"Letting Go" of Adult Children with Aspergers

There's always an explanation. A 23-year-old Aspergers college grad wants to hold out for the right job rather than jump into an underpaid makeshift position. Rents are so inflated. A 24-year-old Aspergers daughter moving out of her boyfriend's apartment couldn't possibly afford a place of her own. With two bedrooms to spare, parents can re-house her -- right?

Whatever the reason, young adults (even some without Aspergers) are returning home in increasing numbers—following graduation, the dissolution of a relationship or the loss of a job. They often live rent-free and subsidized, with no scheduled date for departure. But while much attention has been paid to live-at-home "adultescents," little has been said about their parents, many of whom are Baby Boomers who greet their boomerang children with open arms. For a variety of emotional and demographic reasons—their desire to be close with their children, a yearning for youth—many of today's parents (the original Peter Pan generation) just don't want their adult kids to grow up.

As parents, coming to terms with our adult kid's limitations also means facing our own...In midlife, a central aspect of parents' identity is how our kids have turned out; that is, what kind of adults they have become. The lives of grown kids constitute an important lens through which we judge ourselves and our accomplishments; it is through reconsidering their adult successes and failures that we seek, retroactively, to validate the kinds of parents we were and the responsible caring we provided.

What distinguishes baby-boom parents from those of earlier generations is how much importance we place on our kids' inner psychological qualities as well as their educational and occupational success, moral and ethical values, and satisfaction in their relationships.

A recent study that examined how we evaluate our adult kid's achievements and adjustment - and how those assessments affect how we feel about ourselves - indicated that wanting our kids to be personally fulfilled is a goal unique to our generation. Having gone to sometimes extraordinary lengths to ensure it, it's no surprise that our kids grow up expecting us to provide it and give up the responsibility for finding it themselves, in the places that truly adult people discover it; in the satisfactions of work, love, connection, commitment, self-sufficiency and achievement. We cannot make our grown kids happy: As long as we expect that we can, they will, too. And we will both be disappointed.

It may be very difficult to move away from a job that wasn't done perfectly, especially parenting, but parenting skills were never designed to work for grown kids. We need to define the limits of our relationships with them and our involvement in their problems, since those are the only limits we can set now. We need to find ways to stay in meaningful contact with them while we work through our own midlife tasks of coming to terms with our gains and losses, reconsolidating our identity, and reclaiming our lives now that we have reached the limits of our parental role.

What is called the "post-parental imperative" demands that we make sense of who and what matters when we return to the self we put aside to raise our kids. Because we've done that -- whether we think we flunked or passed parenting, it's over. We won't get another chance at it, which is the good as well as the bad news. Our job now is to come to terms with the choices we've made in our own lives, abandon some dreams and commit to fulfilling others, allow the silenced voices inside us to be heard, and make the most of the time that's left. We can do that - we must do that - regardless of whether our kids ever achieve what we still believe is their golden, unlimited potential. But that will only be possible if we start concentrating on our own lives while we're waiting for them to get lives of their own.

Moms and dads used to let go when their kids reached age 18. The idea was, “If you can go to jail, I'm no longer responsible for you.” But that changed during the 1990s, when Baby Boomers' kids turned 18 and devoted parents realized that they had poured their emotional and financial resources into their kids from the get-go. Hyper-investment is hard to turn off.

Some argue that perma-parenting stems from the indulgence of an immature and spoiled generation. Others blame the phenomenon on the heavy hand of social and economic forces. And our very definition of adulthood is in flux—with a homestead no longer a key component of adult identity.

But a rising chorus of psychologists and sociologists says parents simply aren't letting go when they ought to—not only impeding their kid's adult independence but also hampering their own post-parenting lives. In the absence of an acute crisis or devastating financial setback, the consensus is that moms and dads should look twice at the reasons they continue to shelter their grown offspring. If parents can get over the idea that they're not being 'parent enough' or that their children still 'need' them, then they can get on with their new lives.

Letting Go Of Your Adult Aspergers Child—

1. Chain her in her room so she cannot leave. Alright, you can’t do that. Instead be grateful that you have raised an independent child who is ready to take life’s next step.

