“Becoming Small” in the Lives of Your Adult Children

My good friend, Jane Ann Smith, who also has six children and is about 10 years ahead of me in life’s journey, has given me lots of good advice over the years. As I began my empty nest years, I continued to watch her, ask questions and learn from her.

A few years later when Susan Yates and I were writing our empty nest book, I e-mailed Jane Ann for her thoughts on what she was learning in the empty nest. Her response was well thought out and, as always, very wise:

I had just survived a big conflict with one of my children and a friend told me that I needed to learn to “become smaller” in my family. I had become big in my family because my doctor husband had been gone a lot and my six children needed me. I had become a controller without even knowing when it happened. 

Almost 45 years later, with all the children grown, I was still way too big in their lives. They still expected me to treat the wounds and fix broken things, and when I couldn’t, some of them resented me. And I couldn’t imagine not being a part of their lives.

As I prayed about how to do this “becoming smaller,” God showed me that I didn’t need to talk so much. This may sound simple, but it wasn’t easy for me. I had always thought it was my duty to express my ideas on whatever subject was on the table and have the last word. Wasn’t I always the one who was older and had superior knowledge and experience?

As I’ve been practicing this, I’ve learned that I can walk away from a complicated conversation and hardly be missed. I was establishing healthy emotional boundaries for myself rather than allowing myself to be drawn into the fray. Another thing I’m learning is that as I become smaller, my husband is becoming bigger, as he should. For all the years I was in control, he had often given up trying and just let me be the most important person in the children’s lives.

I realized that I had desperately wanted my children to see all that I had done and was doing for them. I wanted them to somehow affirm that I had done a good job but how could they if I never stopped? I have much left to learn, but I believe I am setting a better example now to my children of how to bow out gracefully as one day they will have to allow their children to emerge when they become adults.

We can’t fix our kids’ problems

These words from my friend were so good for me to hear when she sent them, and they still are today. All moms understand Jane Ann’s desire for her kids to need her and to affirm her good work in their lives, and yet that is not where we should be looking for approval.

As Dennis and I watch our children struggle with different issues as adults, or express surprisingly different opinions on how they should raise their children, or try to manage their own families and extended families, we too are learning we must become small. We cannot fix their relational issues.

Recently I’ve read a book which discusses a topic called “benevolent detachment.” It’s another way to express becoming small in your adult children’s lives. Detachment means exactly what the word implies: disentangling yourself from the details and emotions of your children’s lives. But this doesn’t mean rejecting them or  giving “the cold shoulder”—it’s benevolent. You remain loving, interested, and caring toward your grown children. 

I am continuing to practice this big idea: becoming small and benevolently detached. It’s healthy for me because I can’t and shouldn’t be involved in fixing or solving. It’s healthy for them because that is how they will grow and learn. 

Our children can’t learn to call on God if they are always calling on us.

There is beauty, freedom and peace in letting go of your adult children—learning when to give advice, and when to let them figure it out on their own. We give advice when asked, but not unless we are asked. They are adults and have to figure this out. It’s hard to step back, but Jane Ann is right—it’s much healthier and, in the long run, much easier when we let go.



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18 thoughts on ““Becoming Small” in the Lives of Your Adult Children”

  1. I feel guilty kinda being small in kids lives because their Dad my husband died 4 years ago.In the first few years I believed they needed me alot when I realized I had enabled them with money,house,car,credit cards.They became disrespectful n entitled.Sad but I allowed it.Now I take care of self and let them do their life.I will wait for them to ask advice.Im 60 feel like I should of figured it out sooner.Better late than never.Thanks feel better.

    1. Barbara,

      I needed this. I never heard of benevolent detachment. I greatly appreciate this . My daughter seems to be trying really hard to pull away from me. I do have attachment issues but this is hurtful. So I started letting her come to me and that makes me detach a little. I didn’t want to but I had no choice. I don’t want to become cold or resentful so benevolent detachment seems like a healthy way to do it. God bless you

  2. Thank you! Beautiful and timely advice!
    God bless you.
    Interesting that so many of us were struggling single moms with young children.

    Another Barbara
    From Texas

  3. Hi Barbara,
    I am so grateful that I found this site. I am having issues with my 3 daughters every now and then and never thought about the benevolent detachment. I raised then most by myself after divorce when they were little. Like Jane, I was the controller, the educator and the decision making figure. Even after remarried, my husband allowed me to be the “boss”. Well, being a lawyer with a strong personality did not help. Too long story, I could write a few books about my life. In summary, thank you for this treasure, extremely helpful especially today. Also for the agnostics like me, we need and we must to learn how to become small in their lives and let them deal with their own issues in order to grow stronger.

