Slim, pretty, equipped with her Prada bag, my son’s girlfriend was in my home for a grand total of twenty-four hours. Shortly before the day ended, she informed my son she did not feel “comfortable” in my house.
You don’t need the whole back-story but, bottom line, it gave me that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I rarely experience as a mature adult, the one you have just before you throw up or pass out.
I was terrified by recent research suggesting mothers are more likely to be estranged from their children than fathers and that it is more common than you think. One in 10 families studied had an estranged child. Another study concluded that feeling like a parent is constantly about to reject you for your choices creates enough emotional turmoil to threaten the relationship.
For years I’ve been listening to people talk about similar issues with their grown children. With a little distance, I started considering what sage advice I might offer. What are the secrets to coping with this potentially devastating situation?
Even with kids like my son, who generally make good decisions, there will be choices with which we disagree. Sometimes even those we think are terrible.
The trick is to figure out effective ways to make it manageable.
Here are some suggestions for being parental, without being rejecting or hypercritical:
1. Hands off affairs of the heart.
On the face of it, Prada-girl seemed nice enough. Not who I would have chosen but, hey, I didn’t have to spend that much time with her (bit of an understatement there).
Earlier, I’d tried to help my son deal with Ms. Prada’s escalating demands for his attention. Even though he was working, she would require immediate responses to her texts and calls. When her demands were not met she would become angry and withdraw, then return only to repeat the pattern. I’d explained how she might be feeling insecure with him halfway across the country, right near the beach in summer. I thought that in her mind she saw her bikini-clad replacement.
With the benefit of hindsight, I see how her demands presaged a pattern of attempts to control him. She questioned texts he received from a woman he worked with and was fixated on keeping track of his phone. It seemed a bit paranoid. Now it’s clear her behavior was a red flag for the proverbial sign of the disloyal — questioning others’ loyalty.
Probably just as well I didn’t see it then, because he wouldn’t have listened. It was love.
2. Accept disagreeable choices.
The point here is that he chose her, and my job was to be accepting. We may not agree with all the decisions our kids make, but that doesn’t make them terrible decisions.
If the choice is whether to go to college or what to study there, how to spend money, where to spend the holidays, etc., it’s pretty much all the same. They will probably do what they want to do even when you’re critical. If forced to do what you want them to do, maybe because you control the purse strings, it’s going to backfire on your know-it-all self. Don’t go there, since perceived criticism is one factor thought to result in estrangement.
Isn’t the idea of parenting to cultivate the child’s ability to be autonomous and make their own choices? If you raise your child to be independent and creative, they’re likely to make idiosyncratic choices as they flourish in their own unique ways.
You never know what choices these will be. Perhaps you know or think you know that your child is not managing their chronic health problem or their finances, something you tried to manage for them for years. You might be right.
As much as you would like to control it, you can’t. You simply hope they will figure it out at some point.
3. Consider your communication carefully.
It’s surprising to me how often I must recommend that my clients and friends ask if their children would like to know what they think before offering advice and opinions. Your kid is grown… they don’t have to listen to what you say.
If you’re invited to give an opinion, it’s a lot harder to blow off what you’ve got to say.
If you’re not asked, you don’t want to use up the goodwill afforded you as a parent. This goodwill is extended by your child to cover the opinions and advice you often feel you must offer, opinions and advice that are underappreciated but grudgingly accepted as you trying to be a good parent. It’s not infinite. Don’t waste that goodwill on the input you already know is completely unnecessary.
It’s often unnecessary because, in most cases, your adult children already know what you think, either through years of being exposed to your beliefs and morals or from your non-verbals. When you’ve been silent, but you kid says, “What?” they already know what you think.
Sometime later we were alone and I asked my son how things were going with the gf, creating an opening for him. When he revealed that she had tampered with his Facebook page, eliminating the perceived competition, it became another story. Now I could ask powerful, open-ended questions, like what he thought it would be like to be in this relationship long-term.
Thankfully, this was one time I followed my own advice and did not offer an opinion, nor did he ask for one.
4. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Even when my son and Ms. Prada split up about six weeks later, I remained circumspect. This was a good choice because they were soon back together.
It’s like dissing your best friend’s ex. You never know when “true love” might find its way back, but the words you spoke cannot be taken back.
This is the time to ask about their thoughts instead of expressing your own. You might help them consider what they learned from the relationship or what they’d like in their next partner.
Things won’t always work out the way we hope, but that’s no reason to give up hope.
I’m remembering a client I saw many years ago who barely had a relationship with her son or grandchildren because her daughter-in-law’s constant interference made it impossible. It was incredibly painful for my client who could not fathom what she had done to cause it. At the time, I’m ashamed to admit, I wondered what my client might have done to bring on this misfortune. Now I know. Probably nothing.
Maybe in such a case you just keep sending notes, holiday gifts, and inspirational cards. You keep in touch on social media; there’s some evidence to suggest that the more communication channels you employ, the better. You keep being open-hearted. You keep doing the right thing. You know you’re doing your part. You’re being the adult.
Always have a plan B.
As I hope the foregoing illustrates, don’t plan your retirement around your kids, or your kids’ kids. I recently read about a woman coming to terms with her son becoming a Buddhist monk. In Thailand. She spoke of her support for him, her grief and her “keen moments of letting go.” My concern about my son’s girlfriend pales by comparison.
Whether you’ve got a career or you’re a stay-at-home mom, you must plan to have a life apart from your kids when they’re grown, even if they don’t leave for Thailand. That’s your plan B; what you get to do when you no longer have children to manage.
For me, it’s all worked out — for the moment. My son and Ms. Prada split. He’s now with a lovely young woman who expects respect for her independence and affords him the same. As far as I can tell she’s okay with me, but it’s no matter, I have several plan Bs going and heartily recommend you do the same.
The secret to coping is letting go, accepting that you never know what’s going to happen next and trusting that, whatever it is, you’ll deal.
Judith Tutin, PhD, ACC, is a licensed psychologist and certified life coach. Connect with her at drjudithtutin.com where you can request a free coaching call to bring more passion, fun and wellness to your life.