2. Have a ‘set down’ with him before he leaves. Use this time to discuss finances and checkbooks. Explain carefully about the Devil called CREDIT CARD and how it sneaks up on college students and steals their souls. Ok, it is not that serious, but…! Tell him about some of your experiences—good and bad—when you were first on your own. In that way you can answer some questions before he ever has to ask them.

3. Move into the dorm with him. Well, now, wouldn’t that be a sight? Mamma’s boy has to have mommy live in the dorm with him. Besides, I am not sure, but I think there are rules against that kind of thing. And it makes you look like your family tree has no branches on it.

4. Plan a day for just the two of you to spend together. Take off work and just play. It may require some planning ahead. Just remember if you plan to hike on an unmaintained trail in the mountains, take extra food and water, a flashlight with extra batteries, a GPS, a satellite phone, and a book on how to send smoke signals.

5. Write a letter to your youngster for her to read once she gets to school, basic training, or wherever she is off to. Use the time to tell her how proud you are of her and list the reasons why you know she will be successful. Emphasize the wonderful qualities she possesses so she can go back and re-read them later when she is feeling down. Stress the fact that you are a phone call or an email away and that you will come running if she ever needs you.

6. Be brave on the big day. Try not to cry and cling to him and say things like “I’m losing my baby” through hysterical tears. It really embarrassed one of my kids.

7. Go home and get a life! For so many years, this youngster has been the center of your universe. Now there is a huge hole in that life and you need to fill it up as quickly as possible. Take up a hobby, join a club, do volunteer work or run for President. Do anything that focuses on you and the future instead of the void in your soul.

8. Remember that she is not gone forever. You will again hear the phone ringing incessantly and doors banging. But from now on, whether you admit or not, it is something of a relief when the house gets quiet again and you can look forward to the next visit.

9. Remember, they are not so sad. Don’t expect them to cry. Instead you may hear things like, “Well, Mom, I think we are set here. You should get on the road.” In their minds, they are rubbing their hands together with a sinister laugh thinking, “Oh boy, I am free from the mother bonds now. I can do anything I want to do.” It is okay—think back to how you felt. Just try not to remember those things you did you never wanted your mother or father to find out about. I am a big believer in the fact that I don’t need to know everything!

10. The only thing worse than letting go of your youngster is never getting her out of the house. When you are sad, just picture a 35 year old playing video games yelling to you for more ice cream or chips while you are doing her laundry and cleaning her room because she is still not doing it.

11. You and your youngster are moving into a new relationship that is great! When you can stop being just a parent and move into the friendship stage of your relationship, your world becomes complete. You can be each other’s confidantes and buddies. It is the best! You are no longer responsible for anything where this soul is concerned. You can just love him. You can feel pride from watching him making a difference in the world, just like he always made a difference in yours. Look forward to that companionship!

The combination of high rents and an unstable job market, increased college attendance and delayed marriage and parenting conspire to inch the age of perceived adulthood upward. According to a study by the National Opinion Research Center, most Americans don't consider a person an adult until age 26, or until she or he has finished school, landed a full-time job, and begun to raise a family. Living independently from one's parents is expected by an average age of 21, yet living on one's own is considered less of a determining factor in reaching adulthood (only 29 percent say it's an "extremely important" step) than completing an education (73 percent) and supporting a family (60 percent).

Shifting parental attitudes toward boomerang children have much to do with generational differences, the result of each generation correcting and overcorrecting the excesses of the previous one. The wave that preceded the Boomers, the Swing, or Silent, generation (born during the Depression and World War II, 1930-1945) and their kids, Generation X (born 1965-1978), were brought up during eras of economic recession, reduced birthrates and familial instability, when raising children was not a societal focal point. Moms and dads of Boomers were eager for their children to grow up and leave the household so that they could be free to pursue their own lives. Boomeranging home was a mark of failure for both kids and parents.

In contrast, the Baby Boomers themselves (born between 1946 and 1964) and their Echo Boomer offspring (1979 and 1994) have had the happy fortune to be born during periods of prosperity and family growth that place an emphasis on parenthood.

