When a grown-up child won't let go

January 01, 1991|By Lawrence M. Kutner | Lawrence M. Kutner,New York Times

The young couple had always counted on the husband's mother, a widow, to baby-sit for them. When the mother announced that she was fulfilling a lifelong dream by going off to Santa Fe for a few weeks, her children's response surprised her.

"The children were terribly upset that she wouldn't be doing what they had planned," said Dr. Sam Kirschner, a family psychologist in suburban Philadelphia who saw the family for therapy after the incident. "They felt betrayed, but the mother said, 'Hey, it's my life.' "

The relationship between parents and children changes when the younger generation enters adulthood.

Yet some children resist that change, clinging to vestiges of a time when they were always dependent and their parents were always available.

Their behavior may appear immature and demanding, or may seem cloaked in selflessness. One example is an adult child who resists a parent's move to a new community because the child would not be able to "take care of" the parent in an emergency.

"I hear an enormous number of young adults who are upset when their parents move," said Dr. Florence Kaslow, the director of the Florida Couples and Family Institute in West Palm Beach and a past president of the division of family psychology of the American Psychological Association.

"They say, 'You left me without a home,' even if they never planned on moving back," Dr. Kaslow said. "It represented stability to them."

Psychologists and others who work with these families say that they have common backgrounds. The children were often overindulged by the parents who, with the best of intentions, centered their lives on them when they were young.

"Focusing your life primarily on your children is really doing them a disservice in the long run," said Dr. Arthur L. Kovacs, the dean emeritus of the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles. "They have trouble developing the autonomy that they'll need later in life. Also, these parents have difficulty reclaiming their own existence later on because it makes their children very anxious."

Families in which the parents are divorced or widowed are also at greater risk for problems in this area. The children may feel threatened when a single parent asserts his independence by changing careers or remarrying, or by going back to work or to school.

"These children can be very upset when a parent decides to remarry," Dr. Kirschner said. "All of a sudden there's another rival for the parent's attention. It's the same response you'd see in a 5-year-old."

Young adults' conflicting and ambivalent desires to break free from the past and, at the same time, retreat into its safety can be most clearly seen among some who return to the nest.

They give their parents mixed messages when they move back home. Usually they lack a clear plan or deadline for leaving. They fall back into old habits of dependency that can, for a while, be very seductive to their parents, especially if the parents have also felt uncomfortable with the changing relationship.

"Many of the young adults who return home to live don't want their parents to treat them like children, but they also don't expect to pay for room and board," Kaslow said. "They resent it when their parents impose any expectations on them. They have a profound sense of entitlement without a sense of reciprocity."

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