Giving Up Control of Your Adult Children

By Betty Carter

One of the hardest adjustments in parenting is giving up control of adult kids while still loving them and staying closely attached. It’s difficult to watch anyone make choices that may bring hurt and chaos. With your own children, this can be terrifying—like-driving-down-a crowded-interstate-in-the-passenger-seat-with-nobody-at-the-wheel-terrifying. 

I tend to worry a lot about the physical safety of people in my family. I’m too often tempted to call my kids to check on them or even (if they don’t answer) search Instagram for signs of life. If you have adult children, you may be anxious about other things: their faith, their academic or material success, their health, their relationships. When worry and distress overwhelm you, you may turn to one of the many great strategies of control that we human beings have in our toolbox. For instance, you may offer them lots of unwanted advice or angry admonitions. If the direct approach fails, you may turn to guilt. Bribery sometimes gets good short-term results. The silent treatment can be useful. And then of course there’s Instagram-stalking (I’m also thinking of getting the Life360 app). 

All such strategies eventually backfire. Control tends to breed rebellion, deceit, and distance. 

Nobody plans to be a controlling parent. Some of us come from families with those patterns, and some of us discover them on our own through the ups and downs of parenting. For the first couple of years of my children’s lives, they were adorable creatures with the energy of hummingbirds and the survival skills of goldfish. Every day was a boot camp in worry. Have you ever met a soldier who couldn’t remember boot camp? An experience like that will change you forever! Worry makes perfect sense given how much we love our kids. But consider these truths:  

1) When we try to maintain control over our children into their adult lives, we’re working against nature. God designed human beings, to varying degrees, to explore and take risks. People who can’t find a measure of independence from parents often feel helpless, dependent, and insecure. 

2) If the only way your adult child can gain your approval is to submit to your control, she may comply—outwardly. What happens on the inside is another matter. You love this child more than your own life; don’t you want to know her for who she really is in the present? Don’t you want honest conversations and the kind of trust that lays the foundation for future growth?

3) It’s possible that in seeking control over your adult child, you will lose the great influence you do have, which mainly comes from the depth of the relationship you’ve been building with him since he was small. How sad to squander the capital you built up during all the years of listening to Mickey Mouse Club House and combing Cheerios out of your hair.  

I wish some magic pill existed to remove the pain and anxiety of watching your children move into independence of behavior and thought. No pill exists that makes it easy to watch someone you love struggle and to grieve their pain without taking it away. For me, surrendering control is an ongoing process that may not end until my life ends, or at least until I forget I have kids. Grieving rather than controlling gives me a chance to trust in the Lord rather than in my toolbox. It does comfort me that God in some incomprehensible way knows what all of this feels like. Hebrews 4:7-8 says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of his reverence. Although He was a son, he learned obedience through what He suffered.” 

Don’t ask me to explain how that worked! What it meant for God the Father to listen to the tearful pleas of God the Son, who holds all things together, and allow Him to learn obedience through suffering.  It’s a staggering truth that begs so many theological questions. But it also gives us very simple human comfort—the kind we need to feel in our bones. The Lord knows what it is to cry out for help. What it is to pray. What it is to wait for an answer. And even what it is to grow in obedience.

Here are a couple of Scriptures that may offer comfort when you’re wrestling against your impulse to control your children.  Note that when Jesus says “Let not your heart be troubled, “ he’s saying it with the voice of a kind parent—not a drill sargent.  Try to hear Him telling you, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll stay with you.” 

Isaiah 41:10

Fear not, for I am with you;

Do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you.

Yes, I will help you.

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  (NKJV)

John 14:27

Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart b e troubled, neither let it be afraid.  (NKJV)

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