What to Do When Your Adult Child Won’t Grow Up
By: Michele Landmead
Each week I receive a number of calls from parents who are concerned about their adult children. Most want to know what they can do to help. After they describe the situation, I suggest they continue to pray.
Often the parent replies, “Well, I do that, but what else can I do?”
“Nothing,” I respond.
The ensuing silence is deafening. Most parents don’t want to believe there is nothing they can do to straighten out their adult children. I think God must have felt the same way; His radical solution was to send His Son.
One mother asked me how she could motivate her 23-year-old son to finish school. He lived at home, was sullen and uncommunicative, didn’t work, didn’t help around the house, slept all day and was on the computer or out most of the night. This young man had it made. He was living on easy street while his parents were pulling out their hair trying to “motivate” him. They had just bought him a car because he had convinced them he needed one so he could job hunt. His mother was cutting out job ads and strategically placing them in his room. If you want to motivate him, I suggested, give him a month to find another place to live and mean it. At some level this mother knew it was the right thing but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Understanding the problem
What‘s the problem here? It seems obvious unless we’re talking about our own adult child. This young man has never learned how to take care of himself. He’s never had to because his parents treat him like a child – and so he remains one. If parents want their children to become mature adults they need to let them embrace life, make decisions and face the consequences of those decisions. Even when it seems guaranteed the child is heading for disaster, parents have to step back, watch and pray.
Parents who treat their adult children like younger children they are, in effect, saying “I don’t believe you can look after yourself, so I’ll do it.” The message is “we don’t trust you to run your own life.”
Ultimately, parents want adult children who have godly character. When we try to protect our adult children from suffering, we undermine and cripple them, because it’s through suffering that God shapes our character. God has given us free will. He watches us all make some horrendous decisions, but doesn’t prevent the consequences because He knows that’s how we learn and grow. It’s also how we come to depend on Him more and more. We can do no less with our own children than God does with us.
Embrace a long-term vision
Parents were once the centre of their child’s life. How quickly that changes! But it’s so important that parents adjust to this change. Parents must embrace a long-term vision that guides them in their decisions that will help, not thwart, their child’s development into the mature, God-loving person that God created them to be. Part of that vision is letting the child make their own age-appropriate decisions and allowing them to face the consequences. At some point, parents must let go of their children entirely. They must completely entrust them to the Lord – which is much easier said than done. It goes against every instinct a parent has.
Most parents I speak with begin to understand how they have enabled their children to stay irresponsible. Our conversations then turn to the parent’s next steps. How do they let go? Mothers seem to struggle with this more than fathers. Fathers often are more willing to take a “tough love” approach sooner than mothers. But tough love is necessary if we want to give our adult children the best chance of making a go of life. Hopefully, we won’t wait until they are adults, but it’s never too late.
What you can do now
I suggest that parents tell their adult children how much they love them, believe in them and know they are capable of handling life with all its inherent risks, failures and successes. Let the adult kids know you’re making some changes. No more suggestions, advice or lectures. Just listen to them, let them know you understand and that you believe they will eventually sort it out.
In the end we don’t know what anyone else should or shouldn’t do, even our adult children. We certainly know what we would do, but we don’t know what is best for someone else, or what God has in store.
One mother asked, “What if something terrible happens?”
Something terrible might happen, or it might not. There are no guarantees. Christ tells us we will have trouble in this world. We cannot prevent our children from suffering, but we can teach them how to deal with it in a godly way. Life is not easy but we know that Christ will be with us no matter what. Can you entrust back to God those He has entrusted to you?
© Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Article supplied with thanks to Focus on the Family Australia.
About the Author: Michele has a Masters in Counselling Pyschology and has worked in a variety of mental health settings for over 25 years. Focus on the Family provides relevant, practical support to help families thrive in every stage of life.