Letting Go of Our Grown Adult Children, When What We Do is Never Enough

Letting go of adult children. It’s something parents do all the time. At least we’re told that’s what parents are supposed to do about the time their children turn eighteen”, says author Arlene Harder in her book on dealing with grown children who haven’t turned out the way parents hoped and expected. Whether our grown “adult children stayed living under our roof longer than we want, or strike out into the world earlier than anticipated, parents are told they need to cut the apron strings that have kept us focused on our child.”

In other words, says Harder, “when our children reach the age of maturity, we are expected to make a major change in our relationship with them- to transfer responsibility for decisions concerning their lives from us to them. If we successfully complete this transition, we will, says conventional wisdom, accept our children as independent individuals just as they are, including imperfections, values that conflict with ours, and different needs and desires. And they will accept us in return. We will communicate openly and share our values and experiences with one another without believing we have the right, or the power, to change the other person.”

Sound easy? Not if you’re the parent of a grown child who marches to a drum very different from the one you played for your child when he or she was young. You know it would be better for both of you if you could let go. But you can’t. You remain uncomfortably, perhaps painfully, “stuck” because things haven’t turned out the way you expected.

Parenting Adult Children

Letting go of grown adult children can be especially difficult for parents with adult children who have serious problems with drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental illness, and/or choose to break societal laws and perhaps go to jail or prison for crimes committed. Many such parents have discovered that there are no guarantees that children will turn out the way they were raised, or how the parents expected, hoped and prayed their children would become as adults.

Arlene Harder’s book, “Letting Go of Our Adult Children, When What We Do is Never Enough”, is a FREE online book parents and families struggling to let go can read and receive helpful tips and advice on letting go with love. Having been granted permission to reprint the intro of the free book, parents who enable their grown children, or parents who can’t or won’t let go of their adult kids for various reasons may relate to many of the personal experiences discussed in the book and find the encouragement and support needed. The Introduction to the nine-chapter book, published in 1994, continues with the author saying:

Parents may unintentionally fail their children in some fundamental way so they aren’t really able to meet the standards we hold for them. Even more, because they have minds of their own, they can choose a lifestyle that we don’t approve of or that we feel is less than they are capable of achieving. Being stuck and unable to let go can arise from minor, irritating differences between you and your child or major obstacles that appear to be intractable. For example, you may be unable to get past frequent arguments over relatively unimportant issues that both of you always seem to turn into contests of who is right. Or while you and your daughter don’t often disagree, you can’t shake the disappointment you feel when she loses yet another job.

You want to accept the fact that how well she does at work is her problem. But you know she doesn’t demonstrate the commitment to work that employers want. How can you let go when you blame yourself for not teaching her responsibility? Or perhaps you need the money from the sale of a family house your thirty-eight year old son has been living in rent-free for Fifteen years. The only “problem” is that he doesn’t have money to move else- where; forcing him out would make you feel like Simon Legree.

Or, while you may realize that there is probably nothing you can do to prevent your son’s divorce, you remain entangled in accusations and defenses with your son’s in-laws because you’re afraid you will lose contact with a precious grandchild. And sticky in-law problems are legion in complicated step-family configurations.

Even if your children are happily married, however, you may have a hard time understanding and accepting in-laws who are of a different race, religion, or social group. You hadn’t thought of yourself as prejudiced, but you are having a hard time adjusting. And what if your child is single and living with a member of the opposite sex; or has chosen a member of his or her same sex as a life partner? With less than 25 percent of families made up of father, mother, and dependent children, family constellations aren’t what they used to be.

Letting go may be particularly difficult if the problems you face seem highly resistant to change. This is especially true when your child is mentally ill or is in serious trouble with the law. And if your child is like my son, whose difficulties in relationships and jobs have been compounded by drug and alcohol abuse, the road to letting go can be extremely long and trying. Yet your situation may be even more painful if your child died before you were able to work out the issues that kept you from letting go; all that unfinished business leaves you with pain you are sure will never go away.

You may be a parent who claims you have no choice but to let go when your child refuses to have any contact, or has extremely minimal contact, with you. Don’t kid yourself. On the surface you may look as though you have let go, but anyone probing a centimeter deep can see that your hurt in being excluded from your child’s life penetrates deep into your heart. This may be especially difficult if you are at a loss to understand what went wrong.

Yet the situation isn’t any easier if you recognize all too clearly how you contributed to the rift that has torn the family fabric in half. For example, perhaps you abused alcohol or drugs when your children were small. Today, although you are now clean and sober, your child is unwilling to forgive you, despite your apologies. In that case you may be paralyzed by guilt; concluding that you have permanently injured your child and that the gap between you can never be bridged.

