How to turn a child into an adult

I participated in a family support group this week that focused on “dependency” issues. The group consisted of parents of adults who suffer from various mental and emotional disorders. We discussed the difficulties of watching adult children engage in various self-distractive or self-sabotaging behaviors. Although the stories were much more extreme than one might hear from parents of healthy children, the attitude and perspective we need to take is really just the same regardless of the child.

One father talked about his son who is in a residential treatment facility. His son is in his late twenties. The facility is very good (and very expensive.) In order to begin to work on inappropriate behaviors that can be reenforced by the family, they have a 45 day no contact period at the beginning of treatment. Not surprisingly, many patients don’t like that. This man’s son decided to leave the facility and make it home but only made it half way. Penniless, tired and hungry, he called his father for help.

The father, with boundless love for his son, was heartbroken when he heard his son’s plight. “How could I let him sleep on the street without food?” he lamented.

How indeed? This man was spending approximately 10K a month for his son’s treatment and when his son needs $50 for a room and a bus ticket he can’t help?

But the perspective is wrong. While we all want the best for our children, we are not very good at getting them to make good choices. Many choose life styles that are not what we could imagine. Others make mistakes that if they would only listen to is they wouldn’t need to falter. Life would be so much easier if our children would learn from our mistakes. Alas….

We need to step back and get a long term perspective. Not a small step back, but a really big step. Remember how that child was when she came into this world. What the relationship like during his first weeks and months? At that age the human being is completely helpless and dependent. This actually defines the goal of parenting. We want out children to be independent adults. Even more important: this is the primary prerequisite for their happiness. Nobody can be a flourishing, thriving individual if they feel dependent on others for their well being.

How is this perspective translated into everyday behavior? How can this be understood in simple terms? How do we keep that goal of independence foremost in our minds and constantly in view?

Let us start with a simple example. Your kid is learning to ride a bicycle. You are there with her and holding on as she starts out. But eventually you will let go and she will ride without your help, independently. You know that she is likely to fall while learning and come crying about a hurt knee or elbow. That doesn’t stop you – or her. Independence is too important.

If a twenty something tries to start a business, you wish him best and give advise (if he’ll listen.) If he won’t listen then you keep your mouth shut and tell yourself that he is still young and he can learn from his failures. Hopefully he does and has a better round the next time. Why is that the best path to take? Because that is the road to greater independence.

That is the same message I shared with my group this week. Sure the child will fall and suffer. Since the behavior that triggered the problem was greater than learning to ride a bicycle the suffering will be greater, but it is the exact same process. In order to become independent the child (even if she is now a 35 year old child) needs to fall and get up and learn to do it on her own. Anything less than that is losing sight of the real goal of independence.

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