  4. I am so grateful for the timing of this coming to us. Our 32 year old only child, son just got married and the 3 of us are extremely close. This will help us to move forward and butt out. ☺

  5. Pingback: To The Mom Who is Letting Go, - THE CORDIAL HOME

  6. I have been having stirrings of this in my heart — the need to be less vocal or “big present” in my young adults sons’ lives and then this article popped up! It was exactly what God is trying to help me do –become smaller. Thank you so much!

  7. I can’t believe I found this! Excellent thoughts! I listened to John Eldridge podcast last year and read part of his book. The concept of benevolent detachment was so helpful to me. My children are 30 and 27, Needles to say our relationship is not as close as I would like. Your comments are spot on. So many times I want to point out to them how much I sacrificed and worked as a single mother. They have also turned away from the Christian faith which I diligently raised them in. This has been really hard for me. I did do some counseling about a year ago when my son was in a disastrous relationship and it about ate me up. I have learned over the last 2 years to give less advice, listen more – call less and to really focus on myself. This has been good for me. Very different but good. Our relationships are better- not always what I’d like but good, and they do talk to me, about once a week or so. I’ve learned that just because they don’t want to talk or come over more does not mean they don’t love me. I am certain they have my voice somewhere in their head, when struggling with decisions. My husband constantly reminds me that great lessons come from failures. As a mother we all know it’s just hard to watch, and as a mother we are used to putting our children first and always helping. That is our nature. Thank you so much for the reminder and encouragement!

    1. MaryBeth,
      Thanks for writing this wonderful reply to Becoming Small. You have shared lots of good advice in this and I hope many will find it and read your words.
      I love your line about them having “your voice” somewhere in their heads!
      Grateful you shared what you are learning with us.

    2. Julie Peterson

      You have described my same experience with my grown daughter, who is 40. I was a single mom and we were so very close for so long that when she moved away out of state at 24 and started a new life I missed her dreadfully. She also has not stayed with her Christian faith and told me God can’t fix my problems, which compounded my sadness. We are not talking at present, she suggested we need a break a few weeks back. She is divorced, has 3 children, works full time and has a new man in her life. She said I made her feel guilty because I wanted to connect every week or so and she didn’t have time for that. I naturally understood that it was time to detach and finally let go of our previous close mom/daughter relationship. Perhaps having only one child caused me to want that regular communication/friendship more than other mom’s. This is an excellent and timely blog for me.

  8. I so needed to hear this. Thank you Barbara and thanks to the good Lord for leading me here on this day.

  9. What is the name/author of the book discussing benevolent detachment? I’m still trying to detach and my “kids” are 47 and 50.

    1. Hi Cheri,

      The book Barbara mentions in this post is “Get Your Life Back” by John Eldridge. Hope that helps! :)

      Shawna Christy

  10. My 2 sons are estranged and my husband is constantly telling me I must tell them to reconcile and not to let it alone. I have been putting out hints about how to deal with the situation with one son or another, but I feel now that it’s on their plate as I have said all I can say about the situation. It’s up to time and I need to have a healthy boundary of letting them make some adult decisions to better their lives. Thanks for this great approach of how to deal with negative situations and when to let go of trying to be a “fixer.”

  11. I would be very interested to know the name of the book referred to in this blog about detachment .Almost every mom of adult children I know is struggling to become small, detach and set appropriate boundaries. Thank you
    and God bless.

  12. As a mom of three married adult children and the last one quickly approaching adulthood I’m always looking for wisdom in this area. Thank you so much for this article. I 100% agree that what you wrote is the hardest but best path to take. I have experienced that the more I choose to keep opinions to myself, the more readily they seek out my counsel and prayer.

  13. How wonderful this advice is!! Thank you for sharing this godly wisdom!! I am learning to let go more in the lives of my adult kids (it is so easy to give my opinion on everything from child raising to how to decorate their homes : /
    In my Bible by Psalm 127:3-4, I have written children are
    ‘arrows are to be launched’ I love your idea of giving advice to our adult kids, when they ask
    for it!! Thank you for all you do to encourage women in each season of our lives!!

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