Parenting advice with older children in mind: Part 2
Be Intentional about Investing in Your Own Emotional, Physical, and Spiritual Health
Brenda and her husband Ted sat in my office totally brokenhearted. Their daughter Lindsay had just moved in with her boyfriend. She had also confessed to something they had long suspected, which was her use of illicit drugs.
“What did we do wrong?” Brenda asked. “It seems like everyone else’s adult kids are making better decisions than ours.”
“Maybe we should have made Lindsay go on more mission trips,” Ted said.
“Every year at Christmas when we saw the picture-perfect families in cards and on social media, we had the same thought,” Brenda lamented, “‘What is wrong with our parenting skills?’”
Although they couldn’t name it, what Brenda and Ted were experiencing was shame. As our conversation continued, we considered how to deal with the Lindsey’s problems, but I also asked them about a problem I wasn’t sure they knew they had.
“Lindsey’s actions must be devastating to you,” I said. “It sounds like you are really depleted.” Ted nodded and Brenda’s eyes filled with tears.
“What are you doing to maintain your own emotional, physical, relational and even spiritual health?” At this, Ted’s eyes welled up with tears and Brenda began to sob. Ted put his arm around his wife and said simply, “We aren’t doing anything for us—and it’s killing us.”
My heart went out to them because I knew the pain of a troubled child was depleting them in so many ways. My counsel wasn’t anything new, but it seemed to help them.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the illustration of what a flight attendant says when you get on an airplane, right? If there is a need for oxygen, put on your own oxygen mask first and then help your child.” The looks on their faces told me they understood.
You won’t be of any benefit to your child if your life is gasping for air. When you work on your own emotional, physical and spiritual health, it not only helps you to be stronger for your child, it also helps you to gain a clearer perspective on any shame or regret you may be feeling.
When kids make poor or disappointing decisions, many parents experience the kind of silent shame Brenda described. A friend of mine once said to me, “When your children are young, they climb all over you and step on your feet. When they are older and make poor choices, they step all over your heart.” Of course, not all adult children break their parents’ hearts, but the transition is still difficult for most, and usually involves a great deal of loss. Author Judith Viorst is right when she says, “Letting our children go, and letting our dreams for our children go, must be counted among our necessary losses.”(1)
Whenever we experience a loss, we need to grieve it. If we don’t grieve the relationship we once had with our children, we won’t be able to embrace the new relationship we want to have with them. When our children no longer need us the way they once did, that’s a loss. I’m reminded of this every time I watch my grandson, James. I love how his mommy and daddy are the center of his universe—he needs them for everything. But it’s also a bittersweet experience when I realize that I was once the center of my children’s universe, and now I’m not. For my children to be healthy and independent, I had to release them and grieve the loss.
Being willing to put yourself in the proverbial backseat of your children’s lives—and to grieve the loss of the front seat—is what gives you the chance to change the relationship and make it wonderfully different. But that won’t happen if you aren’t emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy yourself. That’s why you must be intentional about investing in self-care as your role with your adult kids changes. A friend of mind puts it this way, “Untended fires soon become nothing but a pile of ashes.” If you put all your energy into caring for your adult kids, you’ll only end up depleted. “Self-care is not selfish,” writes my mentor Gary Smalley. Indeed, it is perhaps the best thing you can do for yourself and for your family.
Self-care means being proactive in caring for your mind, body, and soul. That might include spending time with people you enjoy, engaging in activities that replenish you, being physically active, or even trying something new and exciting. If you have an adult child who is struggling, you will also want to surround yourself with a team of people who can be your support. Take it from Moses.
Remember the story in the Bible when the Israelites were battling the Amalekites? When Moses held up his hands, the Israelites advanced against the Amalekites; but when he grew weary and could no longer hold up his hands, the Amalekites advanced against the Israelites. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for Moses to sit on and each man held up one of Moses’ hands. With their help, Moses’ hands remained steady throughout the long battle, and the Israelites won a great victory against the Amalekites.
As you navigate the loss and challenges of transitioning your relationship with your adult children, make sure you have a team around you to share your burdens.