Letting Go of Our Young Adults… Launching and Loving Well
We are in a new phase. It’s official. Our daughter has finished high school, packed her room, and we will be leaving her in Chicago in exactly 56 days— but who’s counting?!
As I wrote already wrote about in grief and graduation here, my daughter and her father walked a part of the Camino de Santiago in June as a part of closure to her childhood. I flew in to surprise her at the end of the pilgrimage, and I could tell right away something had shifted in those two weeks of walking. She was different: Settled. Older. Pensive. And a bit detached.
At first I thought it was because she was tired. But then I realized… she had begun to let go of her life in Spain and (gulp) her parents.
My husband confirmed this when we later had a coffee (and a public crying session) to talk about their trip. After they had finished their walk to the cathedral in Santiago, they took a bus another 83 km to a place called the FinisTerra (“end of the earth”), the furthest most point in Europe, where, until the discovery of the Americas, it was thought to be the end of the earth.
Alex was making his way with Karis to the final outcropping at the “end of the earth” for a sweet bonding moment to celebrate the end of their trip. Karis, however, wanted to be alone. Alex peeled off to watch and shot this photo. The picture says it all…. she has turned her back on Europe and all that was familiar, and she has set her face towards the Americas.
Welcome to our new season.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. I talked about differentiation in young children in an earlier post (see my post here) and I’ve certainly walked a number of 20-somethings through the processing of this stage of what it means to separate from their family. But it’s a little different to experience it myself, so I guess this post is as much for me as you.
Here’s a few things to know as a parent of an adult child learning to differentiate…
This is a NORMAL, MESSY, and NECESSARY stage of life development to become a healthy adult. When people don’t differentiate from their parents, things become a little weird. A strange co-dependence develops where the parent or child needs each other too much to get their emotional needs met. Sometimes it’s on the parents side—we have found identity, purpose, and joy in being the foundations of our children’s support system, and we don’t want to let go. Sometimes it is on the kids’ side— they’re afraid of failure or struggling to figure out a path forward so it’s easier to just let parents still call the shots. Either way, when young adults don’t differentiate, healthy development becomes stunted. We are designed at certain stages to sever certain ties and retie them differently.
Our children will be getting in touch with places of their hurt, disappointments, and brokenness in their family system. I distinctly remember sitting my parents down in college and telling them how they had hurt me in my childhood (God bless them.) No family escapes brokenness. No parent met every need and handled every situation perfectly. A healthy relationship might mean that your child will tell you how they have been hurt. Don’t defend yourself. Listen. Take their words back to God and others and sort through what you need to apologize for and where you may need to make changes in how you are relating to your adult child. Our children will continue to be one of the greatest places of spiritual formation even after they leave home… and some of it will come from the difficult feedback they will give us about our own brokenness. Receive this as a season of formation for YOU too.
Try to process your feelings with someone else – NOT your (newly) adult child. Your feelings are going to get hurt. They are going to say hard things to you— some of which are true, and others which are a mixture of truth. They may either say things in extreme because they feel like they’ve said it before and you haven’t received it or they may tiptoe around it because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Or they may withdraw completely. Send the message to your child that you have enough strength to a season of hard feedback or separation, then go fall apart elsewhere.
One common assumption people make is that now that your child is an adult, you can become good friends. You start telling them the real inside story about your marriage or your own emotional struggles or your grief/anxiety/fear about this new season. Believe it or not, that’s quite unsettling for the adult child, no matter what their age. There is a balance in being genuine about your struggles and not using your child to be a best friend to process all that is going on. Save your messiest processing for your friendships, not your adult children.
They are trying to figure out what to carry forward into adulthood… which beliefs, values, traditions, and theology. Your child is unique. Wired differently from you. Has been shaped by different cultural and spiritual dynamics. Placed in a different generation. We cannot hold them to our own structures at the expense of calling them to fully be salt and light as God has them created to be. In this dramatic time in church history, we need to pray that our children become expressions of the character and nature of God that fit their generation, not ours. Give them space to try on different beliefs and values. Say these powerful words: “This is messy but I love you and I know you will find your way.” Say it even when you aren’t sure it’s true.
They will need to draw boundaries. Sometimes to discover what they believe, your children may need to draw boundaries — emotionally, geographically, relationally. And to you, the boundaries may feel extreme or unnecessary. They may talk to you less and need to process things with others. They may decide to go a different direction with their career or spending or interests or marital system. They are going to do things with which you will disagree. And they need to. Boundaries are essential as the unhealthy (or newly outgrown) ties are severed, and as healthy, developmentally appropriate ties are formed. This may feel like rejection of you and what you hold dear. Expand your arms to give them the space they need; try not to take it all personally. (Of course, there are times when healthy differentiation crosses over into acting out– but that is fodder for a different post.)
AFFIRM them through the process. This is actually a very unsettling stage for young adults, especially if you have a close family. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They don’t want to criticize your parenting. My daughter had a lot of inner-tension requesting time alone at the end of her pilgrimage. Even if you have had an extremely difficult relationship where you child spewed hateful things throughout adolescence and beyond, they feel terrible about it underneath it all. No child likes to hurt their parent. Our children are more aware of our fragility than we may know.
And as in many life transitions, this season will be a place to live the gospel out in your family. We have to learn to speak the truth in love. We have to let our children be human and make mistakes. We have to forgive and be forgiven. We are driven back to God with the places we struggle to change our own deeply ingrained patterns. And most importantly, we have the opportunity to live out unconditional love in the midst a messy season of development.
We may like to think this season is about launching our kids into the unknown, but the truth is, WE as parents are launching into the deep of a new season as well. We are losing control. We have to learn how to lead and support our children differently. We will be faced with our places of insecurity and shortcomings. We have to pray more and say less. And once again throw ourselves on the grace of God to cover all that we cannot.
Thanks for the therapy session everyone. Survival tips are welcome. 🙂