One thing Margie Schmidt was sure of: Her daughters would plan their own weddings. Margie wanted them to have all the fun and gratification she had felt while seeing to the details for her own. “I didn’t want to be the “butt-in” mom; I wanted my girls to enjoy every facet of the experience,” Margie says.
But then Amy, her eldest, suddenly went from being a fountain of energy to someone who, at times, couldn’t get out of a chair. She had developed Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in various body systems. During a flare-up, a person with Lupus is often tired and in pain.
“I was devastated,” Margie says, “but I took my cues from Amy. She refused to be a ‘sick person.’ She went ahead with her life. She’s a teacher and she continued to work. The reality, though, was that she couldn’t really do everything. So, ironically, I ended up organizing the wedding.”
The 'When to Help' Conundrum
As our children go off to college (although they may boomerang back home for a bit…), find jobs, partners, lives of their own, we parents re-feather our empty nests, frequently discovering that our own wings are strong and ready for new adventures. Being a parent is no longer the first and foremost element of our lives.
(MORE: Were You a Good Parent?)
However, sometimes the unexpected happens, things that send us back into full “mommy” and “daddy” mode. A child loses a job, separates from a spouse, or becomes seriously ill. Our hearts feel like they are breaking, and we feel the same way we did when they were small: We want to swoop down and fix everything.
This is a typical reaction, says John Mayer, a psychiatrist in Chicago, Ill., who specializes in relationships between young adults and their parents. “Sleepless nights — sure, you’ll have lots of those when your child is having troubles. It’s normal to worry,” he adds.
(MORE: How to Live Through Your Child's Divorce)
Also normal is for your concern to turn into support, says San Antonio-based psychiatrist Melissa Deuter. The trick, she adds, is balancing “I’m here for you” with “I respect that you’re an adult.”
3 Case Studies for Crisis Parenting
In the following three scenarios, Deuter and Mayer lay out guidelines for assisting your grown child through really bad times while avoiding taking steps what could make things worse for you. (Families asked that their last names be dropped to protect their privacy.)
1. Step in, but don’t take over.
The situation: Bill S. did a quick phone-booth change into his Superman cape and tights when his youngest daughter’s marriage collapsed. His son-in-law had embezzled money to maintain a lavish “second life” on a Caribbean island. At stake, as much as his daughter’s heartbreak, was a trust fund the in-laws had set up for Lisa’s three young children. “I’m a lawyer, and trusts are my area of expertise, so I could advise and represent my daughter. I could also spare her the cost of hiring a lawyer,” Bill remembers. His work helped protect the trust fund.
What can happen: Even after the divorce, Lisa still asked her father’s advice about many decisions, small and large.
“Sure, she had been through a traumatic time, and I was eager to help. But she was now asking me about small things she had handled by herself for years before the crisis, like whether to repair a small scratch on her car. She’s a capable person, but we had gotten ourselves into a pattern where she expected me to fix her whole life,” Bill says.
What to do: “Families should discuss that the help is a bridge. Otherwise you may end up with an arrangement that prevents your grown child from moving forward,” Deuter advises.
For instance, Bill could have presented his daughter with a timeline that laid out an estimate of how long it would take to settle the divorce and protect the trust. You don’t want to sound uncaring, Deuter says. “Tell your child you want her to have that timeline in mind to help her move on.”
2. Give financial aid if you can, but be clear about amounts.
The situation: Harry and Janine G. were concerned when the tech company that hired their son, Jason, right after college went bust. “We knew that his prospects weren’t as good as some other young people’s out there on the job market. He’d been working only two years, so his resumé wasn’t as impressive as some. We thought that maybe he needed to look in a variety of locations,” Janine recalls. Jason agreed — but expressed trepidation about driving long distances for interviews, considering that his car was old and had over 150,000 miles on it. “We offered to buy Jason a new car. We could afford it,” Harry adds.
(MORE: 6 Ways to Help an Adult Child Without Going Broke)
What can happen: Two days later, Jason showed up at his parents' house in a BMW sports car. “We had been thinking a Ford Fusion or a Honda Accord,” Harry says.
What to do: There’s nothing wrong with giving financial help if you can, says Mayer. “But you need to avoid enabling your child to remain in the bad situation. Don’t make it so your adult child doesn’t have the motivation to get himself out of the situation.” And set clear parameters about how much you'll help.
Lucky for Harry and Janine, Jason was only test-driving the BMW, and soon made a more sensible choice of car. For his parents, seeing the expensive auto was a wake-up call: “We realized immediately that we had made a mistake by not specifying exactly how much money we were willing to let him have. We thought of ourselves as giving him a needed boost in a job search. Jason instead used our offer to make himself feel better with an eye-candy ‘toy,’” Harry says.
3. Offer help, but wait to find out your child’s needs.
The situation: Maya C., a 31-year-old mother of two toddlers, was getting sicker and sicker, and the doctors were stumped. Barely able to walk because her legs felt so weak, Maya asked her mother, Wendy, to come help out. Wendy took a family-emergency leave from her job as an accountant and flew to Long Island to be with her daughter and grandchildren. After weeks of tests, the doctors concluded Maya had contracted Powassan, a tick-borne illness perhaps more pernicious than Lyme disease. The course of treatment was going to be long, and the physicians warned that there might be residual neurological effects that could linger.
What can happen: Panicked and upset, Wendy considered taking early retirement and selling her home in an Atlanta suburb so she could continue to provide care.
What to do: Most illnesses that our grown children contract are short-lived. If parents live nearby, they may be asked to pick grandchildren up from school, pick up groceries or make chicken soup. Chronic illnesses, however, mean dealing with a new reality. “We have the loss of our healthy child, and a situation where that child may become significantly more reliant on us,” Deuter says. But stop, consider and converse before making major decisions, she cautions. “The level of help you offer needs to be sustainable and should fit your child’s wishes.”
Luckily, Wendy’s son-in-law overheard her on the phone with a real-estate broker and opened a conversation. “He lovingly made it clear that they had no expectations that I would ‘give up’ my life. I still have my job and my home. Fortunately, my daughter has mostly recovered. I spend my vacations with Maya’s family, and that certainly is no hardship,” Wendy says.
Deuter has one more piece of advice for boomers stressing over problems in their adult children’s lives: “Sometimes our anxiety has more to do with our own feelings than with what is actually happening. Your child needs you, not your worries,” she says. “Our children remain our children, and our job, no matter what the circumstances, is to continue to give them the confidence to go forward.”