When my two sons were young and living at home, I still had the ability to help them make good decisions and I could override their decisions when they made bad ones. So it didn’t feel like I had to choose between loving them and disciplining them and I didn’t have to accept their bad choices.
I love my sons unconditionally. At least that’s what I tell myself. I try to make it as true as possible; loving them no matter how they behave, no matter if I agree with them, or no matter if they’ve hurt my feelings or taken advantage of my generosity.
But sometimes loving our adult children who seem to have a pattern of poor choices is a challenge. We want to treat them as adults, adults we love unconditionally, but our response is to treat them like the children they once were.
It was Friday night, my son called while I was finishing my homework after three hours of studying at my desk (yes, I’m finally getting the degree I elected to put aside to have a family).
“Mom”, he said, “I was in a car accident a few hours ago. I’m fine. Everyone is fine, but my car is totaled.”
As calm as I could be, I listened to his lengthy explanation of the events that had unfolded in his life over the last week. He was in a car accident, his car is now totaled, and oh by the way, he let me know (in the middle of the car accident story) that he gave notice at his job. He was quitting –again- (he was already struggling financially) because he decided to take part in a pharmaceutical study for a new prostate cancer drug. They were going to pay him $4000 and he had to go into the clinic in two days and he would be there for eight days. Oh yeah, he wouldn’t be allowed any visitors. And now that he doesn’t have a car he isn’t going to bother completing his last week at work, he’ll just not show up and he can look for a job while he is participating in the medical study. He’ll have lots of time to post his resume online while he is in the clinic.
Now at the end of this conversation, because I had sat silent and not responded (yes, because I was in shock), he decided that I was judging his decision and I hadn’t even bothered to ask him if he was okay. So as I was reeling trying to keep myself from “judging” his decision, I elected instead to ask questions. I didn’t ask him why he made the choices. I didn’t ask him if he thought he was crazy (although, that screamed through my head). I just asked for the details.
After we finished our conversation, I quickly called his father and let out all of my frustration.
“I don’t know how to do it anymore! I don’t know how to love my son and continue to support him in his pattern of bad choices” I gasped.
Over and over again, we’ve bailed out our son, struggled to lift his spirits when he couldn’t find a job or offered him money when he couldn’t pay his bills. All I could think about was how often he had taken advantage of people who love him, my parents, me, his father, and his younger brother, everyone who loves and adores him as an intelligent, charismatic and loving human being.
As I reached out to friends, everyone told me I needed to give him “tough love”, to let him sink, to stop lifting him up. They would say I need to distance myself from him, to let him hit bottom and cut off any finances. It just didn’t seem to be the answer to me.
I wasn’t hurting so much this time for him and his struggles, I was hurting because I knew I didn’t want to face him. I didn’t want to be angry at him for his choices. I didn’t want to lose the joy I feel in having him around me.
I reached out to my pastor. I’m blessed to have a great friend in my pastor who listened to my frustration, who could hear and has known the love and joy that I find in my sons. Here was the advice he gave me.
Here is how I kept the joy in my relationship with my son.
Err on the Side of the Relationship
Just like we can never lose our relationship with the Father once we come to him through Christ Jesus, nothing can break a bond between a parent and a child. The relationship has to take precedence over all the “stuff” of the world. That doesn’t mean I had to allow him to take advantage of me or of others, but it meant I had to approach my issue with my son as trouble in our relationship.
Schedule Some Time to Communicate your Feelings
I called my son and scheduled an afternoon with him. “Just you and I” I told him. We just needed some time to talk and enjoy the day together. I picked him up on that Sunday afternoon. We went to a movie and grabbed some lunch and took a walk in the park. On the swing set we talked together. I told him how I was feeling frustrated and confused about how I should respond. I told him I knew that always being his mother did not grant me permission to insist he change his choices, but as adults I wanted him to respect me and for me to be able to respect him. What I needed from him was for him to hear me, that his behavior and his choices had an impact on people who loved him dearly. He listened.
Your Role as a Parent to Your Adult Children is One of Guidance
I knew that I did not have the right to discipline my son and it wasn’t necessary to take a “tough love” approach or to cut him off in order to teach him a lesson. But as I talked with him, I reminded him that I love him and as someone who loves him I wanted good things for him. I let him know that I couldn’t support his choices, I couldn’t honestly say that I approved of the path he was choosing, but I would always be available to listen.
I could give him some guidance on what to consider to make wiser choices and to look at all the risks, but I couldn’t make the choice for him. I reminded him that good choices had to include consideration for others.
Let Go of What You Can’t Change, Change the Things You Can
After our talk, my son shared with me that he wanted to find a path that was more stable. We both agreed we had to let go of the choices we’ve made in the past and it was okay not to agree He agreed to listen to me and talk to me anytime I thought things were impacting our relationship. I agreed to be a sounding board without offering solutions unless I was asked. I decided, even then, the most I could do was to help him see things clear so that he could make his own choices and once he made them I would not allow them to come between us.
Our relationships are the most precious things we gain in this world. Loving each other unconditionally means recognizing that the “stuff” in the world may impact our relationships from time to time, but we must fight to keep them and we must work to keep them strong.