When Adult Children Disappoint You

Multi-Generational Family

What happens when the kids, in spite of all you've done to give them every advantage and every opportunity, are definitely not all right? Maybe your offspring's problems are major - depression, addiction, trouble with the law. Or perhaps the issues are more garden variety - flunking out of college, not finding or holding a job, being unlucky in love. Yet whatever it is that befalls the precious progeny for whom you had high hopes, the fact that your grown kids are not exactly your pride and joy can be one of life's greatest heartbreaks.

Yet you are far from alone. This has been going on since time immemorial. Remember the Bible's Prodigal Son? And how about John and Abigail Adams, whose son graduated from Harvard only to die of alcoholism at the age of 30? Also, surely you've heard of any number of celebrities whose bad-seed kids have made headlines. For that matter, all you probably need to do is look at your own social circle to find people who are wringing their hands over how the kids have turned out.

Unfortunately, though, this is one time when misery doesn't love company. In fact, this is a club no one wants to belong to, and knowing about others in the same boat is cold comfort. What does lessen the psychological pain is to find approaches that will let you move on so that you can be happy in your own right. These strategies can help:

Silence the Negative Self-Talk

The "Where did we go wrong?" refrain is nothing but torture. Even if you can pinpoint some actual failings - the divorce, illness in the family, financial issues, a kid who just never clicked with you - going back over the past won't make it all better. The fact is, like most of us, you almost certainly did the best you could. Flagellating yourself is of no use. The minute the self-blame mental conversation starts, block it with what psychologists call "acknowledgements." Think about, or better yet put in writing, what is good about you and what you've done that has made a positive difference. The items on your list may be as small as stopping to pick up something a passerby had dropped and running to give it back or offering to watch a neighbor's child so she could have a little time to herself or sending an e-card to cheer up someone who's sick. Everything counts as long as you are frankly patting yourself on the back. You'll feel better, guaranteed.

Help But Don't Enable

If your child needs money or a place to stay when times are tough, you will no doubt do what you can. However, expert after expert warns about allowing emergency aid to turn into long tern enabling of a dysfunctional adult child. In serious cases, get professional help, including guiding your child into a treatment program if that's warranted.

Accept What You Cannot Change and Change What You Can

If your daughter's bright future was hijacked when she had a baby at 16, no amount of agonizing can recreate the trajectory she could have had. All you can do is love your grandchild, assist in the upbringing if that is appropriate, and talk with your daughter about ways she might catch up on her education in order to have better career prospects down the road. Similarly, a kid who has a police record can't erase that, but he can discover ways to go forward in spite of it, and a child who never managed to graduate from college can find meaningful work in areas that don't require a degree.

Keep the Door Open

Like the Prodigal Son who came back at last, your wayward ones may find their way home - literally or figuratively. If so, be ready to kill the proverbial fatted calf in order to celebrate and look to a new beginning.

A happy scenario like that one doesn't always take place, of course. Still, even if your black sheep never return to the fold or change their ways, you have a right to live this chapter of your life without dwelling on the fact that the kids didn't fulfill their potential. You gave them life, but you cannot give them a life. No parent can.