Your question: What can I do if my adult children give me anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Parenting is a full-time job. It is an exhausting exercise because no matter how many manuals and strategies there are on the internet, nothing in parenting is foolproof. Parents must constantly balance the needs of their children with their own, they must try not to neglect themselves physically or mentally while devoting all their attention and care to their children.

In my experience in psychotherapy, the biggest challenge for parents is not when their children are young, of course raising a child is exhausting, not even when they are teenagers, despite how overwhelming and full of changes that stage is. The biggest challenge is when children become adults, and even more changes come to the family dynamics. 

It is difficult for parents as this is the crucial time when children leave the family home to build their own independence and family, it is also the time when parental bonds are tested and children are often physically and emotionally distanced from their parents by the chores of daily life. It is also the reality of many parents to have conflictive adult children, who in their maturity argue or bring constant problems to their parents.

How to change the bond with your children?

In working with parents I have learned that the hardest thing to internalize in parenting is the notion that there is no guarantee that children will have a fulfilling life. Parents can do a lot, giving their children material and psychological tools to face the world, but once they become adults, the responsibility is theirs, and nothing the parents imagined with hope may happen.

Therefore, the main idea to work on parents of adult children is that their children are not an extension of them, nor are they here to fulfill the ideas that were made of them. No matter how much love you have for your children and expectations of an ideal life, you cannot control what they do with their life once they are adults, this only alienates and distances them further, because your child perceives rejection in one way or another.

A simple exercise to do is to constantly ask yourself, is my adult child’s life hurting anyone else or themselves? If the answer is no, you are probably worrying too much and seeking to control dynamics that are not yours. That’s not to say that you can’t give your children well-meaning advice from time to time, but if their lifestyle isn’t harmful, it’s not your place to change it or criticize it.

Remember that worries about your children are natural, beneficial in an evolutionary sense even. They are part of everyday life for parents, so instead of thinking “how do I stop worrying?” or “how do I stop feeling anxious about my children?” The question should be how do I stop parental worries from consuming my life?

What to do when the nest is empty?

A problem of many parents with adult children is that once they leave home, they feel that their life loses its purpose, because they have built their existence around being parents. That is false because, first, you are still a parent even though your child is not as present in your life, and second, you are much more than a parental figure.

Empty nest is a sense of loss that occurs when children leave the family home. Parents go through a deep sense of sadness, fear and even anger, which is a natural process of adjusting to a life with adult children away from home (1).

This should be more of a new beginning for you as a parent than an ending. Life goes on after the empty nest. There are several strategies you can implement, whether you are a single parent or in a relationship, you can rebuild your life around this empty nest and discover new things about yourself in this new stage of life:

  • Look for new places to socialize, sports, clubs or recreational places with other adults, you will most likely meet parents going through the same situation as you.
  • Having a child leave home is like grieving, you go through a series of phases until you eventually reach acceptance. Therefore, don’t repress your emotions, let the natural tears or anger flow without fear of being judged.
  • Discuss your thoughts, feelings and fears with someone. This can be with a trusted partner or friend, or with a therapist or counselor who will listen to you without judgment and not invalidate your natural concerns.
  • Plant a small tree or buy a plant in honor of your child. Again, this is like a grieving process, so rituals help you feel like you are healing.
  • You can change your child’s room at your own pace. If you don’t initially want anyone to enter it, that’s fine, others should respect your process and feelings. 
  • Write in a journal about your feelings with complete honesty, even things you feel you can’t tell anyone. It is always important to drain our emotions and thoughts.
  • Put off making any big decisions – such as selling up and moving to a smaller house – until you feel you have adapted.

How can you deal with the physical distance from your children?

Very often adult children become disconnected from their parents once they move on to their independent lives. This happens for various reasons depending on the case. It may be that your child is struggling to adjust to the responsibilities of their adult life: work, relationships, their partner and children, and hasn’t found the time and space to devote to the parents.

Although it can be emotionally painful for parents, try to put yourself in your child’s position, understanding their adjustment process. However, you can approach them directly and state that they need to talk or see each other more often. Many parents struggle with saying this because they don’t want to feel like “a burden,” but honesty with our feelings is the most valuable thing we can do.

Also, there may be unresolved issues from your child’s childhood and adolescence, frustrations or resentments built up for one reason or another that for you as a parent go unnoticed. Communication is important, you can insist by asking your child if something is wrong or if he wants to tell you something that makes him upset or irritable, however, if the silence and indifference persists you must give him his space.

Your adult children may say hurtful things to you, such as that they don’t want you to be involved in their lives or that they haven’t asked for your advice on such a subject. Although you may feel it is personal and disrespectful, this is the authentic expression of your child asking for independence, that you trust them and expect them to do the best they can with their life because you as a parent gave them the tools they need to be a functional and productive adult.

In my experience…

It is useful that parents see themselves again as young adults leaving their parents’ home, full of hope and pride, not knowing that they would encounter a lot of scary things about adult life that no one explained to them. 

You will be there for your children if something goes wrong, but for now, you just have to be confident and adapt to this new dynamic. Always try to be the parent with your kids that you wished you had, so that they can be the best version of themselves. Parenting is a game of trust, and the adulthood of your children is the ultimate gamble. You can’t change things about your children’s childhood or adolescent upbringing, but it’s never too late to change the way you parent. 

I hope that with these suggestions you can improve. I recognize and applaud you for seeking professional counseling, because it shows that you want to feel better and you are on the right path to change the things that make you feel bad. I believe that we all have the capacity to improve, although sometimes our mind makes us believe that we have no solution. It was a pleasure to write to you. I look forward to hearing from you soon and hope that things will gradually improve.

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