On the other hand, you may be a parent who is perfectly satisfied with how your child has turned out and who thought you had a good relationship with her. Recently, however, she has accused you and her father of being “dysfunctional” and perhaps even “abusive.” Even though you realize you weren’t perfect parents, you are saddened by alienation created by her anger and your hurt.

If you see yourself in any of these situations (or ones uncomfortably similar), you realize that you’ve been unable to let go no matter how hard you try. This is what is meant by the subtitle of this book, “When What We Do Is Never Enough.” No matter what we say, think or do — no matter how hard we try — until we let go with love we remain uncomfortably bound to a child who is legally old enough to make his decisions without parental interference or approval.

As parents of children whose values and lifestyles are in conflict with ours — whether we experience a fairly small amount or a great deal of disappointment in that fact — we have probably already discovered that heavy-handed bullying and significant bribes cannot make our child become what we had hoped he would become. Money may work in the short run, of course, but in the long haul it can’t buy the integrity, honesty, determination, and responsibility we desire for our child.

Yet masking our attempts to change our child through less obvious measures is not unlike trying to run him over with a fuzzy bulldozer; it only leaves him, and us, bruised. Let’s face it — as long as we keep trying to get our child to live according to our values, we don’t stand much chance of having the kind of adult-to-adult relationship we all deserve with our children when they grow up.

The first part of the book, “Getting Caught up in Our Expectations,” deals with what happens when parents discover their child is marching to a different drummer. In it I offer a path to letting go with love and to forming a more positive relationship with your adult child, a path involving five stages of healing. In these chapters you will see that your disappointment and pain are not unique; nor is it unusual for you to keep trying to get your child to change. Most important of all, you will realize why it is essential for you to shift your attention from your adult child to yourself.

If you already know you must change your focus away from whatever stands between you and your child, you may want to go directly to the second part of the book, “Finding Peace by Letting Go.” These five chapters offer suggestions for healing the pain caused by the realization that your child does not share your values or cannot live up to the expectations you once had for him or her. Here you will find motivation to explore the issues that keep you pulling on your end of the rope in the family tug-of-war, to grieve your unfulfilled expectations, to forgive yourself and your child and, finally, to let go with love. And if differences between you and your child are still irreconcilable, you can learn how to bring closure and healing to that situation as well.

The concept of a path of healing for parents first arose for me during the painful years when I struggled with great disappointment in a child who was not living the kind of life I envisioned for him. Gradually I realized that I was moving through a series of stages and turned my attention from my son’s problems to those which I needed to address in my own life. I continued to observe this process and to further develop my theory in working with disappointed parents as part of my practice as a licensed family therapist.

Later these ideas were reinforced in interviews with over seventy-five parents, both those who were disappointed in how things have turned out and those who were very satisfied. To protect confidentiality in sharing the stories of others, I have changed names and identifying characteristics. In a few instances I have combined several elements from more than one situation to emphasize a particular point.

Letting go can be difficult for parents whether they are married, divorced, or widowed; adoptive or biological parents; single or step-parents. Since the specific circumstances in everyone’s life are different, and since we all have somewhat different expectations for our children, we will each experience different reactions to our adult children if those expectations are not met.

Consequently, the act of letting go with love will be easier and go more quickly for some and be more difficult and take longer for others. Yet this book offers to every parent the evidence that it is possible to let go and find peace even in the most difficult of circumstances.

It is my hope that this book will guide you in moving past your disappointment and pain into peace, healing, and acceptance of your child, even if he or she continues to make choices that have, until now, driven you up a wall. We cannot change our grown children. But dealing honestly and openly with our disappointment creates an opportunity to change ourselves — and in the process to let go with love so that our disappointment no longer causes us pain.

Parents, you can begin reading the free online book by Arlene Harder on letting go of grown adult children at Support4Change.com.

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21 Responses to “Letting Go of Our Grown Adult Children, When What We Do is Never Enough”

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  1. Lisa Simes says:

    I have one son 30 years old who recently left and moved out of his house, leaving my daughter in law and five grandchildren to go and live with an old high school girlfriend. He wanted to start his new life, and had no regard for leaving the kids. This was in January of this past year. He then decided the grass did not look greener on the other side of the fence and decided he wanted to come home again this past week, then yesterday he changed his mind again and just feels he cannot leave the girlfriend and her little boy but he just broke five kids hearts at his own house. I am not understanding at all, can someone please offer advice. I think he is being controlled and manipulated by this girl he is living with.

    • Ottawa_Lady says:

      Hi Lisa

      I just read your post and the only advice I could give you, is not to blame a third party for your adult son’s decisions and actions and his wife’s decision to let him cycle in and out of his former home.

      If the kids are traumatized, perhaps you can make it a point, if possible, to distract them – take them out, have sleep overs with them, try to normalize things as I am sure their mother is not in the best shape right now either, else she’d kick his behind to the curb and not let him back in without much family and marriage counseling.

