How to Connect with Your Troubled Adult Children
by Allison Bottke (c) 2018
Releasing January 2019
from Harvest House Publishers.
This Isn’t How Life Is Supposed to Be
It may sound silly, but I can’t begin to tell you how many times over the years I’ve stood in front of a card rack trying unsuccessfully to find an appropriate one for my son.
We live in a world where mass marketing rules the consumer landscape—blanketing us with Hallmark moment images that tell us how, when and why we should convey affection for those close to us. That is, except, for those of us who have seriously troubled adult children whose dangerous choices, and traumatic and sometimes toxic lives have turned our own upside down.
Insofar as these kids, there isn’t a greeting card that works—ever. The effusive words of pride, appreciation, and love just don’t fit—for anything. Happy Birthday to a son who has so many felony charges on his record that he will never be able to get a job, a driver’s license, or even vote—and blames everyone but himself? Merry Christmas to a daughter whose drug addiction has cost not only her marriage but the custody of her children as well? What card speaks to how you feel about a child whose legal troubles have cost all your savings and most likely your retirement, too?
It’s been years since I’ve been able to buy a pre-printed card for my son. And so, I’ve resulted to sending humorous cards—or I buy the ones with blank interiors and write something as appropriate as possible, all the while aching inside because what I really long to do is buy the sweet, sappy, sentimental cards that a mom should be able to buy for her child. You know, the ones that say I’m so incredibly proud of you and you’re the child every parent dreams of.
I can’t bring myself to say those things, and sometimes I hate myself for feeling that way.
This isn’t how life is supposed to be.
How Did We Get Here?
It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, a mother always remembers the day every one of her children is born. The same can be said for many fathers. An experience unlike any other, the relationship between parent and child is one of profound possibility.
As a teenage mom, I had struggles with my own issues and demons, but when the delivery room nurse placed the tiny bundle in my arms I was immediately connected to my son in a way I never imagined possible. As the days, months, and years passed, what I wanted most was for my sweet boy to know how much he was loved. That I would always be there for him. I worked hard, played hard, and through it all provided everything I thought my son wanted or needed—including rescuing whenever trouble called. After all, wasn’t that my job?
Sadly, it was my own personal issues including painful memories from a traumatic past that often drove me to make unhealthy parenting choices. Time after time—thinking I was helping—I bailed my son out of difficult situations, putting a halt to many life lessons he may have learned as a result of facing the natural consequences of his actions.
God has plans for all of us and some of those plans involve pain. Pain we need to experience to learn the spiritual growth lessons God wants to teach us.
It took years before I understood that I was playing God every time I swooped in to rescue my son and, in essence, accept responsibility for his choices. I wasn’t helping at all: I was merely enabling Chris to continue his increasingly inappropriate behavior without any consequences. I didn’t make the connection that painful life experiences help to shape our character. And I certainly didn’t realize that all my unhealthy rescuing was being fueled and motivated by a spiritual emptiness in my own heart.
By the time I realized the part I had played in the dysfunctional dynamic of our parent/child relationship, my only child was in his thirties, already in and out of jail numerous times, and deeply in bondage to an IV heroin addiction.
I know many of you have similar stories, some less challenging, others far worse, and my heart breaks for each of you.
We are all doing the best we can. But I think with a shift in our perspective, our best can become better.
My personal faith journey started late in life at 35. Since then, I’ve tried to do my best to view life and the lessons it teaches through a lens of faith. Yet there is one lesson I’ve been hard-pressed to learn, no matter how many times I’m tested.
And that is how to connect with my troubled adult son in a healthy way that is more helpful than hurtful—more empowering than enabling. In a way that will help him to see that he needs to make better choices—before it’s too late.
The thing is, we did everything we knew how to do. We tried to be really good parents, but the way our children have changed and the things they’ve done have left us shocked, embarrassed, angry, guilty, hopeless, and feeling so alone.
We cry out to God, but sometimes it’s hard to hear His voice.
A Painful Reality
It’s impossible to move forward if we’re tethered to something holding us back.
For many of us, it’s hanging on to what could have been. We had so many dreams for our young child—we saw their incredible potential.
But as they grew up, something went wrong—in many cases, horribly wrong.
What happened to our kids?
Pain happened, in many ways, shapes and forms. Then, sin happened, in desperate attempts to relieve the pain. And finally, drugs happened. Alcohol happened. Emotional instability and mental illness happened. Incarceration happened. Traumatic situations and circumstances happened. Drama, chaos and crisis happened. And sometimes, character void of conscience happened.
