Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Guest Post: Failure to Launch: How Fear in Families Makes for Adult Children Living at Home

Today's guest post is by Elizabeth Reed. This is the sixth post in which a writer recounts his or her own experience in a family with a problematic history, as well as the problem's aftermath. In this post, the author describes how, in an attempt to be completely different from one of her own parents, she may have overcompensated and by doing so interfered with her son's growth and independence.

I am right now in the midst of a situation with my twenty-one year old son which I have created for myself out of fear and ignorance. In my desire to help my son to cope with bad situations in our family life I have actually made it much harder for him to become a man. I am at fault but I am not struggling with guilt; I am not wholly to blame but I am struggling with how to change the current dynamics of my relationship with my son.

It is so very difficult, at least in my mind, to change a relationship that has been forming since he was in the womb. I wonder how other mothers of sons deal with their relationships. The whole mother/son relationship is totally different than the mother/daughter relationship. At least it is in my case. At one point in their lives as toddlers sons often desire to marry their mom out of admiration. I watch in awe at the oversized football player who tells his mom he loves her on national television. And yet they must leave mom and make their way in the world. They can sometimes get so tangled up if the mother is not very careful, and it can end up creating a situation in which the boy does not develop the ability to make his way.

I have two children; the oldest is a girl and is now twenty-eight. I did the exact same things with my daughter that I did with my son. For six years of her life I was single and there were many occasions when it was just her and I, and we spent all our time together with no one else involved. I did the same things for her that I did for my son. Helped with homework, helped with chores, supported them at school, etc. She grew into a wonderfully independent, intelligent young women. 

Yes, she has issues to deal with like father issues and mistakes in parenting that I have made but she is dealing and working through them. She has gone on to get her bachelor’s degree and is working on a master’s degree. She is employed doing something she loves and is thriving in her career. She has a boyfriend that she has had for two years, and she will be the first to admit that she has emotional handicaps but she is seeing a counselor and making a conscious effort to work through them.

The first really huge mistake I made with my son, I think, was in buying him a vehicle at sixteen -  because after all I did the same thing for my daughter. She was scared to death to drive a car so I thought the best thing to do was to get her out there right away. We live in a large metropolitan area and it was important that she learn how to drive to get anywhere. She was a very responsible driver and nothing changed as far as her behavior. 

Not so with my son.When he got a vehicle it was as if I had given him his own apartment. He went totally wild and we struggled with him coming home, not answering his phone, and hanging out with all the wrong people. He began to experiment with drugs, mostly pills and pot, and he began smoking cigarettes. He totally went away from everything we were about as a family.

So let me go back to the beginning and give you some background. When I was pregnant with my son I went into early labor at about six months. It had something to do with a terrible hurricane, flooding, and a lot of stress. The doctor put me on a medication called Brethine which is now strictly taboo for pregnant women because it can cause brain damage, ADHD, autism, and more. When my son was born he acted like a baby who might have had a mother who did drugs. He did not like to be held much and cried at the drop of a hat. When he was laughing it could turn into tears very quickly, which immediately made me even more protective and fearful. 

From Kindergarten the teachers were telling me he had ADHD. He was not mean or aggressive or loud but he could not keep his focus. I took him to have him tested by our local University because they had a wonderful department full of students and professors who were doing studies, and it was in my budget. They checked him for learning disabilities, checked his eyesight, his hearing, and evaluated him for ADHD. All checked out. He was said to be normal with an IQ of bright/average, and they thought he was only “borderline ADHD.” They said he was a bright, delightful child.

He was a happy boy and full of energy. When he did something wrong he smiled and tried to charm us. It was difficult not to laugh at him when he was ornery but I did my best to stand my ground. His dad, however, would laugh at him and was not much of a disciplinarian. His dad was born to privilege and had been mostly raised by a nanny.

His dad had been a drug addict before I met him; we married when he was thirty-one and I was thirty-four. I knew very little about addiction except alcoholism. We had met in church and he had a great job and seemed to have everything on track. I knew he had been in jail for his addiction and had gotten out at twenty-eight, only three years prior to our marriage. I had no idea what I was getting into or how deep his problem went.

I too was emotionally unstable and needed attention because of an unloving relationship I had had with my own father. We were two extremely needy people looking for the other to meet our needs and there was no way that could happen. He simply needed a babysitter to keep him from doing anything wrong and to take care of his needs to be fed and picked up after. I needed a friend, a lover, and someone to laugh with and make me feel loved and special. 

