Coping With Grown-up Kids
An Orinda psychologist’s new book sheds light on how to heal broken bonds with adult and adolescent children.
Once our kids emerge from the turmoil of their teenage years, they’ll like us again and everything will be peachy, right? Not so fast. Even when our kids are full-fledged adults, parents can suffer heart-rending rejection by them, angry fallout from divorce, and torturous guilt-trips for past mistakes. Psychologist Joshua Coleman says more and more of these parents are walking into his Rockridge office for help. Coleman, an Orinda resident, appears as a frequent parenting and relationship expert on 20/20, The Today Show, and Good Morning America. His new book, When Parents Hurt, examines relationships between parents and their adolescent and adult children. >>>
Why are today’s parents experiencing more hostility from their adolescent and adult children than previous generations?The power balance has shifted. We’ve moved from an authoritarian to a more democratic household. Before the 1920s, parents were feared and respected, and now they want to be loved and adored. We take children’s opinions into account more than ever. The good news is that more people are connected to their children. The downside is [that] because they have more power, children are in a much better position to judge and reject their parents.
What are some challenges facing parents in the East Bay?There is a lot of wealth in the Bay Area, and parents are anxious to give their children every opportunity—and there’s good reason for that. But parents with means have more ways to indulge, protect, and supervise their children. This kind of over-involvement may actually weaken children rather than help them. Prior to the 1900s, we viewed stress and competition as building character, but now parents are terrified of it. When my kids were in Little League, the losing team got trophies, too. Why? The notion that children are damaged by competition has been a bigger problem than a solution.
How does that create problems between children and their parents?Young adults today in their twenties view themselves as special ... more than in the past. What happens for some young adults and teenagers is that the outside world begins to reflect a very different picture of them. That can be a rude awakening. And they feel hurt or rejected when they find out they’re not as valuable or special. We live in a pop psychology culture where people, if they don’t feel good about themselves, think it must be their parents’ fault. So, with parents who have been especially doting or interventional in their parenting, there is potential for their kids to feel more entitled to a positive reflection from the world and be mad at their parents when the world doesn’t provide it.
How much of an increase have you seenin the discord between parents and their adult children?I’m seeing more alienation between parents and both their adult and adolescent children, particularly with adolescents who are able to have such separate worlds from their parents. The power of their peer group has radically increased, and our society has created ways, like instant messaging and cell phones, for children to have separate worlds. Parents have far less control over their kids. They are much less aware of what their kids are up to.
How can parents protect themselves against the verbal tirades of teens?It’s actually empowering to walk away. Some parents think you have to stay there and fight it out. You shouldn’t. Set the consequences, then disengage. Part of the defiant and obnoxious behavior of teens is that they’re trying to make themselves more independent. Devaluing the parent is a way of saying to the parent, “I don’t really need you.” In fact, [adolescents are] ambivalent and somewhat scared of growing up. It helps for the parent not to personalize it as much.
You dedicate a whole chapter to when kids fail to launch. Many grown children are flying back to the nest to live with their parents. Is this a problem?It can be a problem in some homes because it doesn’t force kids to do the hard work of setting down roots and taking risks. I consider it a failure to launch if the parents, either consciously or subconsciously, communicate that they don’t want the child to grow up. Or they need the child at home because they are worried that when he leaves the nest, it will reveal holes in the marriage and the nest will crumble.
What advice can you give parents whose grown children have cut off all contactwith them?The most important and hardest thing is to take full responsibility for whatever mistakes you have made, even if they seem trivial. A lot of parents don’t stay in the game long enough because it’s so painful. If a kid’s mad and hurt enough to cut you off, you must assume it’s going to take years to heal it. You’re going to have to toughen yourself up through a lot of support and therapy. You will want to make amends for whatever you did wrong and work toward forgiving the child and yourself.For information, including an advice blog for parents and children, go to www.whenparentshurt.com or www.drjoshuacoleman.com. �¡