Layer by layer our kids were being buried—along with our hopes and dreams.
The painful reality is that the children we once knew are gone. Much like a tornado that touches down, roars forward, and tears up everything in its path, many of our troubled adult children have left a wide swath of damage and destruction in their wake. We’ve been reacting to their poor choices for so long that we’ve not only run out of steam, but also out of patience, compassion, money, and faith that they will ever change. We will always love them, but as things stand now, we don’t like them very much.
If we want to learn how to connect to our troubled adult children, we must let go of those old dreams and unreasonable expectations. We can’t go back. We must find a way to push through the pain and go forward. It’s time to change our perspective and adjust our expectations as we formulate an honest appraisal of who our adult children are today, and of their capabilities for living an independent life in the future.
And most important, we need to understand what role God is calling us to be in their troubled lives.
One distressed parent of a bipolar daughter who refused to take medication and disrupted the lives of everyone she came in contact with said to me, “Allison, I’m ready to wave a white flag of surrender. I can’t take this anymore—it’s killing me, this isn’t how life is supposed to be!”
She’s right. God didn’t intend for us to live this way. That’s why it’s time for us to take a new approach—to change the lens through which we view the connection we have (or don’t have) with our troubled adult child. There comes a time when we need to surrender—to stop, step back and reassess the entire situation. A time when seeking professional advice and wise counsel may be needed. A time to chart a new course and develop a different plan of action. And a time to prayerfully consider how we see our parenting role in the future.
Parents, the time is now! It is when we willingly surrender and release that God can do what He does best. And please hear me when I say this—to surrender does not mean you’ve given up. When you reach this point and realize what you’re doing isn’t working, the important principle to remember is that God will never stop working.
Perhaps He’s just been waiting for you to get out of the way.
A Hard Truth
When emotional and/or mental illness is part of a troubled adult child’s life, it’s hard to know as the parent when to speak up or shut up. It’s a fine line we walk in knowing how and when to broach subjects that need to be discussed when the possible outcome has such varied possibilities; from emotional meltdowns, to histrionic tantrums, and even psychotic breakdowns. And when we have children with anger issues and character disorders, there’s always the fear of violence. The fact some of our kids frighten us is a hard truth to admit.
Despite all the bizarre behavior and all the warning signs, there’s a hard truth many well-intentioned parents have been trying to diminish, or in some cases, even deny.
These aren’t just out-of-control rebellious kids. It’s no longer about the strong-willed, button-pushing child who wants to see how far he—or she—can go.
Many of the adult children we are desperately trying to “help” are suffering from a host of mental and emotional illnesses that often go undiagnosed, untreated, or because of the archaic stigma still attached to these labels—frequently ignored.
Our “challenging” adult children have transitioned into “troubled” adult children, and today they are fighting Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, PTSD, and Schizophrenia, to name a few. Many have been in and out of jail or prison more than once, and the ramifications of both incarceration and a criminal record have seriously impacted their ability to reintegrate into society. Let’s not forget those adult children who have serious anger, and denial issues, some of whom are anti-social to a psychotic—and dangerous degree. Angry, bitter and seemingly without purpose, many cannot hold jobs, and quite often, it’s their financial struggles that lead to disastrous choices.
Others have been so damaged by life, they want only to end theirs. In desperation and despair, some have attempted—or frequently threaten suicide, and sadly, many have succeeded.
The consequences from the choices they are now making have been ratcheted up.
A Frightening Fact
There’s another malevolent influence threatening the lives of those we love. Countless adult children are caught up in our country’s devastating epidemic of drug addiction.
Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids, and “club drugs” have turned our children into strangers. They will do almost anything for that next high—that next fix—and it seems nothing we say or do can break through the demonic hold of drugs.
We live in a world entirely different from the one in which most of us grew up. Today, parents around the country are barely hanging on to their sanity as they struggle to effectively help adult children who are dealing with serious, life-threatening issues brought on by a scourge blanketing every city in every state with death and destruction.
Unless you live on a tiny desert island off the coast of some far-away land, it’s a sure bet that you know someone sucked into the quicksand of an opioid drug addiction—either as a user or a seller. And it’s frightening to think that more than 175 Americans will die today of drug overdoses.[i]
Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 64,000 Americans lost their lives to a drug overdose in 2016, including 15,446 heroin overdoses. The total is more than 20 times the number of Americans killed on 9/11.[ii]
America’s opioid epidemic is on track to claim 1 million lives by 2020,[iii] with the President of the United States declaring it a “national crisis.”
