As children become adults, they ideally become more self-sufficient and fully in charge of their emotional lives. However, that doesn’t mean parents no longer have obligations towards their adult children. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist recently addressed these parental obligations with adult children in Newsweek.
For “My Father Had Children 30 Years Younger Than Me—What Should I Do?” Matt answers a reader’s letter as an expert in family therapy with adult children for Newsweek’s ongoing “What Should I Do?” column. The reader recounts an experience with her father who didn’t explain his relationship with her—his daughter—to her significantly younger half-siblings, resulting in confusion and hurt feelings for her, her half-siblings, and her own children. Matt begins his response by separating this extended family dynamic into stakeholders—the reader and her children, her father’s youngest children, and her father (and perhaps his wife)—in order to “lay out what is owed to whom (if at all) and by whom (if at all).” This order of operations reveals, Matt observes, “a hierarchy of needs and responsibilities in a family where the needs of the children ought to take priority over the needs of the parent, and the parents are more obliged to attend to the needs of their children (including adult children).”
While not in the article, Matt believes, as a value, that parents owe their children a good deal even after they’re no longer children. There is a moral obligation to continue to defer certain self-needs to the needs of children long after they have become adults. It’s important to recognize that this belief can be quite dependent on culture, varying among classes and ethnicities. For instance, some cultures, both currently and historically, expect adult children (or a certain child in the birth order) to take care of an aging parent physically and fiscally. Yet this doesn’t negate that parents also have a variety of obligations to their adult children, which can also vary culturally.
One of these obligations that parents have towards their adult children is deference to their very status as their child, as exemplified by the family scenario in Newsweek. While the reader’s situation is complicated by her distant relationship with her father, the responsibility still lies with him. Matt asserts, “He needed to reach out ahead of time, raise the issue of what might come up with the younger children, and talk through your needs, your children’s needs, as well as the needs of your young half-siblings.” Instead, keeping his relationship with his daughter from his younger children is, as Matt articulates, “more in the service of his feelings than theirs.”
What should an adult child do if their parent isn’t fulfilling these obligations? Be direct and transparent about it. It’s essential to be clear that this isn’t an attack or an ambush. For instance, Matt suggests the Newsweek reader approach her dad and say, “You’ve harmed me and my children, as well as others that you are obliged to care for, but we haven’t been very close. Do you want to work on this?” Here, the invitation is to have that conversation. This way the parent (or parents) can decide if they want to have that conversation and can work to prepare for it. Conversely, if they’re not interested in having a difficult conversation (or say “yes,” but don’t follow through), it’s better that the adult child isn’t trying to talk through some hurt with an audience that isn’t so engaged. In this case, as Matt explains, “…you have a hard choice to make, including, among the options, whether or not this is an enriching relationship for you and your children.”