“Where Did I Go Wrong?” How to Handle Feeling Disappointment with Your Adult Child


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“I sacrificed for years to make sure my son had the best education possible. Now, he’s out of high school and working at a low level job and says he has no intentions of going to college.”

“My daughter never calls unless she wants something. Even then, she is rude to me!”

“My son is a slob! He doesn’t seem to care at all about how he looks or how his apartment looks. I just don’t get it. I didn’t raise him to be like this.”

It can be very painful to realize that the child you worked so hard to raise is not living up to their potential. Even more heartbreaking is the realization that you may not have a very good relationship with them. Sometimes these issues can make you feel like you’ve failed. As parents, we tend to think that if anything goes wrong with our kids, it’s our fault. Not only do we have the pressure we put on ourselves, we may also have well-meaning family members (and the rest of society) sending us those same blaming messages. But it’s more likely that you did the very best you knew how to do at each juncture in your child’s life. Some things may have been more effective, and some less effective, but you did your best.

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Examine Your Own Feelings

I think it’s important to look at your own feelings in a more objective light. Are you feeling frustrated because your child is in a potentially harmful situation, or because the choices he or she made don’t fit in with your goals for their life? Culturally, we tend to value social status over personal fulfillment and happiness. So, if your child opts to go into a career that makes them happy, but does not necessarily provide a good living, we can feel like they are under-achieving. If you’re feeling this way, it might be helpful to take a step back and ask yourself which is better — having a child who is outwardly successful, or one who is inwardly happy? More importantly, whose life is it, anyway?

The reality is, this is now your child’s journey. Whether you approve of their career, their lifestyle, or their choice of life partner, it doesn’t change the fact that they now have the right to make their own choices. Along with that right comes the responsibility of those choices. This is what adulthood is all about. No matter what kind of upbringing a person has had, good or bad, there comes a time when they have to take responsibility for their own lives. This is easy for most of us when we’re looking at another adult who is not related to us, yet it can easily be blurred when that adult happens to be your child.

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Have You Stumbled into an Ineffective Parenting Role?

As parents of adult children, we can still fall into some of those  less effective roles James Lehman talks about in the Total Transformation. We may find ourselves repeating the same patterns we did when they were children. For example, a parent may fall into the role of a martyr or savior, and constantly step in to help their adult child out of situations they have gotten themselves into. They may feel it necessary to help their child pay their rent, for example, even if that child is wasting their own money on drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, this is at a cost to our own well being. Or parents may find themselves being the Perfectionist. “My daughter could have gone to West Point when she graduated, but instead, she waited a couple years and then went to a local college.” (This was actually what my own mother used to say about me. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be hurtful — she actually was trying to point out that I was intelligent. I just wasn’t putting it to good use, in her opinion.)

2 Points to Remember:

Aside from recognizing your feelings and acknowledging them, there are two important points to remember. The first is that there are very few black-and-white deadlines in life in regards to the path your child chooses. Every person has milestones in their life, and just as we mark early childhood milestones (the first time our child walks, talks, or uses the potty) we can also mark milestones in adulthood (the first car, first time living on their own, first serious relationship). Just like when your kids were younger, it’s important to realize that not everyone matures at the same rate.

This means that despite the fact that 18 is considered the “legal” age of adulthood, not every person who reaches 18 is truly ready for all the challenges of living independently. This is an individual choice each family needs to make, and there is no right or wrong. The key is recognizing if one of your boundaries is being crossed. In other words, are you helping because you truly want to, or do you feel like you are being taken advantage of? Generally, a good “gut check” can help you determine if a boundary has been crossed. If you feel at peace, you are probably okay. If however, you find you are unsettled, or resenting your child or the situation you are in, it may be time to look at things and make some changes.

Related content: Rules, Boundaries, and Older Children: How to Cope with an Adult Child Living at Home

The second and probably most important point to remember is that people are continuously growing and changing. Just because you don’t see the fruits of your efforts yet, it doesn’t mean you never will. One of the most inspiring examples to me is the story of James Lehman himself. As a young adult, he was using drugs, stealing, and eventually wound up in jail. Yet, fast forward a few years later, he went to college, got his Master’s degree, and began a life-long career of helping troubled youth and their parents. I’m sure he would say to any disheartened parent, “Game not over!”

6 More Tips for Parents of Adult Children

  1. Love the child you have right now and try not to lose hope if they aren’t doing well.
  2. Continue to maintain healthy boundaries.
  3. Even if your child is an adult, he or she does not have the right to be abusive to you or anyone else.
  4. Give them your support and guidance if they ask for it, but try not to force it on them.
  5. Continue to help them in appropriate ways if you feel it is healthy and necessary to do so.
  6. Give them the same space to follow their journey, just as you want others to do for you.

Related content: “My Child Decided Not to Go to College — and is Living at Home”

It is, after all, your child’s life. Your relationship with them will be vastly improved if you are able to let go of your expectations for them while never losing hope in their potential.


Jacqueline McDowell formerly worked as an Empowering Parents 1-on-1 Coach. Prior to coming to Empowering Parents, she has worked in a diverse range of residential care settings with people who have been impacted by mental illness, cognitive and physical disabilities, as well as pregnant and parenting teens. She has a Bachelor's degree in Social Work from the University of Southern Maine. She is the proud parent of an adult son, Jeremy.

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