It’s this combination of substance abuse, emotional and mental illnesses, and character disorders that clouds their judgment—and it’s guilt, fear, anger, unreasonable expectations, and frightening consequences that clouds our own.
And if all this isn’t enough to send us into rescue mode time and again, we can’t forget that many of these struggling adults are responsible for the care and safety of their children—our grandchildren. Is it any wonder we feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders and hearts? Is it any wonder we are compelled to come to their rescue time and again? Is it any wonder we cry out to God, “Please help my child!”
How did this happen? What went wrong? We’re hard-working, honest, God-fearing Christians who have always tried to do the right thing—the best thing—the most helpful thing.
This isn’t how life is supposed to be.
What Can We Do?
These adult children, some seriously troubled, need professional help. But sadly, we don’t know how to make that happen—or we’re in denial that it even is happening—and so we pay their bills, cater to their needs, bail them out, make excuses for them, and do everything possible to “help” them.
However, please hear me when I say this—our actions are not helping!
The time has come for us to develop a different strategy—to deploy a new arsenal—and to change the lens through which we view not only our adult children but our role in the relationship dynamic. We can restructure our thinking, learn effective strategies, shift our perspective and begin to view our adult children, their challenging situations, and our responses to them in new ways—ways that just might make a difference in their life.
Are you ready to try?
“Allison, if you had any idea how hard we’ve tried—how many chances we’ve given our child. If you only knew what life has been like for years.”
Well, folks, I do. I do know what it’s like.
A Mother’s Journey
When I wrote Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children, my only child was serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison, of which he served five years. A great deal has happened in the decade since.
While my son’s heroin addiction is a thing of the past, years of IV drug abuse has affected his circulation, and a very serious motorcycle accident left him with metal pins and plates in his body. Add an unsuccessful back surgery to the equation, and he is in constant, chronic pain. Sadly, heroin has been replaced by a combination of prescription pain pills, opioids, and street drugs.
He has been in and out of jail and prison several times since, and the years have not been kind to him. PTSD plagues him as a result of years of substance abuse, street living, and incarceration. Sadly, painful memories of his past often bleed into his present, and separating the two is sometimes hard for him. He isolates himself from those who could truly help, and periods of depression and distorted thinking drive him deeper into the euphoric escape of drugs and criminal activity.
Like many of our troubled kids, he has above-average language skills, and can masterfully manipulate a conversation—yet his social skills, decision-making ability, and coping mechanisms are below average. He is a grown man who struggles every day to survive, and my heart aches for him. I still want, after all these years, for him to find his purpose and live the life God has planned for him.
Yet it seems I want this for him more than he wants it for himself. And so, like many parents, I’ve had to learn how to let go—to love my son with open arms and trust that God is in control—not me.
Thousands of parents have reached out to me over the years—generous, loving, caring, and often lost parents. Grasping at straws, they are desperate to know which way to turn—yet fearful of the truth and the consequences. Many lack the resources (financial and emotional) or the knowledge to know what to do. They feel alone, yet statistics prove that is not the case. There are so many of us—broken-hearted parents with broken kids.
When we put our hope in God, we will never be disappointed. Hope is always based on the guaranteed promises of God, and hope is something we can give to our struggling adult children. “[God] helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 GNT).
Hope and healing can miraculously replace fear and pain when we make the transition from “This isn’t how life is supposed to be,” to “This is how it is, now what does God want me to learn and do as a result?” This transition starts when we can begin to see our troubled adult children for who they really are and not who we wish they were.
For many of us, it’s going to require fearless fortitude to revisit some of the painful situations and circumstances that have brought us here today. It’s never easy to look at illnesses and issues that have caused considerable damage not only to the life of your child, but to your relationship with them as well.
Over the course of the next chapters, we’re going to talk a great deal about the issues and illnesses impacting the lives of our troubled adult children. However, it’s important to realize that amidst all this discussion about our offspring, the journey we are about to take together is ultimately about you and your choices.
A journey that will change your life.
And, God willing, the life of your troubled adult child.
.~ This has been a sneak-peak excerpt from:
How to Connect with Your Troubled Adult Children – Effective Strategies for Families in Pain
By Allison Bottke
Releasing November 2018 from Harvest House Publishers
(c) 2018 All Rights Reserved
Click on Pre-order button below.