real life

'My adult child was self destructive. This is why I finally had to step away.'

The saying that "you are only as happy as your unhappiest child" never felt truer for me than during the past several years of crisis management of my son’s mental health.

In his search to find happiness and his path in the adult world, he went on a self-destructive, rollercoaster journey that, unintentionally, I lived through vicariously. 

As an empath (and his mother), there were many times I struggled to regulate the amount of his pain I absorbed as I watched him flounder. And, understandably, my over-involvement placed an inordinate amount of stress on my own health and the wellbeing of the rest of our family. 

Watch: The five lifestyle hacks to help with your anxiety. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

"Parenting is being forever cast into a relationship with a stranger. Does anyone know how to be in a permanent relationship with a stranger whom they’re supposed to love and nourish?" asks clinical psychologist, Dr Becky, in an article in The New York Times Magazine. 

The fact that those shows on TV that reunite estranged family members are so popular is proof that there are a lot of parents out there with dysfunctional relationships with their adult children, from those who desperately want to be part of their children’s lives and are refused access, to those who must step away from their adult children for the sake of their own health.

There were times when my anxiety around my son’s safety consumed me to such a point, I was stressed when he called and stressed when he didn’t.

Finally, for my own mental health – even though it broke my heart to even think about putting any distance between us – I forced myself to draw a line under my emotional investment in the hope of rescuing what was becoming an unhealthy relationship.

Imposing boundaries is never easy – and frankly, I would compare my grief to being slowly disembowelled – but my decision came from a place of love and a clearer understanding of the dangers of "enabling", which was starting to affect my health and potentially thwart my son’s ability to reach his potential. 


I wanted him to become independent and to thrive, but clearly, that wouldn’t happen while I whirred over his head, ready to jump in like a SWAT team each time he faced a problem. 

It took me a long time to accept the advice of the therapist who kept reminding me I wasn’t responsible for my adult kids' happiness. 

But that advice became a mantra I forced myself to repeat in those moments I doubted my new mindset, and it helped to know I wasn’t alone in my situation. 

I know that the more liberal parenting style of many parents of my generation (X) has caused this increase in unhealthy push/pull relationships with our kids.

Listen to This Glorious Mess, a twice-weekly look at parenting as it truly is: confusing, exhausting, inspiring, funny, and full of surprises. Post continues below.

So, why did it take me so long to get here?


I felt guilty for passing down the poor genes that contributed to my son’s mental illness and for trying to "fix" him.

I know now that the "enabling" I have done over the past few years has denied him his autonomy. Yes, his mental health issues made his journey harder than most, but I now see that it is in neither of our interests for me to live in this permanent "fight or flight" state. 

In my research into this common parenting problem, I discovered that mums who come from dysfunctional childhoods are at greater risk of carrying the weight of responsibility for the happiness of hypersensitive kids. 

And Allison Bottke confirms this in her book, Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children, where she says: 

"Enabling is all about boundary issues. For those of us who have our own personal issues with violated boundaries, enabling really kicks in when we become parents, as we often develop a myopic focus on helping our children, spouses, or others – anything to keep from looking at our own lives." 

Rather than helping my son, the helicoptering parenting style that evolved from my own anxiety was disempowering him, reducing his confidence in his own abilities. 

But boundaries are hard, I hear you say.

Bloody hard! And they terrified me for a long time. Because, despite my therapist’s recommendations, I wasn’t ready to risk my relationship with my son or make things even harder for him. 


Nevertheless, they are key to reframing an unhealthy relationship, as psychologist, Dilek Yucel confirms: 

"No parent wants to see their adult child suffer and struggle and they often carry the guilt of not doing enough to assist their adult child to stand own their own two feet. However, it is imperative to their adult child’s emotional and social development for parents to set clear boundaries in a way that assist their adult child’s growth towards autonomy and a sense of competency."

And if you find yourself in a situation where your over-protectiveness has become damaging, you must think about ways to build your adult child’s sense of worth. 

Dilek offers the following starting points: 

  • By encouraging them to contribute towards room and board if they are living at home.  

  • By giving yourself time to respond to requests of money from them of at least 24 hours, which will allow you the time you need to develop a response that is well considered. 

  • By encouraging them to come up with solutions to their own problems by asking, "What are your ideas about how you are going to approach this?"

And I would add that maintaining consistency in your parenting is also vital, i.e., when you say no, stick to that decision. 

You may not be able to turn back the clock, but it is never too late to start transferring the ownership of responsibility to your child. 

I started with baby steps, by setting my phone to only accept calls before 10pm and after 7am, which means that my son can still call me in an emergency, but I am not available for those middle-of-the-night chats that impact my sleep. 

My door will always be open to my kids, but I won’t sacrifice my happiness for theirs, and in fairness, neither do they expect me to. 

Furthermore, "we make our own happiness", so though I will always give them a hand up when they need it, (if I am able), I don’t believe it is my duty to become the cliched "Bank of Mum and Dad" or to feel obligated to pay their rent or new car payments - which happens, a lot! 

Part of the wisdom that has come with middle age is my gradual acknowledgement of the importance of letting go of things that create stress. 

Though my approach to parenting adult kids may sound harsh to some, I believe our main responsibility as parents is to prepare them to fly - and the true marker of our success is their decision to leave the nest of their own volition.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Getty

Do you manage the household chores? We want to hear from you! Take our survey and you could be one of four to win a $50 gift voucher!