All this attention, it turns out, has been directed toward raising well-adjusted and well-rounded children, and guiding those self-same children into fulfilled adulthood, creating patterns along the way. Previous generations emphasized education and financial independence over all else for their kids. In contrast, Boomers are the first generation for whom their kid's emotional fulfillment is a primary goal. Their parental mantra has been, 'Be happy or I'll kill you.' In an effort to gratify their children, Boomers have become unusually invested in their lives—determined to have an authentic, intimate relationship with their kids.

To achieve this level of chumminess, moms and dads have often acted less like stern grownups and more like their children' peers, joining the youth culture wholeheartedly at the mall, even purchasing the same teen-oriented clothes for themselves. This closeness continues and strengthens as Echo Boomers reach early adulthood. The generation gap used to be a significant barrier between parents and adult children. But today's fifty-something parent and twenty-something youngster have a lot of the same values and desires.

Today's twenty-somethings and their moms and dads communicate better and are closer. Indeed, in a survey of 1,003 high school students, a whopping 78 percent said that "having close family relationships" ranked highest (above money and fame, among other things) in defining success. But closeness also creates problems. It becomes hard for these parents to say, 'I'm the leader in this family and it's time for you to go'. We've gotten too friendly with our children.

Studies suggest that grown children' well-being is a major determinant of well-being for midlife parents. But over-identification with adult kids means moms and dads can lose perspective on what's best for one or both parties. You see your children' successes and failures as your own and thus try to immunize your youngster against failure. With such a high level of emotional and financial investment, many parents see the status of their adult kids as a final parental exam. And moms and dads don't want a bad grade—either for themselves or for their children.

Not surprisingly, parental involvement in children' lives has pushed its way onto campuses, where "helicopter parents" hover, trying to help their children through college financially, emotionally and even academically. Moms and dads have been known to intervene in roommate disputes following an emotional e-mail plea from a youngster, or call a professor to question a grade. In response, universities are scheduling special parent orientation events, hiring parental "liaisons" to handle questions and demands, and firing off terse-but-diplomatic guidelines.

Many Boomers don't seem to be trying all that hard to empty the nest. Boomerang children are staying at home so they can save money to rent or buy a place of their own instead of living with roommates. Often, they're spending lots of money on clothes and cars and vacations in the process. Unless we put our foot down, why should they move out?

But it's not just privileged white children hanging out at home. Working-class twenty-somethings have long boomeranged following high school or vocational training because entry-level wages make independent living a financial challenge. Still, lower income Americans today are even less able to be independent than just a decade ago. Furthermore, America's growing diversity means more adult kids at home come from immigrant and ethnic communities in which living at home during one's twenties is normative and even favorable. A national survey of Latinos found that 78 percent agreed "it is better for kids to live in their parents' home until they get married."

Perhaps expectations are higher as well. Many experts say today's twenty-somethings don't want to downscale by sharing a walk-up with three roommates when their middle class parents have a house where they can crash. Boomers don't want their children to rough it either. Emotional and financial dependence is a two-way street. This generation has taken it upon themselves to make their grown children happy. We've abrogated our responsibility to insist they make a life for themselves. Instead we're providing it for them. Often, if moms and dads don't house their grown children, those with extra cash will help an adult child purchase a home.

Perma-parents suffer potential financial and emotional repercussions. The empty-nest years are a crucial time for adults to bone up for retirement, rather than pay off their youngster's credit cards or feed another mouth. Keeping the children also prevents couples from reconfiguring their lives in a post-parenting marriage, when, historically, many marriages break up. When marriages do end in divorce, or when one spouse dies, moms and dads may be especially inclined to reconnect with their adult children.

The empty nest is doubly empty when you don't share it with a partner. Nevertheless, for women who find themselves widowed or divorced in their 50s or 60s, being too involved in adult kids's lives can be a big mistake. They have decades ahead and need to find a way to approach their lives as individuals.

