Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Parents Won't Let Go

February 17, 2001

The journey toward maturity and healthy relationships between generations isn’t all the responsibility of the rising generation. Despite the prolonged adolescence of education and training, most young adults are ready to take care of themselves, assume responsibility for their lives and to be self-sufficient in the world.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen. And it isn’t always the fault of the children. It is the parents who haven’t let go of the parent/child obligations. Even though their children have moved on into adult life, some parents continue to carry strong expectations about what their children should do to make them happy. Part of this happiness depends on how their children behave, no matter how old they are.

These parents are acutely conscious of past sacrifices and expect repayment by drawing down on an emotional bank account weighted perennially in their favor. They withhold approval and are generous with their disapproval if their needs and expectations aren’t met. Afraid that their children won’t respond though natural love and concern, they manipulate through guilt, gifts, financial support and withholding love to insure the relationship happens on their terms.

How can you tell when parents of adult, married children haven’t let go:

1. When they are competitive with the other set of in-laws and keep track to how much time you spend with them on the holidays.

2. When they conveniently set aside or forget their promises if it doesn’t happen to suit them.

3. When they expect you to initiate the phone calls and correspondence.

4. When there are strings attached to every gift and generous act.

5. When they compete with grandchildren for time and attention.

6. When they talk against you to the other children and to others in general.

7. When all the holidays are expected to be at their house.

8. When the phone calls are all about them and not about you or your lives.

9. When they threaten to use an estate plan to control their children.

10. When you come to visit, they want to be taken care of. They become jealous of the time you might want and need for yourself.

11. When they expect you to live near them to fill in the gaps in their lives.

12. When they hold on to the past and bring up past hurts and failings.

13. When they choose favorites among the children or grandchildren depending on who curries their favor.

14. When they keep on giving unsolicited advice about how to improve your life.

15. When the main feeling you get from being around them is guilt and being controlled.

16. When they don’t respect your wishes when it comes to gift-giving.

17. When their favorite trip is a guilt trip.

It’s about control. Instead of asking, they demand. Instead of respecting their right to choose, parents try to manipulate their children’s choices through guilt. Instead of letting go, they try to clutch and control their children. Their feelings of neediness and entitlement spoil whatever gifts of time and attention their children bring. What the children do is never quite good enough.

Really letting go. The last part of successful parenting is letting go. Parents remain interested in their children’s lives. They continue to be supportive and concerned. They are available for life’s emergencies, and generous when they can be with material support as well as approval and encouragement.

As their children marry, parents need to respect the primacy of their son’s or daughter’s allegiance with their spouse and new family as the center of their emotional lives. They accept the new son or daughter-in-law and show balance and fairness in relating to them as a couple.

Family gatherings, holidays and visits are planned with respect for the children’s agenda and needs. They take pleasure in their children’s successes - even if those successes take their children out of the parental orbit. They engage in a respectful negotiation process to work out differences.

Living your own life. The task of letting go is easier when parents fill their own lives with purpose and social support without demanding or needing their adult children to play a role in their happiness. Parents continue to nourish their own friendships.

As parents, they are self-sufficient. They don’t depend on adult children to solve their life problems for them. The relationship between families is voluntary based on mutual love and respect. As they can, they share their lives and get together to celebrate holidays and special occasions. Through letters, e-mail or phone calls, they keep one another informed on developments in their lives.

Grandparenting. Parents who really care will shift their focal point to the grandchildren as a common bond between the generations. Both parents and grandparents encourage precious grandparent/grandchild bonds. They share a mutual concern and delight in the well being of the rising generation.

Grandparents play a meaningful role in helping the next generation of children learn who they are and bask in the love and enjoyment of extended family. Grandparents can learn how to grandparent at a distance as well as from close proximity.

Good family life includes healthy, respectful interactions between generations. It is a wonderful thing when it happens. "Let go" and what you want to happen will happen naturally.