Being healthy is hard work but it is worth all the effort that you’ll put into it. Emotional health is no different than physical health, in that it pays off in the best ways when things are the most difficult. I promise that I’ll be saying more about this next week, and I’ll even have some examples about how you practice emotional health, especially with adult friends and family members.