Around the time of year of the leaving cert results, many parents put themselves in the shoes of those whose children have reached this milestone moment. The departure from formal education, even for those whose children move into third level education, can represent a point in life where parents begin to recognise that they no longer have ‘children’ but instead, they are parents to adults.
This point, for the offspring, is well represented by the classic struggle that the young person feels in terms of cajoling the parent into allowing them access to freedom and equality in a manner that is not present in the lives of many teens, adolescents and children.
However, the struggle from the other side is represented by media and society only as one where worry, stress and fear dominate the parent’s behavioural choices. Parents, we understand, worry about their adult offspring’s choices and behaviours and achieve satisfaction mostly when these adults make life decisions which fully validate the choices that the parent has made either for them or within their own lives. ‘Empty nest syndrome’, we hear, is inevitable and a time that many parents dread approaching.
Holding this context of loss, stress and fear, what can any parent do to navigate this tricky emotional time?
The first point to consider is that maintaining a strong relationship with an adult offspring is key. How a parent navigates their diminishing personal input into the life choices of their ‘child’ is a building block for the relationship that the two adults will have for the rest of their lives. Many adults spend significant time and energy creating a life that will please their parents. This is particularly true if the parent themselves made similar choices to their own parents with a view to pleasing, appeasing and satisfying the generation that went before them (As an adult who is raising children without faith, but from a family where religion held significance, I can personally testify to the difficulty in navigating this!). However, there is, within this, an incongruence. Life will only allow us peace and satisfaction when we make choices that we can stand over for ourselves. Making choices that make our parents happy will cause a cognitive dissonance within ourselves. We cannot stand over choices where the remit for this choice is as emotionally-based as making a parent content, rather than any understanding that we hold about how we want our own live to be. Further, there exists an anxiety that a parent experiences, which arises their child is grown and they are forced to relinquish control.
Control, as a concept, is one that causes problems for us. In adult to adult relationships, control is a negative concept. Autonomy and agency within our lives is fundamental to our understanding of the self.
Yet, in truth, each of us has a murkier relationship with control than we will admit publically. Small obsessive tendencies, particularly around consumption, give us a sense of control over our lives. However, in truth, these controls are often only in the external part of our lives – the part that interacts with others. Our internal emotional state is often at its most chaotic when we are measured, controlled and powerful in our public displays of self.
Control within parenting is one of the points at which a private relationship meets a public space. Parents control children in order to socialise them – to teach them the affects and nuances that bring our society together (We cannot throw food. We control our anger when we are in a group. We do not go to the toilet outside. We observe road safety etc). They also control children in order to keep them safe, to encourage their education and to maintain good health and wellbeing. However, parents sometimes control their children in order to make themselves feel safe, admired, liked, loved, worthy. All of these pieces can be problematic for the parent-child relationship. However, they come to their most problematic when the child reaches the point of adulthood. How this is navigated becomes the hallmark for the new, ongoing relationship between two adults. Attempts at control within this space create distance. Any adult who knows that another adult does not approve of their job, spouse, lifestyle or even home decor, will, most likely, begin to exist in a space where this other adult has minimal input into their choices and minimal opportunity to criticise. The loss of control for the parent can be overwhelming and it is increasingly common for parents to hold a sense of grief at the new space that their relationship has moved into. However, it does not have to be like this. This is a time when parents are presented with an opportunity to work on themselves. If it is overwhelming to do this alone, there are many therapists that can help in this space.
First of all, a parent needs to examine their relationship with control. What happens to your fear, your anxiety and your self worth when people that used to listen to you no longer do?
Next, what social assumptions do you make that allow you to feel more secure in your life? Again, what happens to your fear and your anxiety when some of these assumptions are questioned and potentially moved?
Finally, and most crucially, what is your relationship with fear? How does anxiety manifest? How can you honour this fear? What behavioural choices can you make, once this fear has space in your life, to allow space for other, most sustaining emotions to also have space? If your understanding of self has been wrapped in your parenthood, what can you do to honour the person that you are, when you are a parent with less control over the life of your child?
Parenting an adult can be one of the most satisfying relationships imaginable. After all, this is the point of having children. You are creating people who you will want to spend time with. This is worth working on. Seek help if you need help and remember that this is for the rest of your life and never too late to work on.