  2. Star light says:


    I have a dad who is to controlling. everything i tell him he get offended. my dad is 82. i am 26 years old. i want to start my life, but having a hard time. my dad thinks it is my job to do everything for him. making up his bed, to cleaning the tub after him, washing his clothes, feeding his animals, etc. he feels if i want anything from him i have to slave for him in order to get it. he always through things in my face, slander me and tell other people negative things about me. my dad says he hates people, but love his dog. Im always getting fuss at for nothing. i really love him. if i leave him he said he will not talk to me ever again and dont come back. he dont want me to have job either. every relationship i have had he have ruined it. even if i go some where he gets mad at me. should i just leave anyway. i have no job, no money. i have no friends he ruined that to. i have done more for him than he have done for me. he feels that i owe him, which i find to be weird, what do i owe him? what should i do?

  3. seekingpeace says:

    First I would like to thank anyone who reads this. If you have landed on this page and then read this far, you and I already have plenty in common. Second, I would like to commend and console you for telling yourself the truth about your child. Most parents refuse to muster the courage to do so. Take a moment to accept my admiration for your refusal to rationalize the irrational. Third, I stand with you while you go over and over every thought or action you have had as a parent, trying to find clues as to how this could happen. I have been there too. You have all the compassion my heart holds (and it’s a lot). Let’s all be good to each other and not judging. Our culture (thanks to Father Freud) has judged us enough.

    After many years of pain I have come to these conclusions:
    – My child was born with many challenges in both her physical and spiritual inheritance as well as challenges unique to her purpose here on Earth. I raised her with my eyes wide open to these challenges as well as her strengths. Some soul difficulties she chose to overcome with hard work, others she succumbed to with little resistance. She is the sum total of her choices.

    -Love, prayer, discipline, devotion, compassion, acceptance and wisdom are not enough to help some people. And you cannot make someone want help. Until they do- you are wasting yourself.

    -We are all ultimately here with the freedom to live our lives as we define them. Your child is exercising his or her free will to do so.

    There is a book titled “Don’t let your kids kill you” and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It has given me peace like no other resource I have tried.

    Much peace and many blessings to all the parents who are reading these postings with tears and anguish. You are not alone.

  4. Lisa Anderson says:

    I am the youngest child “female” of two older male siblings, My mother has always coddled the middle child. As a child, I was told to “clean my brothers room” and I did. Growing up my bedroom was always immaculate, nothing I had to do, that is just the way I am. The middle brothers room was always a pigstye. Through out the years my oldest brother and I where always the responsible ones. My oldest brother is 50 years old, middle is 48 and I am 46. Oldest brother and I have lived on our own since the age of 18. Middle brother has been divorced 3 times, each time my parents have paid for his lawyers,”he has never attempted to pay them back” and also refurnished his house. Every time he gets divorced my mom keeps telling my brother to move back home. Usually they would go to auctions to find him furniture, this time they went new “lazy boy chair, kitchen table, bedroom outfit, and a 47” flat screen t.v. Middle child lives 17 miles from where he works, parents live in same town that he works in. So the days that he works he stays at my parents house. Middle child first marriage he had two sons, when divorced he signed away his rights, my parents for years fought to keep in contact with his sons. He never tried. Middle Child second marriage they had a daughter. Daughter was raised by her mother, but know she is “20” and she has come to stay with her dad. Know to the good part! My brother stays 60% of his time at my parents, so now is 20 year old daughter is staying there also. Who does not work, stays up all nights, sleeps all day. My mother is 68 years old, has had a major back surgery less than a year ago is out mowing the yard, doing their laundry and picking up after them. My dad is 72 years old and the same thing. Neither one can lift a finger to help. My oldest brother lives in another state comes home about every 15 months. I live 100 miles away, I have to get a motel room when we come home to visit on weekends. When I did stay at my parents with my brother and his daughter there, I slept on the couch. My niece would be rude to me and very disrespectful. She would tweet about me while I was there, “not realizing her tweets where on public” . My parents drag her around everywhere they go. If they go out to eat, my parents pay the bill.

    My mother is always complaining that she wishes my brother would sale his house and move into town. Why should he, you make it to easy for him. He has the best of both worlds, why should he have to grow up and become responsible, you and dad are always there to help him out of his situations.

    I have screamed, kicked, hollered, yelled, you name it trying to get it stopped. My middle brother does not see a problem with it. my older brother says our parents have to deal with it, my mother says there is nothing she can do, she feels caught in the middle. My dad says “their fine” It has affected my relationship with my parents, my mother and I used to be very close and it hurts so much to say that we are no longer close.

    My parents are very good people, they help out so many people. They live in a small community and when somebody passes away, my mother is always the first one there with Fried chicken, potato salad, the famous chocolate cake. My father is always doing small jobs for people. It makes me sick