NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Learn to Stop Interfering in Your Adult Child's Relationship

Parents, of course, want the best for their children, no matter how young or old they are.  In an ideal world, we would like them to be spared from heart break, disappointments, and the many potential pitfalls that are out there in the world.  

Learn to Stop Interfering in Your Adult Child's Relationship

It's natural to want to spare them from making the same mistakes that we made.  But in order to maintain a healthy relationship with your adult children and allow them to learn and grow, you need to know when to let go and allow them to lead their own lives with a minimum of interference.  

Learn to Stop Interfering in Your Adult  Child's Relationship

This is one of the biggest challenges for parents of adult children--learning to let go, allowing them to make their own decisions, and not interfering in their lives.  This includes not interfering in their relationships with partners or spouses.

The healthiest scenario for small children is for their parents to allow them, over time, to make age-appropriate decisions, based on a particular child's maturity level and development.  So, for instance, we don't allow five year old children to make life changing decisions.  But we could allow them to choose their own clothes for the day and which books they would like to buy with their allowance money.

Learning to Let Go and Stop Interfering in Your Adult Child's Relationship

If, over time, children grow up with a sense of age-appropriate autonomy and develop good judgment, based on learning to make decisions and learning from mistakes, chances are that they will be better prepared as adults to make more important decisions, including choosing a life partner and being in an adult relationship.

If we're constantly telling our young children what to do and not allowing them to make even minor decisions, they are more likely to grow up lacking self confidence and not developing the basic skills necessary to make more important decisions when they are adults.

Does this mean that children who have parents who are always doing things for them and not allowing them to make any decisions for themselves are doomed as adults to make poor decisions about relationships and life in general?

No, it does not.  Even children who have had parents who tried to control their every move can learn as adults to make good decisions.  It just might be harder and might take them longer than children who've learned over time to gain self confidence and good judgment by starting to make age-appropriate decisions from a young age.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many different stories, is an example of a parent attempting to interfere inappropriately in her adult child's relationship:

Mary was in her mid-20s and when she and her new husband discovered that she was pregnant.  As a young mother, Mary felt very insecure and anxious.  She also became very controlling with her son, Ed, as he was growing up, but she had no awareness of this.

Her husband tried to talk to her about it, but she wouldn't listen.   She was so fearful that he would get hurt or make a mistake that she watched him like a hawk.  When they were at the playground, she repeatedly told him to be careful on the juggle gym and the slides.  She became upset when he fell and bruised his knees.

Ed's pediatrician and Mary's friends also tried to tell her that she needed to relax. But Mary couldn't help herself.  She wanted to spare her son of any kind of physical or emotional pain.  Of course, this was impossible.  And, as her husband, her friends, and the doctor tried to tell her, her anxiety and vigilance adversely affected Ed so that he was insecure whenever he had to do anything new or make even the smallest decision.  He looked to her to solve his problems and make decisions for him, which she was all too willing to do.

This began to change when Ed reached adolescence.  He became rebellious and resented Mary's intrusiveness.  He wanted to have more independence, but Mary was unable to allow it.  This led to power struggles between Mary and Ed.  Ed's father was somewhat passive and although he didn't agree with Mary, he had stopped trying to get her to see what she was doing.

Ed struggled with making decisions.  During his early days in high school, he began hanging out with a rough crowd and started cutting classes.  He refused to listen to Mary or his father because he wanted so much to prove to them that he was his own person.  He also refused to listen to his school guidance counselor when his grades began to slip.  But when one of his teenage friends died suddenly of alcohol poisoning, Ed was very badly shaken up, and he saw the wisdom of the adults' advice.  From that time on, he applied himself in school and he made friends with serious-minded students.  He salvaged his grades just in time to get accepted at the college of his choice in another state.

Mary didn't want Ed to attend college out of state, but he was 18 and, legally, he could make his own decisions.  In his senior year of college, he became seriously involved with Susan, a young woman in one of his classes.  When he told his parents, his father was happy, but Mary worried that Ed might be getting involved with the wrong person before she ever met Susan.

When Ed brought Susan home to meet his parents, the situation was tense.  Susan could tell immediately that, although Ed's father was welcoming, his mother was leery of her.  Susan couldn't understand why Mary didn't seem to like her.  Susan thought of herself as being a kind, level-headed and caring person from a good family.  She had goals for the future, which she hoped would include Ed.  She was confused by Mary's wariness--until Ed explained how Mary tried to control just about every aspect of his life.  But, he told Susan, he wouldn't allow Mary to control his relationship with her.

By the time they graduated, Ed and Susan both got good jobs close to their college, and they moved in together.  Mary, who had been hoping that Ed would move back home, was upset that he decided to remain out of state with Susan.  Mary tried to persuade Ed to forget about Susan and come back home.

All of this culminated in a big argument between Mary and Ed where he told her to "butt out" or he would sever his relationship with her.   He assured her that he meant it and he was prepared to cut her out of his life.  When she realized that Ed meant it, Mary was very shaken.  She didn't want to completely lose her son, so she had a lot of soul searching to do.

After much thought, Mary realized she needed help.  She consulted with a psychotherapist who helped Mary to see how her attempts to interfere in her son's life had led to the current state of affairs.  Over time, Mary was able to admit that she had made mistakes with Ed.  She began to see that she had projected her own insecurities onto her son and this caused Ed to feel angry and resentful.

Accepting that Ed was an adult and that she had to learn to let go and stop interfering in his life was not easy.  But Mary realized that her relationship with her son was at stake.  So, she made amends with Ed and Susan, and she vowed to stop interfering and to respect that they were adults capable of making their own decisions.  This went a long way toward healing the rift and allowing Mary and Ed to develop a relationship based on love and mutual respect.  It also allowed her to get to know and like Susan.  Mary also focused more on improving her relationship with her husband as well as focusing on her own self development.

Letting go of your adult child isn't easy, but it's necessary if you're going to develop a healthy relationship. Interfering and trying to control your child's life or his relationship can lead to disastrous emotional consequences.

Getting Help
If you find yourself interfering in your adult child's life and this is causing problems for your child and your parent-child relationship, you owe it to yourself and your child to get help from a licensed mental health practitioner who works with this issue.  It could make all the difference in the world for you and your child.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me