Married or not, adults who re-feather the nest past its prime postpone their own personal development. During the late 1990s, a spate of books with titles like Give Them Wings or As You Leave Home: Parting Thoughts from a Loving Parent appeared to address the challenge of accepting kid's adulthood. But despite the temptations—pleas for help from adult kids, the desire to pitch in financially, the urge not to let go—experts agree that having children at home is generally a bad idea.

Unless the youngster is suffering from a crisis, adult kids belong on their own; empty nest parents have their own lives to attend to. Boomeranging home may not be such a bad idea for twenty-somethings, but it may not be best for parents. Moms and dads like being in a position to help their children, and they like the fact that they get along well enough to live together. But parents are usually ready by then to move on with their own lives.

Indeed, many psychologists believe the post-parenting period is one in which people have the opportunity to reconfigure their identities—to relocate, downshift or change a career, become more involved in the community, take continuing education courses or learn new creative skills. Carl Jung in particular emphasized the importance of this last stage of development. Having an adult child lurking around the house and feeding off the parental nest egg robs moms and dads of some of this latitude. These parents end up impeding their own transition into a new period of adulthood. It's a flight from life. Perma-parents, perhaps it's time to grow up!

Launching Adult Children With Aspergers: How To Promote Self-Reliance


Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Hutten:

Have been searching for solutions for my 24 year old son but he may have very mild Aspergers, although no doctor has ever officially said that. He was diagonosed with ADD.

Currently he is living at home with us and approximately in his Junior year of college. He is studying to be a Physical Therapist, but doesn't seem to be especially motivated to be that. He does very well in his coursework and we are very proud of that. He goes to a therapist once a week, because he knows we want him to. Not sure if there is any progress there. We had a real good therapist, but that therapist did not take our insurance and with 4 children all in college, could not continue that.

We have also been encouraging him to do Radiology technician and he could have gone into that program this past fall, but he missed the application deadlines, even though he did all the requirements. He says he is not sure he wants to be an xray technician either.

He lacks motivation and a social life. He has one friend, and occasionally they will do something socially, like go to the movies, but then they go directly home afterwards, each to own house.

He also is very moody, and can be kind of nasty if you ask him a question. He has worked on and off since 16, but usually looses his job. The last job he had, he seemed to really like it, but then he got laid off. He has enough scholarship money to live on, so he has no motivation to look for work. We do charge him a small rent and he pays his own gas and spending money.

Do you think the techniques in your book, Launching Adult Children with Aspergers would be worth getting and trying.

I a also encouraging my husband to find a club or activity to do with my son so he doesn't just stay in his room. He does like to exercise and go for runs. I notice he trys to engage with people, like his cousins and acquanitances he has met through Facebook. I don't know how else to help him and launch him to be a happy, successful adult. It is very frustrating. I have best intentions, but it is hard to be patient with a child with such a personality.

Thanks for any suggestions or help you can offer. Are there therapists or Life Coaches in San Diego that you think could help with him?



Mark said...

Hi Cathy,

Re: Do you think the techniques in your book, Launching Adult Children with Aspergers would be worth getting and trying.


If, after reading and implementing the material, you do not get the success you hoped, feel free to email me and I will help you trouble shoot.

If together we cannot find some good solutions, then feel free to ask for a refund.

No lose situation here...

Mark Hutten, M.A.

jerseyangel said...

Just realized I posted this almost two years ago. Still in same situation with son. He is graduating from college in May and then will set down stricker rules. We are already telling him he needs to pay rent or get out on his own. He doesn't make any moves to do anything. For example, found out where he can get health insurance for free. My husband helped him fill out paperwork. Let's see if he went to apply.

Don't want my son homeless, so not sure what else to do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for all the info. It took until grade 7 for me to finally get my son on an iep. It cost a lot. I
had to hire a child advocate, psychologist, child neurologist, and put him in counseling at Bridges Associates who deal specifically with aspergers. My problem now is that there is no place for him to go now that he has turned 21 and still having trouble socially and feels that he doesn't fit in anywhere.If you have any tips for me please let me know. He tried one semester of college but he did not reenroll this semester. He has problems with his jobs and though he is still in counseling, he remains severely depressed.
Thank you,

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