He had absolutely no idea how to do that and in fact did not have a clue what love was because he had been on drugs most of his life. My job was to serve him and basically be a roommate; my emotional well was empty. Because he could not fill it up, it turned into resentment on my part. Our marriage at first was empty but then it turned ugly.

All the while I was doing my best to be the mom my kids needed, to be there for them always and help them to feel loved and to try to keep normalcy in their lives. I went overboard to make them happy. The more I did for my daughter the more she wanted to give back. It was not so with my son. He took and never thought to return. He does express his love verbally and with hugs but does not actually put a lot of action behind his words. He sometimes feels bad that he is not performing up to par but feeling bad is as far as it goes.

His dad did go back on drugs after we were married for eleven years - probably because we were so very unhappy and I had pretty much given up on trying to keep our relationship going. My son was ten at the time and this split further sent me into over-drive in trying to love and protect him. Then we moved away to a new part of town, and since he had so many feelings of rejection and inadequacy, at thirteen he made friends with the kids in his like position and started making poor decisions. We worked through most of this but then when I bought him a car the roof caved in.

We barely got him to stay in high school even though he was completely capable of making good grades. He just simply did not want to be there. So I rescued him and moved him to another school, smaller and with more one-on-one attention. He graduated high school by the skin of his teeth and tried college but could not handle it. Not the work, but the time and sitting. He has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and has difficulty staying somewhere he does not want to be. I know that this is a combination of a psychological disorder but also a convenient excuse for when he does not want to do something. This problem is spilling over into his not keeping jobs and now not wanting to even look for one because he is afraid of being rejected or having to be somewhere he does not want to be and then panicking.

He lives with me and his grandmother, which is a sweet deal for him. He wants me in his life but wants to be independent so we are doing this push-me-away, pull-me-in routine almost daily. I have talked to him about how he needs to push himself and take one step at a time. I tell him that he is a man now and has to do things for himself and he agrees. When I stop doing things for him sometimes he does well and other times he gets upset and wonders why I do not love him any longer.

I really wanted for him to realize on his own that he has to do something to change his life. His father and I are divorced now for over five years and separated for eight and his recommendation to me is that I should kick him out and let him learn the hard way. I so want for him to step up to the plate without the rug being completely pulled out from under him. And knowing that I am primarily to blame makes it even more difficult for me because I did not know how to be any other kind of mother and still do not know how to change our dynamic.

Being raised with an angry and sometimes irrational father and a mother who loved to a fault did not help. I did not want to be abusive like my father so I erred on the side of love like my mom who had grown up with an alcoholic father. But it is an enabling love that sometimes does more harm than good. But speaking for myself, I do not know where I would be now without her unconditional love in the midst of total rejection and dismissal by my dad.

I have been learning from my relationship with God my Father that the right kind of love is for the other person’s good and cannot always be the easiest kind of love. It is never too late to change but it is very difficult to sort out emotions and change ways of thinking that you have had for over fifty years. I know, however, that I need to do it for myself and for my son. And I want the pattern to stop being passed down through the generations. Now I understand about the passage of scripture from the Bible that talks about the children suffering from the sins of their parents. Fears, anxieties, guilt, lack of or an overabundance of love because of fear are all detrimental to the family dynamic and for producing healthy children.

From looking at both of my children I have to surmise that much of it is also based on predisposition and bent because my daughter was able to push herself beyond my inadequacies and sometimes over-bearing love. I have no other basis to judge this on except my own children but I think it must have something also to do with the sexes; men being primarily takers and women givers. I am not trying to offend or be anti-men but I have observed this behavior in more and more men especially of late.

I am determined not to give up on myself or my son in changing the dynamics of our relationship and both of us becoming emotionally and mentally well in the process. I see that far too often when it gets too difficult that parents and children give up on each other and stay wounded and hurt for life. I am full of love, sometimes the wrong kind, but I refuse to let go and will persevere in finding a healing avenue for myself and hopefully this will spill over into my son’s life as well. I am not only trusting in my own initiative but I am trusting in God to help us to recover what we have lost.

Author Bio:

Elizabeth Reed is a freelance writer and a resident blogger at She particularly enjoys writing about parenting, childcare, health and wellness. In addition, she is an expert consultant on issues related to household management and kids.


  1. Perhaps the author staying in a terrible relationship with her husband, and not buying her son a car, was her actual first big mistake.

  2. Reading these kinds of histories makes me feel profoundly greatful to be single and childless.