As a therapist, I work regularly with people who are grieving some sort of loss. One of the most difficult losses handle is death of a child. Families used to be much larger than they are now and, prior to the development of effective treatment for infectious diseases, it was common to lose one or more children to illness. Grief was a common experience for parents. Fortunately, most of us haven’t had a child die. We may have had to grieve a child for some other reason, though.
Even before a child is born, it’s natural to have hopes for that child, and those hopes can engender expectations–that the child will develop certain qualities, make certain choices, achieve certain things. We tend to steer our children in the direction of our expectations, but children don’t always follow the path we had envisioned. Our hopes may sour, and in our disappointment we may do things that in turn foster resistance or resentment from the child. Both adult and child can get stuck in a negative feedback loop.
Sometimes the characteristic that must be grieved appears early in a child’s life, such as a chronic illness or massive disability. More commonly, what needs to be grieved doesn’t appear until later, in adolescence or adulthood. I’ve sat with parents distraught over a teen or adult child abusing drugs, acting violently, defrauding others, or taking foolish risks. Some adult children avoid working, instead continuing to depend on their parents for food, shelter, and transportation long after they should be providing these things for themselves. Fortunately, in many cases things eventually improve, whether through treatment, learning from consequences, or the gradual process of maturation. When negative characteristics persist unchanged for many years, though, it may be that they will never change and need to be grieved.
A couple I know often argue over an adult daughter (let’s call her Amy). As a teenager Amy regularly snuck out of the house to party with friends. She eventually developed a drinking problem and, at age 16, became pregnant out of wedlock. She dropped out of school. She is now is 28 and has had two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. She has had several jobs, but typically either quit or was fired within the first six months. She’s working now, but her bills are delinquent and she finds it difficult to provide the basics for her and her children, in part because she spends too much on alcohol or drugs.
The parents disagree on how to deal with Amy. The mom believes that Amy is trying and just needs a little help to turn the corner. “It would be a real setback if they got evicted again,” she says. “We can help out a little with rent once in a while and can buy a few groceries. We’ll just do it a little while until she gets her act together.” The dad is an advocate of “tough love” “She’ll never mature if we’re always rescuing her,” he says.
Both mom and dad were assuming that, if they just found the right strategy, Amy would change and become a responsible adult. What if she never does, though? Their efforts to change Amy are accompanied by subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to control her, and that in turn leads to conflict. “Why does she resent us?” They wondered. “We do so much for her.”
In all likelihood, there is nothing the parents can do to change Amy. She may continue to make bad decisions about relationships and jobs; she may continue to seek short-term pleasures that cause her long-term pain. Both mom and dad may need to grieve their expectations for Amy, accepting that the hopes they have for her may never be fulfilled.
Grieving unfulfilled expectations for a child is not meant to be a strategy to change the child. Sometimes when, after grieving, a parent no longer conveys expectations or tries to control, the child may start being more responsible. Behaviors and attitudes that occasion a parent’s grieving are deep-seated, though, and the child may continue on as before. The goal of grieving is not to change the child but for the parent to become free from the anxiety, turmoil, and sense of desperation that the child’s behavior occasions. And it’s not just parents who may need to grieve. Grandparents also have unfulfilled expectations and have to go through the same journey from denial to grief to acceptance.
When I work with clients whose adult children aren’t doing well, I ask them whether the child’s behavior not only is disappointing but also makes them feel anxious or desperate. I ask whether at times they put their lives on hold because they are so preoccupied with their offspring. I also ask whether they are trying to figure out how to change the child. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I conclude that they would probably benefit from grieving the hopes they had for that child. They–and anyone in a similar situation who is reading this post–are captive to their unfulfilled expectations, and can be freed by grieving those expectations.