My husband and I are both successful professionals. He’s an attorney and I’m a nurse practitioner. Each of us came from a fairly lower-middle-class background and worked hard to get where we are. Our families helped us as much as they could, but for the most part we are self-made.
The hard part is our kids. Our son struggled with some mental-health issues in high school. He was a national merit scholar and eventually graduated from college. He’s now obese, working for minimum wage, and living with his polyamorous nonbinary partner of 11 years. He’s angry at us. We say nothing much of consequence to him and see them often and have a pleasant enough time.
Our daughter is also angry at us. She excelled in everything she did in high school and college, but had a serious rift with her sorority senior year and an abusive boyfriend; she moved to Seattle to be a barista and declared herself pansexual. She spends eight hours a day on Twitter railing at our homophobia and our control of her life.
We never supported our children financially after college. Our son never asked, and after a few rent bailouts after our daughter’s boyfriend left, we told her she needed to live within her means.
We are thinking about retirement. We are sad for both of them, who are now 33 and 25. Should we help them financially? Buy them condos, pay for more schooling, get them cars? It seems like the majority of our friends have done this for their kids, and their relationships are better.
Our kids were raised very frugally compared with their friends. They worked, did chores, and didn’t have any of the latest electronics. But they did have love, picnics, hiking, camping, vacations, games, and books. We gave them tons of time and experiences. We supported their passion for music and horses and art.
We’re torn between having a conversation with them and maintaining the status quo. We’re trying to adjust to likely not having grandkids and our kids continuing on with their sad jobs for the rest of their lives. Any advice?
I sense, beneath your concern about the state of your kids’ lives, both heartbreak and bafflement. The heartbreak stems from the gap between your hopes for your adult children—ideas about the kind of life you believe would make them happier—and the lives they’ve chosen to live. The bafflement comes from trying to reconcile all that you gave them—quality time, meaningful experiences, and opportunities to pursue their passions—with the anger they both harbor.
In trying to pinpoint where things went sideways, you wonder if you should have been less frugal with them growing up, and your proposed solution is to provide financial support now. As you say, the parents you know who have helped their adult children financially have better relationships with them. But that may not be what’s going on. The strength of those relationships is what likely led to the impulse to provide the financial support, not the other way around. So let’s start there—with how to strengthen the underlying relationships with your children—and not with the question of money.
Your core desire here will help you in this: You seem to really want to help your kids in ways that would be useful. Money might indeed be useful, for example if a child needs help with a down payment on a house, but it’s not going to be what mends your relationship. Although sometimes people associate money with love, money is a poor stand-in for love—something that is intended to say I care about you but that will never fill the hole that true love and caring do. Money can also be used to control people. (“We gave you $10,000 and you still live in this dump?”)
The point is that while it might be reassuring to see your kids in a nicer apartment or owning a car, I have a feeling that right now your children have a deep, unfulfilled need to be embraced and understood by their parents, and that’s why they’re angry. You know that both children are angry with you and your husband, but do you know why they have so much anger, and if so, how have you responded? For example, if your daughter says she feels that you try to control her life, or that you judge her for her sexual orientation, are you curious to learn more? Or do you defend yourself in a way that dismisses her complaints with something like “I’m not trying to control you—I’m trying to help you get your life on track” or “I’m not homophobic—I just think this is a reaction to what happened with your boyfriend and not really who you are”?
Your daughter probably takes to Twitter to express her anger because she feels that when she goes directly to you, she isn’t being heard. Similarly, your perception that you “say nothing of consequence” when you see your son yet “have a pleasant-enough time” might indicate that you aren’t aware of how he’s truly feeling either. With so much anger (on his part) and anxiety (on yours and your husband’s) roiling beneath the surface, these interactions sound at best hollow and superficial, and at worst emotionally torturous. Is time spent together really “pleasant enough” when he knows that you’re disappointed with his career, his partner, and his weight, and find his life to be sad?
If you don’t start having conversations of consequence, you’ll indeed maintain the status quo, which sounds unhealthy for everyone. But if you can approach these conversations like a detective trying to understand another person’s perspective and motives, you might learn a lot about your kids—not just about their anger, but also about how you can build a closeness between you, which will help them feel more supported in their lives. And when they feel more supported, they might start to feel less angry.
In fact, there may very well be a connection between your kids’ life decisions and their anger. Many people who carry around unresolved anger tend to let that anger drive their decisions, without even realizing it: Sometimes anger leads people to make choices that will upset the person at whom they’re angry. Other times, they turn the anger inward by engaging in self-sabotage. In other words, your children’s anger might be part of the reason your academically successful son and daughter have both chosen not to pursue higher-paying jobs for which they’re qualified.
If you do start to ask these important questions, remember that what you learn might not be easy to hear. Like many well-meaning parents who were very thoughtful about how they raised their kids, you might feel that given all you did well as parents, your children should be grateful and have no right to be so angry.
This is why I suggest that if you’re going to invest money in your children, you use it to pay for family therapy. Family therapy will provide an environment where you can get to know your children better, and they in turn can hear you better. It will help clear the air and repair lingering issues from the past and teach the whole family more productive ways of interacting. And finally, you’ll all have the opportunity to understand not only one another, but yourselves individually, with less projection, distortion, and faulty assumptions.
If you frame the invitation to family therapy as an opportunity for you to understand your children better, they might be inclined to accept. You can also ask that they try just a few sessions to see how it goes. Sessions can be done virtually, so location shouldn’t hold you back. And even if neither child takes you up on it, you and your husband can see the therapist so that you can learn how to better communicate with them, and also get support working through the very real grief that many parents have when the story they had in mind not just for their adult children but for themselves doesn’t come to pass. This will be a far better investment in the family’s overall health than a car or a condo.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.