Parents and Adult Children

Parents and Adult Children

One of the most fascinating parts of my Doctor of Ministry program was the study of Family Systems Theory. Edwin H. Friedman’s book about family systems in the church, Generation to Generation, should be required reading for all pastors. Dealing with families is never easy, especially one’s own.

I have a good friend who has worked through great pain to maintain a relationship with her mother. With her father, she stopped trying. He had rejected his daughter for being true to herself. Now, after years of absence, he phoned her. He offered no apologies and acted as if the years of absence had been nothing. She found the call invasive, but being a person of high moral character, my friend is agonizing over whether or not to remain in touch. I explained to her my understanding of family.

A parent never stops being a parent. My three children are all over 35, but I am still the parent, with more life experience. That life experience does not give me a free pass to tell them what to do or how to live. In fact, it means just the opposite. Being a parent means accepting my children and their spouses as they are. As long as I am physically and mentally able, that is my responsibility.

My children, on the other hand, do not have such a responsibility toward me. They are adults, with their own children, to whom they are fully committed, as Cathy and I have been to them. Their relationship with their own nuclear family is more important than their relationship with us. We have no right to make demands of them. We have the responsibility to be available to them as they see fit.

Many in our culture do not see it that way. They quote the fifth commandment, which says children should honor their parents. The renowned psychiatrist Scott Peck said more human damage is done trying to follow that commandment than any other. I suppose the silver lining is that it keeps therapists employed.

I pointed out to my friend that she used the term “invasive” when describing the phone call she received from her father. I asked if she was in the habit of inviting invasive people into her life.  She readily replied, “In other situations, certainly not.  But is this different?”  I said she was the one who had to decide that.

In my counseling work I have many clients whose parents make ongoing demands of them. Often these parents were emotionally or physically absent during their child’s formative years. Yet they are convinced their adult child owes them something. It is difficult to hear their stories. I believe the parent owes everything. The child is under no obligation to meet the expressed or unexpressed needs of a parent. The child has more important work to do, finding their own way through career, marriage, parenting, and all the other responsibilities of adult life. Life is hard enough without worrying about meeting the emotional needs of codependent parents.

During my transition there were periods in which my children stayed away. I did not go after them. There was a lot to process and they needed the distance. Sometimes they still do. It is my responsibility to understand and accept that reality.  That is what it means to be a parent.

Families are complicated. A family can be a place of great connection, or a place of unbearable pain. It can be one’s touchstone, or its members can feel like ships passing in the night. Most of the time it is a little bit of both.

I have no idea whether or not my friend will stay in touch with her father. But then that is another area that is ultimately none of my business.  A good friend may offer advice when it is requested, but after that, faithfuless to the friendship demands one’s presence and availability, regardless of the decision that is made.

And so it goes…


3 thoughts on “Parents and Adult Children

  1. Thank you for this piece. My husband cut ties with his parents several years ago, and there isn’t a lot of support in churches for that painful decision–regardless of the reasons. I (and he) have heard the 5th commandment, ‘Jesus wouldn’t give up on them’, forgiveness speeches and other misquoted, uninformed, well-meaning thoughts. Blood isn’t always thicker than water… ;0)


  2. For some reason parents seem to think they have the right to dictate your every action. It wasn’t until I said to my mother in the car about 15 years before her death that I had allowed her to f–k up my life. My mother was shocked at my language and after a period of silence she sincerely apologized and you know the remaking years we shared were a delight. I know it doesn’t always work that way but I wish I had done it 20 years earlier.


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