By Pat Matuszak

The little boy ran back and forth between his mom and dad. Mom held an umbrella on the sideline of the soccer field, and dad stood watching their older child’s game from a covered park shelter. Their youngest boy shivered and cuddled under each parent’s jacket for a moment, then skipped back out into the rain laughing. The drama of being “saved” from the cloudburst entertained him. It was a charming scene.

Bird leaving cageOf course, almost anything that’s fun also has its dangers. The boy could have tripped on the slippery pathway. He could have gotten chilled and become ill. Half a dozen small consequences could have stolen the joyful moment. But they didn’t. His parents weighed the likelihood of danger against spoiling their child’s fun and made a decision to let go. That’s the call we often have to make as parents.

Our care may provide safe shelter from the elements, but we often can’t — or would rather not — force our children to stand still and stay protected. Finding the balance between enforcing rules to keep them safe and letting them learn discretion on their own is a tricky task.

Deciding when your child is old enough to make some choices and cope with the consequences of his decisions is a parenting dilemma that doesn’t get easier as he or she reaches adulthood. Letting go of control somehow seems counter to your role as a parent. You feel guilty when you don’t stave off all the negative circumstances that come his or her way when your children begin learning to be grown-ups. You wonder: Am I a good parent if I don’t rescue my adult child from the results of his bad decisions?

Blogger dad Brian Goslee sees the answer as a matter of having faith in your child:

“… our interference and control, in the name of protecting our children from pain or consequences, is a sign that we really think we know more about their lives than God does. It can be a sign that, as they are growing older, we are holding on too tightly to control of their lives.”1

But what about the guilt that comes when you see your child in trouble — even if it’s trouble of his or her own making? Can you really let go of the idea that you could have saved your child pain or embarrassment if you had stepped in and rescued him or her? And what if the consequences are worse than bad? Doesn’t your child need someone wise to hit the brakes or intervene financially?

Deepak Chopra describes this way of thinking as a mental trap:

“…your vision is an illusion. It is fixed on the false notion that if you found just the right key, you would solve your children’s lives. Please see that no parent solves any grown child’s life, which means you haven’t failed. It’s impossible to fail at what was unachievable to begin with. The mind abhors a vacuum, and you need a purposeful goal in life to fill the place where anxiety and guilt now reside.”2

Guilt comes with as many dangers as the circumstances your adult child may face. If he or she is sliding down the path to addiction, your child may use guilt as tool to get you to enable his substance use. Playing the blame game is a symptom of the addictive cycle. Ask yourself these questions: How do conversations with my adult child usually end up? Do I find myself feeling guilty and handing out money or other financial aid? Guilt can be costly, ensnaring you in activities that drain you financially and emotionally.

You may have made some mistakes along the way as you parented, but the grown person your child has become makes his own decisions about life now. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Even if you abused substances, the decision to follow your example or learn not to make the same mistake is up to your child as an adult.

Psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein offers this advice about guilt-based relationships:

“Adult children who remain overly dependent on their parents often are allowed to get into this situation because their parents enable them. Perhaps this relationship dynamic stems from parents who want to be needed. Setting boundaries with your adult child can sometimes be the best thing to do, even when it is hard to say, ‘I am here to listen and here’s what I can offer, but I also think you will feel better about yourself if you figure this out on your own.’”3

You can offer to attend counseling with your adult son or daughter to work out past issues. Family counseling is an effective tool to help everyone involved heal from difficulties and move on together to build a healthier relationship. If conversations with your child usually hit a dead end at a wall of recriminations and guilt, that’s the moment to propose a family support program or therapy. This is one way to get past the blame game and turn the conversation to constructive action. Let your child know you’re sorry past experiences with you are still an issue for her today and you’d like to seek healing together.

It may also be helpful to connect with other parents through online groups and support meetings, like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous or Dual Recovery Anonymous. Sometimes hearing and telling stories together can give you more perspective on your situation. Interacting with experienced parents has helped many others get through substance abuse with their children. One mother whose two sons both struggled with addiction started a Facebook page and online discussion group she boldly called The Addict’s Mom.4

If guilt is weighing you down, remind yourself of the positive parenting experiences you had, even if your adult child is neglecting to remember them at the moment. Give yourself the credit you deserve while being aware that parenting is not just about what you do, but who you are. Get the support you need to come to peace with your adult child’s past, present and future, and then you can let guilt go.


1 Goslee, Brian. “How to Trust God With Your Older Children.” The Courage, October 9, 2017.

2 Chopra, Deepak. “Ask Deepak: How to Deal With Your Child’s Drug Addiction.”, March 17, 2010.

3 Bernstein, Jeffrey, PhD. “Creating Boundaries With Your Adult Child.” Psychology Today, April 30, 2016.

4 Wallace, Kelly. “Being an addict’s mom: ‘It’s just a very, very sad place.’” CNN, August 28, 2014.