Red Flags: STOP!
Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates, in their excellent book, Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest,identify one of the classic mistakes parents can make at this stage. Knowing that they must let go of their children, many parents become either a “helicopter parent” or a “hands-off parent.”[i]
The helicopter parent “hovers” – constantly is calling, emailing, or texting, trying to solve or help with every problem, as if the child was in middle school again. The helicopter parent is much too free in giving her own time, money, and energy to the child, only to be used or rebuffed. By hovering, the parent communicates to her child that she does not believe the child can manage his or her own life. During this transition period, the adult child needs to develop their decision making skills and learn to cope with the pressures of adulthood. Not giving a child space to do so only slows down this developmental process and weakens self-confidence.
The helicopter parent needs to ask herself a hard question, “Am I actually trying to manipulate my child into good behavior?” By attaching strings, especially to financial help, parents actually hurt their child, more than help. Adult children who are continually rescued by their parents can form a very unhealthy family dysfunction that inevitably spirals downward.
The opposite of the helicopter parent is the “hands-off parent”.[ii] This is usually the parent who is heeding the advice that says parents should not interfere in their children’s lives, once they are married, or financially independent. Believing they are doing what is best for their children, they are actually missing great opportunities for input in their children’s lives. There will invariably be times when the adult child simply wants the parent’s company or to talk over life in general. The “hands-off” approach is hurtful to young adults – they need to know that they are important to their parents, despite the changes in relationship.
One young woman has said, “I feel like my parents could show more love and interest in my husband’s life. They seemed to really want to get to know him when we were dating but after the marriage, things changed.”
Another young single said it very well,
“We still want you around. We don't want you to disappear out of our lives, and we don't hate you. We want you to be our friends, but we want our space. We need balance between you being our parent and being our friend. We need you to be honest with us when our friends won't be. We need you to tell us the hard stuff that no one else will. We want you to be the person that we want to talk to about our lives, not because you pry, but because we want to involve you in our lives. If we don't call you, we will soon.”
Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates describe the goal for this stage very well: “At this season we are moving from being a coach to becoming a cheerleader.”
Another mistake parents frequently make is taking offense at their children’s preferences, especially in regard to church (or lack of), entertainment, how they spend their free time, how they spend their money, how they raise their children, where they choose to live, etc. It is important to note that unless these choices involve immorality, illegality, or something equally serious, it is best to keep quiet and not take it personally. Just because an adult child makes a choice that is different from the parent’s is no reason to harm the relationship. This is easier said than done, especially when in regard to issues the parent places high value upon. It should also be noted that even though a parent may remain silent and try not to criticize or be judgmental, disapproval oozing from body language is not hard to miss!
One of the most common complaints of adult children is the guilt their parents may heap upon them. As someone once said, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” Making children feel guilty about their shortcomings and lack of concern or communication with a parent never brings about the desired result. All it does is make the adult child resentful and angry. If a parent isn’t mindful of this, he or she can fall into the guilt trap, which is especially destructing in relating to young adults.
In today’s culture, a chapter such as this must address step parenting. Probably no family relationship is as precarious as a stepmom’s with her stepchildren, and it can be very challenging. As one stepmom quipped, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the stepmom labors in vain.”[iii]
It is very important that the stepparent try not to step into the role of mother (or father, in the opposite case). The friendship connection is by far the best route in establishing a respectful and healthy relationship. If at all possible, staying out of generational conflicts that do not directly involve the stepparent is always the wisest course of action. Frequently these family dynamics automatically pit the step-parent against his or her spouse’s children in competition for the attention or love of the parent/spouse. Taking small opportunities to get to know the stepchildren, showing concern and interest, and finding common ground will hopefully bring all of the family to a place of mutual respect and appreciation.
Of course these same principles apply to the in-law relationship. It is a monumental mistake to try to parent a son-in-law or daughter-in-law without first establishing a good relationship. The parental relationship in this case is a privilege you earn, not one you can assume.
In considering the many pitfalls of “parenting” adult children, it should be noted that there are a myriad of helpful resources on this topic on the market. Also, Christian counseling has helped thousands of struggling families to address their problems within a Biblical framework. It is a prudent person who takes advantage of these resources and seeks to find godly counsel when family difficulties arise.
 E Nest, 101
[i] Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates, Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest (Little Rock: Family Life, 2008), 97.
[ii] Rainey and Yates, 99
[iii] Kali and Elizabeth Schnieders, You’re Not My Mom! (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), 21