Parenting the Adult Child: Inherent Conflicts

The internalized critical parent is one of our most insistent demons. We hear the critical voice of our parents disapproving of us and commanding us how to behave, feel, dress, think, and believe. Whether or not it is a reflection of how our parents really behaved is always a question. Our memories tend to be distorted. Remember going back to your childhood home when you are middle aged? Remember how small it was and, yet, in your memories how large it was? Time stands still in our memories and the visions of our youth have not migrated with our awareness. These memories of messages from our parents is called the “parental-introject.” I have two sons, one is sixteen and one is forty-one. My sixteen -year old and I have regular conversations about “reality testing.” When I want to talk to him about what I want him to do, or how I wish he would behave or problem solve, he always hears the critical parent. He anticipates that I am mad at him and will disapprove of him unless he pleases me by doing what I want. This is sometimes true, but never as often as he thinks.

That is not the way I want him to perceive me. I do want to advocate for what I believe is in his best interest and his growth. I want to encourage him to become the man he is capable of being. I want him to learn how to solve problems, take on challenges, discipline himself to reach HIS goals. Of course, I also want him to have goals. Right now, like many teens, he is drifting through life. It is just happening to him as one day follows another. His vision has a low horizon and from where I stand, I want to teach him to look up and anticipate. I want to stimulate him to grow into a capable and competent man, who is happy with himself and finds a career and lifestyle that satisfy him and makes him joyful. I try to talk to him about this vision within the context of our discussions about cleaning his room, making good grades, being kind and considerate to others and being respectful of others without being intimidated. I want him to learn to engage in conflict openly, honestly and effectively. I want him to learn to not fear failure and to avoid not trying. I want him to become self-confident in a reality based way. I want him to learn to be adaptive and independent. I do not want to control him or his choices. I do not want to “own” him and make him be a mirror image of me or my life choices. I have come to this through my own growth and through the necessity of learning from the mistakes that I made with my older son.

My younger son and I talk about how we are experiencing each other, how he anticipates my anger or my frustration with him and how that anticipation impacts his choices and his feelings. We are able to talk about consequences I provide to teach him discipline until he is able to internalize it. We are able to talk about strategies for resolving problems and for learning to reality test what is going on versus his anticipatory expectation of what is going on. We can talk about his urge to withdraw and be a victim when things don’t go well and my desire for him to learn to harness his frustration and anger and channel them into productive efforts to acquire his will and maximize his chances of getting what he wants. I can critique him without being critical of him. He gets it. And, it is truly a practice environment for him within a context of the safe holding environment. We are having regular conversations about his future, his right and his obligation to make choices. To anticipate and prepare for the cost of those choices is one of the most necessary of skills. We are moving towards the dance of separation. He will go off to college and become independent of me. I grieve for that, but embrace it with joy. This is what I have raised him to do. It has been my job and I have loved almost every minute of it.

My oldest son and I did not have this kind of relationship. We still don’t. We have never been able to talk about things the way my younger son and I do. Part of that has been my absolute failure to be able to let go of my “should” messages regarding him; how I felt that he should behave, the choices I felt he should have made, my inability to just enjoy the incredibly bright and attractive person he is. I wanted more for and from him. I wanted him to be “like” me, something he most insistently did not want for himself. He is critical of me and the choices I have made. I do not have a way of knowing how reality based and valid his criticisms of me are. I cannot find an objective place to stand to “see it” but, I would like to believe that he does not see me clearly. I know I do not see him clearly. That is something that I am working on. My biggest challenge seems to be letting go of my anger that he was not a replica of me and my values. He has chosen a different path. Intellectually I have accepted that. Emotionally, it is hard for me. Does this mean I am dishonest? Certainly that seems to be the challenge of my own brand of reality testing. My struggle today in my relationship with him is to figure out how to let him go from my brand of critical parenting and encounter him with affection and respect in the world he inhabits. I cannot force him to mold himself into my world. He has the right to live in his own world. I absolutely endorse his right to live as he wants and pursue his own happiness. We have both fought this fight together and against one another’s needs.

As my older son has watched me raise his younger brother, he has been angry and jealous of the changes in me. He remembers an angrier, controlling and commanding father than his brother knows. On the one hand, he is happy for his brother, but on the other he is angry with me. Why couldn’t I have done this sooner? Why could he not have this childhood and this relationship with me? I would argue that in many ways it was there for him and that he blocked it, but we disagree. My friends agree with my perceptions, his agree with his. At the end of the day, it is all about the perception. His perception of the internalized critical parent is one I cannot change. If it ever changes, it will be because he has learned how to let go of it and accept me for the person I now am, and not the projection of me he created. He has to modify what psychologists call his parental-introject in order to see me at all. It is funny, without being humorous, but we have the same fight. We each have to learn to see and accept the other as they are and not as the way we would have them be.

