Do Grown Children Break Your Heart More?

Thank God most of us won't suffer like Mildred Pierce, but parents of grown children still feel heartache and uncertainly when the kids face difficult times.

Thank God most of us won’t suffer like Mildred Pierce, but parents of grown children still feel heartache and uncertainly when the kids face difficult times.

Today I read a wonderfully written essay in The New York Times by Susan Engel, a lecturer at Williams College, entitled “When They’re Grown, the Real Pain Begins,” about the heartache and uncertainty of parenting adult children. Engel describes how badly she felt when her 20-something son went through a series of setbacks, including a serious injury, a breakup with his girlfriend and losing his job.

“I too had been through a tough year,” she wrote, briefly describing her own struggles. “But all of that was mild compared to the agony of watching my handsome, vigorous son kicked to the ground. I didn’t know how to help him, and I didn’t know how to handle my own nearly unbearable feeling of pain.”

In retrospect, Engel writes, raising small children was easier. “As long as you hugged them a lot and made good food, things seemed to be, for the most part, OK,” she says. “You could fix many problems, and distract them from others…All of that changes when they are grown.” Engel felt she was alone until she started hearing from other baby-boomer parents who felt as helpless and as heartsick as she when their own grown children faced adversity.

The opinion piece struck a chord with me. As the parents and stepparents to five young adults – all thriving, thank God — we too struggle with how much we should help them when they hit a rough spot. Around us we see many of our peers faced with decisions about whether to help pay their children’s college loans when they lose their jobs; whether to make a phone call on their behalf, or offer to do research to help them make a decision; whether to say what they really think about the sketchy girlfriend or boyfriend.  They feel bereft when their kids don’t call; when their 20- or 30-somethings are less than forthcoming about how they feel or what is going on in their lives.

As we watch our adult children make their way in the world, many boomer parents worry about their setbacks and missteps with the same anxiety they once felt about sharp edges, strangers, new drivers licenses and college partying. The hard-wired instincts to step in and offer advice and support are not easily disabled, no matter how old they get. (Ask any of us in our 50s who are still getting advice from parents in their 80s…and bristling when it happens!)

Part of this, I think, is the need to be needed when our children have out-grown our parenting.  We feel competent and strong when we feel we’ve really helped them.  But is it really helpful?  Or is it like scratching an itch that won’t get better until we leave it alone?

Most of us walk a thin line between letting our children figure things out for themselves and saving them from themselves. And sometimes the best thing to do is to stifle our instinct to solve their problems, and to tell them: “You’re a smart kid…I know you’ll figure it out.”

The comments to Engel’s column were as intriguing as the essay itself, and showed how polarized both young adults and their parents are about this issue. A few felt that Engel was wrong to air her son’s problems in the New York Times. One grandmother advised her to “keep your mouth shut and your arms open.” One 20-something wrote that he really wants sympathetic listening rather than advice from his parents. And another young adult provided this script: “Mom,when I tell you what’s wrong, I don’t want you to tell me how to fix it, and I don’t want you to tell me it’s not as bad as I think. I just want your sympathy.” YES!

I would love to hear from parents of young adults, and the young adults themselves, on this topic. Parents: have you ever struggled with how much to help your grown children, or have you found an approach that works? And young adult children: how can your well-meaning parents help you the most?