How Do We Let Go of Our Adult Children?
How Do We Let Go of Our Adult Children?

Still Worried, After All These Years

Many parents worry about and support their adult children. Does this translate to caring or does it result in adult children who lack "adulting" skills?

Menopause & Aging Well

I was born a worrier. I don't remember if I ever was one of those kids who climbed out of their crib (my mother doesn't remember either), but I can bet I wasn't, because knowing me, I was too worried I'd fall. I worried about just about everything. In fact, it was my everything.


Now that I'm smack in this so-called midlife, I should know better, right? But worry still remains my albatross, although I have learned how to better deal with it.

If we're lucky enough, we eventually outgrow our worries—or at least we forget our old worries and insert new ones to take their place.

I know worry is fruitless and groundless. Most things we worry about end up not happening, and those things we don't even imagine could happen will appear and sideswipe us with brute force, sending our minds spiraling.

"There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened," said the wise writer Michel de Montaigne. It was true in the 1500s, and it's still true today.

Despite my best efforts to rid myself of my albatross, there is one worry I didn't realize I might never outgrow—one worry that only grows bigger with time—and that's the worry about my children.

I know, I know. My older and wiser friends used to regale me with the "small children, small problems; big children...." You know the rest. And while I'd nod my head in agreement and tell myself that this will most certainly NOT pertain to me and my children, I was wrong.

Woefully wrong—and I'm not alone. A new study finds that those of us with grown children still worry abut them. Researchers studied 186 heterosexual married couples in their late 50s, with an average of two to three adult children. (I imagine that if they had included single parents, the worry factor would have been even greater—there is some comfort in sharing the burden with a spouse, after all.)

The researchers asked about the types of support parents gave their adult children—like companionship, emotional support, practical help, advice, financial assistance—and had the participants rate these supports on a scale of 1 to 8. They also rated how much stress parents experienced by helping their adult children and how much they worried about them. Choices ranged from "not at all" to "a great deal."

It's not tough to understand what they found. We are (still) losing sleep over our children. We are (still) stressed over our children. We are (still) worried about our children's welfare, their happiness, their lives. And many of us are (still) providing some degree of financial support to our (now-grown) children.

Are we too involved in our children's lives? I don't think my parents ever worried much about me when I was an adult. I don't even think they worried like this when I was a child. The cord was cut early and it was, by all measures, a clean, neat, permanent cut with little residual bleeding. That, I believe, was how it was for (most of) the baby boomer generation.

I have this discussion often with my contemporaries. Sometimes I think I am a different type of parent than my own parents were because they were so uninvolved. Maybe I'm trying to make up for what I was not given. I was/am hardly a classic "helicopter" parent, but I am involved in my children's lives. But who isn't? And not to sound like a cliché, but my children's pain is my pain. I truly feel for them. I hurt for them and worry for the both of us (with plenty left over, for any masochists out there).

I see and know parents with grown children who are in constant communication with them by text—not once in a while, but more like once an hour. (Having a dinner out with friends like this can pose quite a challenge.) I see and know parents who don't touch base with their adult children more than about once a week. And there are some who stay in touch daily or a few times a week.

But then I wonder, does involvement translate to caring? Or does it result in adult children who don't develop the type of independence and self-esteem necessary to fight their way in the adult world that they will inevitably inherit (or have already inherited)? Their shoes are suddenly too big for their feet; their coping capacity strangely lacking. The preparedness factor has failed.

Yes, the world is different now, with so many ways to stay connected. But the TMI (too much information) some of us are getting from our children is not only making us blush, it's threatening to make our blood pressure rise and our hearts pound with worry.

While I was in college, contact with my parents was relegated to the once-weekly Sunday phone call I made from a phone booth—if I remembered to gather up enough change to insert into the slots (and when I ran out of coins, so did the conversation); if I was in the mood to even try; if I was lucky enough to catch my parents at home.

If I didn't reach them, we'd simply have to wait until the following week to catch up, because there was no answering machine to let them know I called, no caller ID for them to check if they missed my call, and no texting, email, Facebook or any other tether to bind us together.

And they didn't file a missing person report or convince themselves I must have been kidnapped or worse. They just waited.

Had our parents had texting and social media—the ties that bind—back then, I suspect they would have gotten to the point where we are: to a world of parents who worry about their adult children, after all these years.

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