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What you don’t know won’t hurt you

You won’t find “plausible denial” on the standard list of parenting techniques next to helicopter parenting and tough love. It’s the best kept secret for successfully coping with adult children. Here’s how it works.

On my son Will’s first day of kindergarten two decades ago, I walked him to the door of the classroom and then went home to cry. I waited all day for the school to call and tell me he needed me. He didn’t. On that day, I couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t know his every move, visualize his daily surroundings and anticipate his needs.

I had made some progress by the time we dropped Will off at college. I hauled boxes to his dorm room, helped him put a few things away, gave him a hug and then went home to cry. I didn’t expect the university to call and they didn’t. Neither did Will — for two weeks. I coped, but just barely.

Flash forward a few years.  Even though we live just three hours apart and I visit Will regularly, I haven’t seen the inside of his various apartments for years. We meet on neutral ground. If something has to be delivered to his apartment, I send my husband to the door.  I would rather not know what life looks like beyond that door. I don’t know his roommates. I’m pretty sure he has lost all the pots and pans I lovingly supplied in his freshman year. Does he change the oil in his car? Maybe. I think he’s passing his classes, but I would rather not know.

The biggest surprise to me is that I haven’t been this relieved since before that first day of kindergarten. When I can’t visualize a situation, my worry meter drops exponentially, and worry is what separates the successful parent from the crazy woman walking the floors bug-eyed in the middle of the night.

Family therapist Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks describes worrying this way. “It is common to want to shield your child from pain, mistakes, and heartache and to foster happiness and success. However, as your child grows, the stakes get higher, and your control over their safety and their choices diminishes drastically. To deal with that lack of control, parents may turn to worrying…as a consolation. Worry as a parental ‘soothing strategy’ or compensation for lack of control, sounds odd because worry is not comfortable. What is comforting about worry, however, is that it makes you feel like you are doing something when you’re actually not doing anything.”  Dr. Hanks says worry can actually become a “socially acceptable badge” for parents — a way of measuring your love, “a visible sign of your investment in your child’s welfare…”

If you’re afraid to stop worrying because you fear you’ll stop loving, it’s time to rip off that socially acceptable badge and own your powerlessness as the parent of an adult child.

“Plausible denial” or removing yourself from a visual of their everyday life is one way of curbing your worry. A pattern of adult children who spend too much time hanging out at your empty nest, even if they bring your precious grandchildren, can get in the way of you and them moving on to true independence.  Even too frequent phone calls can be a hindrance to your happiness. You become a dumping ground for your children’s daily problems of work, school and relationships.

That “closeness” you think you are cultivating may be, in reality, an attempt to retain some measure of control over the outcomes of their lives. If so, you’re paying a high price for that control. They go home and sleep like babies knowing that Mom and Dad are still in charge. Meanwhile, you’re lying awake at night coming up with strategies to help them find a better job, pay the rent, get along with their spouse or housebreak their dog.

Removing yourself from the day-to-day working of your child’s life may be just as hard when their life is relatively problem free.  You may see this time of their life as your reward for a job well done, and you feel entitled to be part of that success story. In the stages of your child’s development, the experts call this the “detachment” phase, for both you and them. Psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt  says in Psychology Today, “The last battle between holding on and letting go is not just between parent and adolescent, but agonizingly unfolds within the parents themselves. For a while the empty nest can result in the empty parent. This is why successful launching of their older adolescent into young adulthood feels like loss. What is extremely important for parents to understand about the dethronement, distance and demotion that to some degree occurs with the older adolescent, and continues with the adult child, is that this change does NOT mean they are less loved; they are only less necessary.”

As one who has become “less necessary,” I was surprised to find how blissful that stage could be. If you can manage to include some “blissful ignorance” – AKA “plausible denial” — in your formula, so much the lighter your load.

But what if your child’s launch was not successful and their problems are serious?  Even then, be open to the possibility that you may not be the person to solve those problems; distance still may be called for. More than Mom and Dad, your adult child may need a therapist, a doctor, a peer, a mentor, a spouse or a higher power to conquer demons.

Catherine Thomas, an assistant professor emeritus at my alma mater, Brigham Young University, says this about fear: “Don’t you notice that fear wears us out because we’re working all the time to keep something from happening or to make something happen – trying to control, manage, manipulate events or people, afraid that if we don’t, things will fall apart? …Could we be open to the possibility that maybe we’re wrong about what needs to happen in this person’s life now? Could we, after our best appropriate efforts, just let go and let God? Could we let life unfold and try not to interfere, but just play our part as wisely and lovingly as we can?”

Your fear and worry keeps you in the driver’s seat. It’s time for the worrying parent to decide if that’s where he or she wants to be.


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