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Parenting an Adult Child: a Key Transition in Life’s Journey

November 18th, 2019 · No Comments · parenting an adult child

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The experience of parenting an adult child can be a major turning point in life’s journey. It can lead to incredible growth, but also intense vulnerability.

Naturally, where the relationship is healthy, parents feel a unique connection to their children, at any age. But as the child grows into the place of having more autonomy in his or her life, the challenges that the parent experiences can often increase. Sometimes it takes a lot to know how to respond in an authentic and loving way to adult kids!

Interaction with clients brings home to me again and again how much importance this issue has for so many people at this present time. Economic change has greatly affected young people starting out, and their timing for leaving home. We’re living in a time of rapid social change, where roles and living arrangements are having to evolve. The question of parenting an adult child in authentic and meaningful ways keeps shifting and changing.

Boundaries vs. Connection

The needs of an adult are often quite different from what was needed when that same individual was younger. As experts like Clark University Prof. Jeffrey Arnett stress, people in this phase of life need support and connection in a different way than earlier in their lives. It’s essential that the emotional connection enhance the individual’s confidence in their own capacity to manage situations in their lives. They need parental acknowledgement of their increasing capacity to take on the duties and demands of life — even when situations go wrong, or attempted solutions fail.

This can lead to challenges for the parent! While, as Jung would tell us, the healthy parent’s impulse toward the child is eros, by which he means the desire for connection, the parent is faced with the question of how to connect with the adult child. Naturally parents want to connect with, and help, their children, but it’s essential to respect and build the adult child’s sense of agency and autonomy. We want to help our kids, but if we are too ready with the help, we can end up “saving” our children from life situations that they would do better to figure out their own way through. In this way we risk setting up an unhealthy pattern rescuing the child every time they face a difficulty.

If adult children remain overly dependent on parents, it is often as a result of being enabled in this by their parents. So, parenting an adult child often entails striking a fine balance between offering enough support and connection of the right type, so that the adult child feels empowered and confident, while simultaneously knowing where to draw the line, so that the child’s judgment and ability are not undermined.

What is the impact of this on the parent, on his or her psyche, and on the individuation process?

Pitfalls of Unconscious Parenting

Parenting an adult child can be particularly difficult if the parent is unclear or unaware of their own needs or motivations in the situation. If an adult child is in an overly dependent position relative to the parent, it might be easy to blame the child for this. Yet, it might be very important for the parent to have a very good, long look at the ways in which said parent may be enabling their child in this pattern of behaviour.

Sometimes the parent may have to ask themselves whether this pattern of enablement stems from the parent’s need to be needed, which may even be largely unconscious. On the other hand, in some cases, the child may be facing difficulty because they are not being supported enough, and this may also stem from semi-conscious or unconscious motivations, such as hostility or indifference. These can be very challenging motivations to confront, and it may take considerable courage to do so.

It’s essential, though, that the parent look at his or her motives in the course of parenting an adult child. If the parent allows her- or himself to be run by unconscious motivations that are rooted in an inability to allow the child to grow up and have autonomy, the consequences could be very grave — for both the adult child and the parent. It is quite possible that the child might end up locked into a view of him- or herself as being incapable of doing essential life tasks, and as unable to withstand the knocks and falls that are part of an adult life.

The consequences for the parent could be equally severe. The energy that goes into an age-inappropriate parenting relationship is energy that the individual should be putting the process of maturation and individuation as the parent moves into the latter stages of life. If that energy is thwarted, and the individual finds themselves “stuck” in an out-moded stage of development, it may well be a source of anxiety and depression.

Parenting Adults and the Individuation Process

So, clearly there is a key part of this process that relates to the parent’s own journey, and to her or his individuation process. The changes that go on for the parent in this process constitute a very substantial major life transition.

This is a a life stage when many are called to a major examination of the course of life, and it may involve some travel in unexpected and unfamiliar directions. It may well be a time when individuals begin to discover some parts of the as-yet-unknown undiscovered self.

For many faced with the challenges of parenting an adult child, it can be extremely helpful to enter into a supportive and compassionate depth psychotherapy relationship. Such a relationship may afford real opportunities for growth, freedom and acceptance and exploration of the Self.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


© 2019 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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