The Painful Parts of Launching Young Adult Children From the Nest
Every young adult child is unique in their own ways and every parent facing the nest-launching phase of life with young adult children has their own perspective and experience of it. Many parents proudly see their young adult children happily head off to college, graduate, get a job, start a career, have children of their own or go on some other exciting adventures.
I suspect, however, in most cases parents who are launching young adult children from the nest experience some painful parts in that process. Even parents who see their children launch with grace and ease feel the pain of separation and the natural changes to the parent-child relationship dynamics as their child morphs into a young adult. Empty-nest syndrome is real.
The painful parts are rarely spoken about publicly. Social media tends to serve as a place where parents boast with understandably proud announcements about their young adult children’s accomplishments.
But most parents are not talking about the painful parts.
I’m thinking of all the parents who are suffering, quietly.
The parent whose young adult child has fallen into addiction.
The parent whose young adult child is struggling with untreated depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other mental health issues.
The parent whose young adult child is now expressing anger about the divorce that happened over 20 years ago.
The parent whose young adult child drops out of college and is barely getting by working odd jobs with no further plan and no interest in guidance or advice.
The parent whose young adult child is still living at home with no job or aspirations.
The parent who is plagued with worry after not hearing from their young adult child in years.
All the parents who sit alone in their pain, each thinking they must be the odd one, the only one feeling this because no one is talking about the painful parts out loud.
And I think of all the young adult children who are struggling with challenges, longing for success and independence but resisting the guidance and help their parents may offer.
In my work over the past 20+ years as a psychotherapist and now as a midlife coach for women, I have been privy to many parents’ stories of the painful parts. And I have some very painful experiences of my own.
This stuff of letting go of the children we brought into the world, raised, and nurtured is hard enough without added challenges. It is a process no one prepares you for. The roller coaster of providing support balanced with the need to encourage independence and caution around not enabling or fostering learned helplessness is a brutally exhausting ride. There is pain in loving a child so fiercely knowing that they are suffering and there is nothing that can be done except just to love them from a distance.
I remember 28 years ago when I became a parent for the first time so vividly. The drive home from the hospital, I sat in the back seat next to my tiny newborn safely strapped into his infant carrier. I was afraid to take my eyes off of him but also anxiously back-seat driving, reminding my husband to go slowly and watch out for crazy drivers on the road. I remember those first days of caring for my new-born realizing the magnitude of responsibility that comes with being in charge of the life of a tiny human.
I reflect on the overwhelm and dismay at how unprepared I felt.
No amount of books or parenting classes prepared me for the anxiety I felt about being totally responsible for this tiny being’s health and wellbeing.
By the time my second precious baby boy came along I thought it would be much easier. It was not easier. Loving and caring for a new-born while my three year-old was zooming about, climbing everything scalable was another phase of parenting that brought a whole new set of joys and challenges for which I felt unprepared.
Nothing prepared me for a lot of what life dished up for me as a parent.
Nothing had prepared me for how to handle the divorce from their father. Nothing prepared me for how to handle it when I met and fell in love with a man that would become their step-father. There was no handbook for how to best handle remarrying and blending families and becoming a step-mother. I certainly had no preparation for gaining custody of a step-daughter and the ensuing responsibility for raising three children through adolescence into young adulthood.
But alas, I did the very best I possibly could, often feeling like I was swinging wildly by the seat of my pants, hoping to high heaven my imperfect parenting didn’t completely mess them up.
I think, now, to how equally unprepared I have felt when facing the painful parts of launching those three humans into the world as young adults. They are all twenty-something now and each is dancing with the ups and downs of life in their own unique ways. Each of them has their own feelings and opinions about the way I mothered them. Each of them is the recipient of my unconditional and undying motherly love whether they want it or not.
I’ve noticed in my professional work with child and family therapists all over the country and around the world that this last two years of global pandemic, spotlight on social injustice and the nasty political divides have seemed to quicken and escalate the painful parts of launching young adult children from the nest for many parents. So, if you are really struggling right now with your young adult children, you are not alone.
There is such irony for parents who intentionally raised their children to be independent, expressive, and competent.
You want them to be independent… and yet your heart feels heavy when you realize they don’t need you anymore.
You have been committed to raising humans who think for themselves… but what happens when their life philosophies take a radical turn away from your own life philosophies?
You raised them to be assertive and communicative… but then they might use those skills to dismantle the entire basis for how you parented them. They might even hurl a few well-crafted verbal daggers right into your heart.
If you are a parent pained by your relationship with your young adult child you will find that there is no shortage on opinions about how you should handle things if you dare to ask for advice on social media.
You’ll hear everything from, “Tough love is the only way! Rip the bandaid off! It’s the only way they’ll learn.” to “Keep the kettle on, door wide open and continue telling them you love them even if they are spitting in your face.” You may end up feeling shame if you lean into those kinds of online conversations because often people are projecting and judging rooted in their own pain. But no one is really talking about the pain.
I think parents of young adult children need to cut themselves and other parents a lot of slack.
You did the best you knew how to do given where you were in your life each step of the way.
Were you a perfect parent? Nope. None of us were. Some parents may have done better than others but in most cases we did the best we could given what we knew and had at the time. You may have been dealing with so much life stress at times that you were unable to access your brain’s best executive functioning.
And your young adult children are discovering who they are as individuals in a world that is more chaotic and confusing than any time we have known in our lifetimes.
Your role has changed. Your children are young adults now. How much or how readily you help them may depend on a lot of variables. Personally, I think our unconditional love for our children is never more needed than when they are young adults, beginning the process of individuating from you and their family of origin. But that unconditional love may not need to be expressed directly. It may be enough to just love them from several steps removed. And unconditional love does not mean no boundaries. Healthy boundaries are important to ensure the mental and emotional wellbeing of yourself and your young adult child.
As a parent of young adult children, you need and deserve your own support.
Personal counseling support, life transition coaching, support groups or just more open sharing about the painful parts with compassion for one another is called for. These are tough challenges for many parents as they struggle with how to find balance with these times of transition.
You need to know that you are not alone in these painful parts. Reach out. Connect with a support resource.
Lynn Louise Wonders is a licensed and certified professional counselor supervisor in the state of Georgia and a midlife redesign coach. She is the author of The Midlife Rediscovery Workbook, When Parents Are at War and the Miss Piper’s Playroom therapeutic children’s book series all available on Amazon. Learn more at www.WondersCounseling.com and www.LynnLouiseWonders.com