You Can’t Make Your Adult Children Happy, So Stop Trying!

Postparenting adult children who feel “entitled.”

“How are the kids?”  It’s not always the first question we ask when we get together with old friends, but it usually comes right after “How long has it been?” If it’s been a long time, the kids are grown up now,  in their twenties or thirties or even their forties, but to us   they’re still kids, no matter how old they are.
Most of the time, we get (or give) the same answer – “The kids are all right ” –  because even if it’s not really true, who needs to know? Some kids have always taken longer to grow up than others, stumbled or tripped on the way to adulthood, faltered or fallen despite  how hard parents tried, how much they loved them, how well they raised them.
But these days, though, more young adults are failing to thrive than ever before, and their parents, baby boomers who were the richest, biggest, most educated generation in history, are confronting a host of problems they never expected.  In fact, boomers’ expectations for their offspring were not only very high – they were also very different from the expectations their own parents (the Depression and World War II generation) had for them. That may even  be part of the reason for the alarming reality, which is that a growing number of “adultolescents” are addicted, dependent, depressed, unable to make a commitment to a job, a career or a relationship, can’t or won’t leave home, are in trouble with the law or living outside it, or alienated from family and friends.
It’s difficult to quantify how many Gen X and Gen Y‘ers are in physical, emotional or financial trouble.  But the number of 21-34 year olds who’ve boomeranged back home or never managed to leave is increasing every month. Suicide, alcoholism, eating disorders and depression among young people in their 20’s have tripled in the last two decades. Their use of heroin and amphetamines  has quadrupled in the last five years. Forty percent of  18 to 35 year olds are excessively dependent on their parents for support.  And  over half the parents of 21 to 32 year olds contribute a quarter or more to their grown children’s income in money, goods and services!
Baby boomers reaped the benefit of the economic security that was the Greatest Generation’s most important goal for them; they knew they were lucky and privileged, especially in comparison to the social and economic conditions faced by their parents,  and  they took it for granted that their own children would never lack for life’s necessities or lose their place in the middle class. Accordingly, as parents they shifted their focus of attention to their children’s inner, emotional needs – their self-esteem, the development of their creative, intellectual, social and psychological potential – not entirely unexpected, given the influence of the cultural shifts of the Sixties and the narcissistic  “Me Decade” of the Seventies. “All I ever wanted was for her to be happy,” says Carolyn, a frustrated 55 year old, of  Lily, her depressed, bulimic, unemployed, dependent 27 year old daughter who dropped out of college one semester short of graduation.  “Was that too much to ask?”
Carolyn’s expectations of the child she raised to be the best and the brightest don’t seem extraordinary. “To finish her education, even if it took her a few more years than it took me. To explore what’s out there, all the opportunities I worked so hard to give her, and choose one that’s likely to give her a rewarding or meaningful career, or at least a decent job.To pay her own way, even if I had to provide a safety net for a while.  To be emotionally independent enough to own her own feelings and not blame me for her failures or need me to constantly be shoring up her self-esteem.  To play by the rules and not take dumb risks that would ruin her life.  And oh, yes, find a cure for cancer, give me a few grandchildren, and call home once in a while.”
Carolyn can live with not being the mother of this generation’s Madame Curie, but she can’t live with Lily’s unhappiness and  she can’t stop trying to fix it, either.  Lily just quit the fourth McJob she’s had so far this year, and Lily just broke up with her boyfriend and moved back home for the third time, and the car Lily was driving got towed for parking tickets she’d just tossed in the glove compartment and Lily spaced her appointments with both the career counselor and the shrink, and Lily ran up a $500 long distance bill because her best friend lives in London and Lily hates to write letters, and Lily never got around to cleaning the house or walking the dog or even defrosting something for dinner.  It was Carolyn’s car that got towed and Carolyn’s phone that’s going to be turned off and Carolyn’s house that Lily and her friends messed up last night, and Carolyn who’s paying for the appointments Lily missed. And it was Lily’s dog that chewed Carolyn’s new shoes and peed on her rug.
Carolyn has a good job where she bosses a hundred people around and manages a huge annual budget and has to say “No” a dozen times a day, but she can’t bring herself to say it to her daughter, any more than she can demand that Lily grow up and start taking responsibility for her own life and her own happiness instead of expecting her parents to provide it and look for it herself where real adults discover it – in the satisfactions of work, love, connection, commitment, self-sufficiency and achievement. Because no parent can make a grown child happy; as long as parents expect they can, their kids will, too, and they will both be disappointed.
Between Carolyn’s expectations and  her daughter’s current reality is a new kind of generation gap that’s impacting every aspect of life for parents with even more troubled or dysfunctional adult kids – their physical and mental health, their careers or retirement, their economic security and even their marital and other family relationships.
If your adult children are finding life in the real world difficult, chances are you are, too. Giving up the quest to make them happy may be the healthiest thing you can do, not only for them but for yourself, too.

By janeellen

Jane Adams PHD Social Psychologist