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Grieving Your Child Who’s “Gone Wrong”

By Megan Devine, LCPC

Here at Empowering Parents, we’ve received many messages from parents sharing sadness and disappointment over the way their kids have turned out. It’s a subject we don’t talk about very often, but it’s one that really deserves some attention.

In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman talks about parenting the child you have rather than the one you wish you had. What he means is that we each carry an image of who our child will be; and we often hold on to that powerful image, attempting to connect with the fantasy of our child rather than trying to relate to our child as they really are.

In order to be effective parents, we need to see our kids as who they are, right now, not who they used to be.

Letting go of that “fantasy child” isn’t easy.  In fact, it can be hard to even admit our disappointment when our kids don’t turn out exactly as we imagined, when they don’t like the things we enjoy, or don’t want the career we’d wish for them. Many parents feel grief at the loss of that fantasy—and that’s normal.

When Your Child Goes Wrong

But what happens when the reality of who your child is goes beyond disappointment? When the reality of who they are is actually incredibly painful? Here’s one parent’s story; maybe you can identify with the grief in her words.

My son was a beautiful little boy. He was smart and kind, and got along with everyone. Right up through his younger years, he was everything I dreamed of. That changed when he started school. He started bullying other kids. He got into fights, refused to follow directions and just argued with everyone. My formerly calm, kind boy became anxious and aggressive and eventually started using drugs. He’s dragging himself through the end of high school now, but there’s nothing left of that sweet child he used to be.

I know I failed him. But, I still look at him and see the boy he used to be. My heart is just so broken. My beautiful boy is gone, and I don’t seem to be able to let him go. How do I accept my son now? How do I let him be the person he’s become when all I see is that sweet little boy he used to be?

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It’s difficult enough to see your children become people other than you imagined; it’s deeply painful to see them making mistakes, poor choices, or otherwise not living up to their potential. In this parent’s case, her son has veered far from both her dream of him and from what he used to be, so that “parenting the child she has” is far easier said than done.

Acknowledge the Grief

As parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap of acting the way we think we’re supposed to: we pretend we’re not grieving the loss of our ideal child; we push ourselves to love and accept our kids, no matter what. We shove our grief under the rug and put on a brave face.  The tricky thing is, though, that we don’t lie to ourselves very well. The grief is very real. The more we try to pretend that it isn’t, the more ineffective our parenting becomes. Not only are we still trying to parent a child that doesn’t exist, we also aren’t taking care of our emotional selves. 

But, to be an effective parent, you’ve got to address the feelings, issues and challenges that come up for you as a natural part of parenting. For example, many parents get annoyed with their kids. Children can be annoying at times, so this is a natural response. But if you don’t address these feelings (of annoyance, disappointment, grief, and so on) outside of your relationship with your child, you can find yourself making ineffective parenting choices like losing your temper or giving a consequence in the heat of the moment.

If you’re experiencing deep sadness and grief over what feels like the loss of not only your ideal child, but the child who used-to-be, it’s okay. You feel grief because you lost someone you loved. It makes perfect sense. It’s a valid and real loss, one combined with disappointment and, for most parents, a heavy load of guilt. Denying these feelings only makes things worse, negatively impacting both your ability to make effective parenting choices and to connect with your child.

Speak the Truth

It’s important to find places where you can speak the truth about your grief and your disappointment. While you do not want to share your grief with your child, you might lean on your peer groups, a trusted therapist or ally, or the other adults in your family system. The Empowering Parents community is also a great place to find connection and validation. The important thing is that you find a place where you can share the truth about your grief, so that your heartbreak isn’t undermining the effectiveness of your parenting.

We all love our kids. We love them through all the bad choices, wrong turns, disappointments, and struggles. We try to keep finding the good, even inside all the bad. We want the best life for them, the best life they can build. And sometimes, despite all our love, they choose a different path. In our roles as teachers and guides, we have power, but we do not have complete control. Sometimes, there is deep grief in accepting that.

If your child is no longer who you once knew them to be, you aren’t alone. As James Lehman wrote, in order to be effective parents, we need to see our kids as who they are right now, not who they used to be. We need to come to them with firm boundaries, clear rules and expectations, and an unconditional positive regard. If you’re struggling with this issue, please know that unconditional positive regard for your child can really only come when you’ve had the chance to speak the truth about your grief and your sadness. When we stop fighting our grief over the loss of the child we knew, we can show up to the reality of the child we have with all of our most effective skills.

Related Article: Parent the Child You Have, Not the Child You Wish You Had

We’d love to hear from you. Let us know if you can relate to the topic of grief and parenting in the comments below. 

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About Megan Devine, LCPC

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

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