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“Becoming Small” in the Lives of Your Adult Children

By Barbara Rainey

First posted on

My good friend, Jane Ann Smith, who also has six children and is about 10 years ahead of me in life’s journey, has given me lots of good advice over the years. As I began my empty nest years, I continued to watch her, ask questions and learn from her.

A few years later, when Susan Yates and I were writing our empty nest book, I e-mailed Jane Ann for her thoughts on what she was learning in the empty nest. Her response was well thought out and, as always, very wise:

I had just survived a big conflict with one of my children and a friend told me that I needed to learn to “become smaller” in my family. I had become big in my family because my doctor husband had been gone a lot and my six children needed me. I had become a controller without even knowing when it happened.

Almost 45 years later, with all the children grown, I was still way too big in their lives. They still expected me to treat the wounds and fix broken things, and when I couldn’t, some of them resented me. And I couldn’t imagine not being a part of their lives.

As I prayed about how to do this “becoming smaller,” God showed me that I didn’t need to talk so much. This may sound simple, but it wasn’t easy for me. I had always thought it was my duty to express my ideas on whatever subject was on the table and have the last word. Wasn’t I always the one who was older and had superior knowledge and experience?

As I’ve been practicing this, I’ve learned that I can walk away from a complicated conversation and hardly be missed. I was establishing healthy emotional boundaries for myself rather than allowing myself to be drawn into the fray. Another thing I’m learning is that as I become smaller, my husband is becoming bigger, as he should. For all the years I was in control, he had often given up trying and just let me be the most important person in the children’s lives.

I realized that I had desperately wanted my children to see all that I had done and was doing for them. I wanted them to somehow affirm that I had done a good job but how could they if I never stopped? I have much left to learn, but I believe I am setting a better example now to my children of how to bow out gracefully as one day they will have to allow their children to emerge when they become adults.

We can’t fix our kids’ problems

These words from my friend were so good for me to hear when she sent them, and they still are today. All moms understand Jane Ann’s desire for her kids to need her and to affirm her good work in their lives, and yet that is not where we should be looking for approval.

As Dennis and I watch our children struggle with different issues as adults, or express surprisingly different opinions on how they should raise their children, or try to manage their own families and extended families, we too are learning we must become small. We cannot fix their relational issues.

Recently I’ve read a book which discusses a topic called “benevolent detachment.” It’s another way to express becoming small in your adult children’s lives. Detachment means exactly what the word implies: disentangling yourself from the details and emotions of your children’s lives. But this doesn’t mean rejecting them or giving “the cold shoulder”—it’s benevolent. You remain loving, interested, and caring toward your grown children.

I am continuing to practice this big idea: becoming small and benevolently detached. It’s healthy for me because I can’t and shouldn’t be involved in fixing or solving. It’s healthy for them because that is how they will grow and learn.

Our children can’t learn to call on God if they are always calling on us.

There is beauty, freedom and peace in letting go of your adult children—learning when to give advice, and when to let them figure it out on their own. We give advice when asked, but not unless we are asked. They are adults and have to figure this out. It’s hard to step back, but Jane Ann is right—it’s much healthier and, in the long run, much easier when we let go.

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