Benjamin Spock’s book on parenting is a bible to most parents on how to deal with children from birth up to adolescence. But there is no such handbook that guides you on parenting your grown-up kids.
The need for such a manual is being felt now more than ever, because of the fast-changing world, the diverse values and atypical lifestyle choices adopted by the younger generation, which are so different from the choices of their parents. Parents often feel like they are performing on a stage without a script and desperately seek advice. They want someone to tell them the right way to handle the shifting value systems, rebellion, flouting of household norms and potentially dangerous lifestyle choices, without endangering their relationship.
Family dynamics are undergoing a sea change with marital age being delayed as young men and women seek higher education and focus on building their careers. This also means that they live in the parental home longer. Also, the incidence of divorce is increasing by the day, which often means that the adult child returns to the parental home for support. In families where both the husband and wife are working, the task of babysitting the kids almost always falls on the elderly parents. Clearly, parental involvement continues in the life of the grown-up child and there is ample scope for disagreements, debates or even serious conflicts while trying to live together.
The ultimate aim should be to co-exist in harmony, in a relationship of mutual respect without dependence or domination by either on the other. It is important to accept differences and leave enough space for respectful negotiation.
Parents need to strike the right balance between being overly protective, sheltering, directive or controlling, and being permissive, unassertive, negligent or lazy. Appropriate parenting of a grown-up child requires the acknowledgement that the child is now an adult with a life of her own. She requires to be helped to establish herself in an autonomous existence. She needs psychological maturity and the freedom to express her choice and assume responsibility of such a choice.
This is an ongoing process and begins when the child challenges views, opinions and choices of the parent, and decides to think and act in ways that are different from her parents. The process ends with both parent and child respecting each other’s attitudes and behaviours and allowing the same right and space to the each other. However, this process goes through a lot of ups and downs, and requires guidance to smoothen out the bumpy part of the ride.
Freedom with responsibility
Single mother Madhavi’s 23 year-old son would allow his drunken friends to shack up for the night in his room after a late night party, even though he did not drink. He wanted to be a good friend by not allowing them to drive home intoxicated.
Madhavi, on the other hand, found it unacceptable to have these drunk young men in her home, not only because they would vomit at times and leave a mess, but also because she found it revolting that she was dealing with the consequences of other people’s bad choices. In her opinion, the freedom that adulthood brings comes with responsibility. She told her son that if his adult friends chose to drink, they and not him and Madhavi needed to assume responsibility to get themselves back home safely.
Moreover, his choice of friends and his choice of living at home came with the responsibility of sticking to the norms of the home being an alcohol-free zone. Besides, his mother would not encourage drunk men staying overnight in a single-woman household. Madhavi’s son had to be an adult and accepted the responsibilities that came with living at his mother’s home.
Sometimes, when the problem is serious negotiation is not possible.
Sarah’s diamond ring was missing and she realised that her 21-year-old son Nikhil had stolen it. He was not only using but also peddling drugs, and had run up a huge debt with a drug supplier, who was threatening him with dire consequences if he did not pay up soon.
Sarah realised that no negotiation would work with addiction. She sought professional help and organised an ‘intervention’ by all the family members who expressed their concern and ‘insisted’ on a detoxification and rehabilitation programme immediately. Nikhil also had to commit that once he is out of rehab and starts working, he would repay the amount equivalent to the diamond ring to his mother.
If he refused to agree to these terms, the family would file a police complaint against him for theft, mental harassment and disruption of peace. If that happened, the family would cut all ties with Nikhil and he would have to leave the home and manage on his own. The message was loud and clear.
Nikhil took the first choice, got himself admitted into a rehabilitation centre, and assumed responsibility for his actions. Here there was no negotiation, but ‘tough love’ with ultimatums.
Sometimes it is a diverse value system that could create disharmony between parent and child. At such times, a child’s disagreement can be misunderstood by the parents as rebellion.
