Grief and the Parental Guilt Trip

The Problem Of Trying To Parent My Child Beyond Childhood

In my post Dealing with Guilt and Hashgacha Pratit, I discussed how G-d has a plan for me and orchestrates my every life event. I do what I can do within human limitations, but beyond that, it’s up to Him. Grief over the death of my child is bad enough. Feelings of guilt shouldn’t push its way into my life as well.

The topic of grief and guilt is now addressed again because I continually hear parents berate themselves for not ‘having done more’ to save their adult child from making poor decisions which eventually led to an early death. Woulda, coulda, shoulda is the tagline of these tortured parents. They feel responsible that they were somehow unable to make their child ‘understand’ that their behavior was unwise or outright destructive. They wished they had hovered over their adult child more, making sure the child made the ‘right’ decisions. These despondent parents believe if only they tried harder…

This compelling urge to parent an adult child has its source in the parent’s gut feeling that the child isn’t mature enough to make sound life decisions. Intellectual and emotional maturity, or lack of it, affects every aspect of human behavior, including how to manage one’s physical wellbeing. This lack of maturity is the bane of parents trying to decide whether they should continue to parent their adult child or if they should let go.

As a Parent, I Know What’s Best For My Child’s Wellbeing

This is a strong statement, but I say this because I simply have more life experience than my child. No matter how old my child is, my child will always be my child. Although my children have entered into adulthood, I have a strong desire to be involved in their wellbeing. I remember a poignant statement I heard from a mother whose daughter passed away as an adult after a lengthy illness. This mother described the last moments being with her daughter and it went something like this – ‘I was with her when I brought her into the world, and I was with her when she left.’ 

This inclination to be a part of my children’s life is particularly strong when it comes to their health. I was with Jacob and his brothers through all their childhood illnesses. Chicken pox, roseola, colds, flu, stomach upsets, constipation, diarrhea, boo-boos, and owies to mention a few. I parented one son through two sets of ear tubes and adenoid removal when he was a toddler, and an appendectomy at age 10. I comforted another son through his surgery due to an undescended testicle when he was 4. I hovered over Jacob through his heart surgery at 10 years old.

As far as health is concerned, I truly believe I know what’s best for my children. Even though they are now adults, I feel they should at least give me a chance to express my view on the proper course of action to take if and when they’re not well. But no, their attitude is ‘Mom’s too nervous, she doesn’t know anything anyway, we’re adults, and she can’t tell us what to do, etc, …’ Although they’ve never said this to me, body language and facial expression say it all.

True, my children are physically adults. But are they adults intellectually and emotionally?

How Does Society Define An Adult?

Society defines a person as an adult at the age of eighteen. After all, eighteen year olds have voting rights, a privilege they gained when the voting age was reduced from 21 in 1971. Partly in response to the Vietnam war, people figured if a young man is old enough to risk his life on the battlefield ‘like a man’, he’s old enough to vote. Eighteen year olds can go to college, get jobs, open financial accounts, sign legal documents, and engage in a host of activities they couldn’t do when they were younger. So once a person reaches the magical age of 18, he or she is considered a full fledged adult. 

An Adult, But Not Quite…

However, the drinking age remains firmly fixed at 21. But why? If society says eighteen year olds are adults, why can’t they purchase alcohol? It’s because society acknowledges that there’s still a gap between age and maturity. It’s as if society is saying ‘Well, they’re adults, but not quite’. 

‘Drink Responsibly’ has become the slogan of companies producing wine and spirits. ‘Responsibly’ is the key word indicating that a person should have an understanding of cause and effect and goes something like this – ‘If I drink too much, then my ability for rational thinking and decision making is impaired, then I might hurt myself and others, then, etc…’ 

It’s this ‘if – then’ scenario that young adults have difficulty understanding. Does a young person, who is defined by society as an adult, have a capacity for mature, rational thinking?

Science Confirms What Every Parent Knows – Our Kids Aren’t Really Thinking 

Understanding the Teen Brain, an article from the University of Rochester Medical Center, describes the results of research showing that full brain development, ie, maturity, doesn’t kick in till age 25:

‘…The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so…research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

In teens’ brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.’

A young person under age 25 is basically an adult in training.

How Does Judaism Define an Adult?

According to the Torah, once a girl reaches age 12, or a boy reaches age 13, they are responsible for observing mitzvot and are referred to as a young woman or a young man at that point. The Torah specifies age 20 at which a man goes to the army. The Ethics of the Fathers presents a detailed guide to the age at which one should pursue various activities:

‘…He ( Yehuda ben Teima ) would say:

At 5 years of age the study of Torah,

At 10 the study of Mishnah,

At 13 observing the commandments,

At 15 the study of Talmud,

At 18 marriage,

At 20 pursuit of a livelihood,

At 30 the peak of physical strength,

At 40 wisdom,

At 50 able to give counsel…’ ( Pirkei Avot 5:21 )

According to Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, one doesn’t reach wisdom until age 40, and is fit to give advice only after age 50! Although these numbers may only be a guide, given the research discussed above, and the sorrowful lack of maturity in young people today, it makes sense.

At Age 24, My Son Was (Almost) An Adult. 

Although he had symptoms which indicated an illness, the symptoms were intermittent and he refused to see a doctor. Expense, time, and ‘not that bad’ were his excuses not to seek medical care. Despite my telling him to have himself checkout out ‘just in case’, he didn’t extrapolate his thinking from ‘now’ to ‘later’. The belief ‘Now I’m feeling fine so I’m not going to consider the possibility that I might not feel fine later’ dominated his behavior.

Most likely, even if he went to a doctor, his condition would have been misdiagnosed anyway. Who would suspect a healthy 24 year old to have a heart condition or a massive blood clot somewhere. The point is, there was nothing I could do. So am I going to beat myself up with guilt that I could have ‘done something’ but didn’t?

Attempting To Helicopter Parent An Adult Child Is Doomed To Failure

Once a child reaches adulthood, whether they’re a mature adult our not, it’s futile to try to look after them as in their childhood. We all know that they need to experience life on their own so they can grow into responsible adults. The catch phrases ‘Let them reinvent the wheel’ and ‘They need to make their own mistakes’ come to mind. It’s when their mistakes are life threatening that it’s hard for us to stop being the hovering parent and just let go. 

In reading the earlier quote from Pirkie Avot, one of the points that Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima may be making is that a person, perhaps regardless of age, should seek out and listen to those who have more life experience than they do, namely parents and teachers. 

Unfortunately, parents trying to guide their adult children are like hamsters running in a wheel going nowhere. While the adult child may not be mature enough to make responsible choices, it’s a near certainty that he or she won’t listen to what the parent advises. Societal values are partly to blame. We live in a ‘me’ oriented culture that glorifies youth and undervalues older people. It is what it is.

So what’s the solution? I don’t think there is one. It would behoove parents to try their best to stop torturing themselves with a guilt trip. The most we can do is voice our concerns to our adult children and offer financial help if needed to make things easier for them. We can let them know that we are thinking about what’s best for them, give them lots of hugs, and tell them that we love them.

2 thoughts on “Grief and the Parental Guilt Trip

  1. Good question.
    Britannica online defines parenting as ‘the process of raising children and providing them with protection and care in order to ensure their healthy development into adulthood.’
    In my post, I’m using the word as an overall generic term for the guidance, care, and love we show to our children.

  2. What is the difference between merely “parenting” one child yet “comforting” the other? What did you do for the third?

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