I think this is the battle we all have with our adult children. Are they ever really independent? Are they ever totally their own person? Do we ever quit trying to mold and create them as we fantasize they should be? How do they separate, individuate, become autonomous and independent, and free to just be?

As parents it is our job when our children are young, to provide structure and discipline. It must be externally supplied until the child learns to internalize it. In part, this process requires that they internalize our voices as parents, accept our boundaries and pay our consequences. Part of the dance of separation is the journey towards independence. As we relax the supervision, the controls and the boundaries they can explore within the safe box we have built around them. We want them to explore and fail, then learn how to recover. We want them to learn how to anticipate and choose, even to choose poorly, when the choices are cheap and survivable. If they don’t have these experiences when they are young, when they finally do leave us, they are not prepared to play the game of life. They won’t have developed the skills to make choices and adapt, as well as, survive poor choices or poor luck.

I am grateful to my older son. He was never an experiment, but I learned a lot about parenting and about letting go. A lesson I am still struggling to learn! I have become a much better father for my second son. I am continuing to try to re-negotiate my relationship with my oldest. I am fighting to be seen as I am, and not as he remembers me or as he wants me to be. I struggle to see him in this way as well. It is what he has asked of me, it is what I want, but it is still very, very hard to let go of the internalized stereotypical projections of my expectations. I, too, must learn to reality test.

Am I willing to pay the cost of my choices? Can I do what I am trying to teach? Will I learn in time? I hope so, the journey continues, the destination is not in sight. It is a challenge that I choose to undertake and strive to achieve.

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5 Responses to Parenting the Adult Child: Inherent Conflicts

  1. Madeleine Reilly says:

    Brett,
    This is very timely for me as I struggle with wanting my children to more than I did at their age. While I try to encourage and I do get upset if they don’t follow my guidance, I do feel at some point that I need to let go and let them make their decisions. It may not be where I would like them to head but I think most important is that they know I love them no matter what they decide.

    This piece also made me think of the ways my parents never communicated with me…a different time and generation. Thanks for the posting…lots to consider!

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Madeline thank you for reading my blog and for sharing your thoughtful comment. We are all struggling with parenting better than our parents did. It seems like I still have a lot to learn.

  2. Michael Norton says:

    Brett – We have talked about this subject many times and I appreciate the challenges you are experiencing. You know my number, so I am always available as your friend to provide objective insight.

    My main reason for responding today is that I have recently been obsessed with the concept of time, which means that I have been thinking about death…the amount of remaining time we have to live. I know, thanks for stating the obvious, but to appreciate and optimize the value of our remaining time, we must be conscious of how we spend it. I am now convinced that the value of life is not measured by material things, but by the experiences, memories, and relationships we leave behind. Our true legacy is the impact we had on others.

    You know my background, so suffice it to say that I didn’t have optimal parental support. Pain is relative and cannot be compared, but I at least understand the mindset of your elder son. The interesting difference between him and me is that he has a basis for comparison. I’ve come to terms with my upbringing by asking myself “are you happy with your life today and who you are?”. I can honestly answer that question with a resounding yes. But change one thing in my history and my reality today would be completely different. As such, I wouldn’t change a thing.

    However, there were times during my youth when I looked at my friend’s parents with envy and wished I could have that type of home life. I then dismissed it by dealing with the cards I was dealt. Conversely, your elder son can look at his brother with similar envy, but wasn’t he dealt the same hand? Why didn’t he have the benefit of a kinder, gentler, more understanding version of you? Well the simple answer is that you are not the same person you were 30 – 40 years ago and he has to accept that.

    Back to the time thing. Since turning 50, several of my friends, acquaintances, and co-workers have died. In fact, I found out that someone I worked with for almost 20 years died yesterday. People deal with death differently, but I was disturbed by how quickly people reacted to this news and moved on to the next topic. I believe what’s important is to make a difference in the lives of people around you while you are here. To be real and meaningful, actions must be selfless. Make a concerted effort to connect with your elder son. Hold no judgement against him or his past decisions and actions. In fact, you may not even like the person that he is today. But he’s not a stranger; he’s your son. In fairness, he must acknowledge that you cannot change the past. If he is mature enough to accept that basic truth, then I believe you can develop a relationship with him and positively impact his life. No one knows how much time they have left, but they are in control of how they use it. Make a difference…now.

    A quick note on the younger son. My son resisted my parental guidance for some time. I always felt it was my responsibility to establish boundaries, then reel the kids in when they crossed the line. As an adult, my son recently came to me and thanked me for being there for him…for setting him straight. So keep doing what you’re doing. He may not appreciate it now, but he will be thankful in the future.

    Enjoy the adventures of parenting!

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      As always, I am struck by your insight and your self honesty! It is so good to have a friend who will give me objective feedback. I count on your honesty and on your friendship. I can tell you that a large part of this blog post is in direct response to conversations you and I have had.

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