Here, the question to be asked is whether one can live with such diversity if it does not physically, mentally or financially inconvenience the parents. Is it becoming a cause of some social awkwardness? For example, Anand and Malini Nair’s 24 year-old son came out openly about the fact that he was a homosexual, and even had a steady male partner who was from the same social group in which he and his parents mingled.
Malini threw a fit, was in denial and then angry for a long time, blaming her son for ruining her social life and giving her pain in the last years of her life. Anand was less anguished and more mature in handling the news. Instead of making his son feel guilty, he assured him of his love as a father.
He discussed his concerns about HIV and other STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] as he viewed homosexuality as high risk behaviour. His son alleviated his father’s concerns by telling him that he and his partner were taking care to ensure such a thing would not happen. Anand also asked his son to seek professional counselling to be sure of his sexual orientation, and to recognise whether this was a phase arising out of sexual experimentation. Anand respected his son as his own person, shared his real concerns honestly, and dealt with his own social awkwardness himself without burdening the child with it.
On the other hand, Neil and Caroline Fernandes were taken aback when their young daughter decided to date a much elder and divorced man. They felt their status in the community would be jeopardised and they single-mindedly went about trying to ensure that would not happen, even at the cost of disrespecting their daughter’s individuality. They threatened to disown her, emotionally blackmailed her, and even physically restrained her. All in vain.
She ultimately moved in with the man, subsequently married him and had kids. She broke ties with her parents because of the crude ways they had adopted to share their concerns. Neil and Caroline had not cared to listen and hadn’t been willing to understand what really made their daughter happy.
If they had adopted the stance of Anand Nair and challenged their own social comfort zones, they would today have a mutually respectful relationship with their only daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
All rebellion is not bad. Rebellion is in fact existential and healthy, as it is an exercise in ‘thinking for oneself’ through the mechanism of ‘reason’. It ensures survival in the here and now, instead of going by borrowed and maybe outdated values and beliefs, which might hinder survival. Therefore, it is good that the child questions parental values and forms her own moral convictions based on reason. Over time and after inner discernment, some of her convictions may match with those of her parents’. But these convictions, though similar, would not be borrowed, but would be ‘born through reason’ and would result in healthy autonomy.
Appropriate parenting requires you to provide the comfort to your grown-up child that you are there when needed, to help if asked, to step in if necessary, and to support by standing by; while at the same time, allowing the child to struggle through and surmount problems on his own.
There comes a point in every parent’s life when one has to learn to ‘let go’ and realise that everybody has to go through the growing up experience alone. The parent has to give the child enough space and strength, and put enough faith in the child’s potential to work out her problems on her own, so that she establishes that confidence in herself.
Knowing that your child is a mature individual and can manage on her own, even when you are not around, would be a very satisfying and fulfilling feeling. If you help her take responsibility for her life and choices, you have done your role as a parent.
Guidelines to deal with young adults
- Ask yourself how, when, and if at all you should even be involved. Does it require crisis intervention, or a peaceful discussion?
- Decide if you need to use ‘tough love’ or ‘gentle love’?
- Avoid seeing yourself as a victim, and blaming the child; instead keep a solution-oriented approach, which is to be jointly engaged in.
- Share your fears and concerns honestly about the problem and assure your child of your love —reject the deed and not the person.
- Encourage your child to acknowledge the problem, and ask her to take concrete steps to remedy it. Suggest professional help like a doctor, counsellor, lawyer [and even insist on it] if required.
- Discuss law and order if your child could be breaking the law. Clarify that you would not bail her out.
- Share clearly that you always live by the courage of your own convictions, and act in a way that allows you to keep your own sense of integrity.
- Do not engage in self-blame if your child gets herself in trouble. Forgive yourself and learn from your parenting flaws.
- Communicate honestly but sensitively. When your child speaks try to enter her frame of reference. Do not allow emotions to cloud the conversation. Have a dialogue and avoid sermonising.
- Draw clear boundaries and discuss them frankly with room for negotiation.