How do I parent my adult son without smothering him?

Dear Gigi,

I need help. I have a college age son who has some significant learning disabilities and is very naive and gullible. How do I know when what I see as providing necessary help and support is actually keeping him from growing?  I trust God with my future but feel responsible for managing my sons.  Ugh! Partly because since he was little I DID have to push and manage and force the school to give him the services he needed.  Partly because I feel guilty that I stayed in an abusive marriage so long and feel responsible for that harming my son.

Is there anything more weighty than carrying around guilt and shame?  I’m starting at the end of your question instead of at the beginning, because this is so crucial.  The past is in the past, and you and I can’t change it, though we so desperately wish we could.  How desperately? Enough to continue to carry around that heavy sadness and weighty self-reproach when there is nothing we can do. We don’t get a do-over, and what has happened has happened (past tense).  Of course we need to learn from our past and try to not repeat the same mistakes.  But at the end of the day, we have to receive God’s forgiveness and allow Him to restore us. Hanging onto guilt is paralyzing and keeps you in a holding pattern, unable to make good decisions, unable to move forward.

I certainly relate to the difficulty in letting your son grow up, when you have always been his advocate and his manager.  I think all parents feel this to a degree, but you more so, because of his special needs and the support he has required.  You didn’t mention whether or not your son lives at home, or how much daily supervision is needed or supplied. But man alive, you hit the nail on the head with this comment: “I trust God with my future but feel responsible for managing my sons.”  I daresay every mother out there has felt this feeling.  At some point we all have to let our children go and let them find their own way.  This was easier with some of my kids than others, and for about five years I prayed and cried and waited for the difficult work to be done that only the school of hard knocks could accomplish.  Looking back, might I have done things differently? For one, I wish that the concussion research back then was where it is now.  This alone would have helped immensely. But it wasn’t.  And I can’t beat myself up for what I couldn’t have known.  Neither can you.  I urge you – don’t hang onto this guilt any longer.  Let it go.

The big questions are: is God capable of taking care of your son? Does He need your help? How much support is enough/too much? When is it appropriate to back away/step in?

Try to keep communication open with him, honestly admitting how hard it is to let him go and why.  Depending on the level of his cognition and social skills, let him know you intend to wait until he asks for help and try to not intervene otherwise. You might consider creating a “wrap-around” group for your son, including yourself and several others who know and care for him. This group could meet with him periodically for loving prayer and support, and could be a place where he could safely address concerns he might have, as well as providing you with a sounding board and some perspective.

There may be times when intervention is absolutely required, and God will reveal when it’s appropriate. During my child’s detox, a family member took it upon himself to be a “dutch uncle” and sent repeated tough love email messages. My child had plummeted to the bottom, was feeling like a failure, and “stop being an idiot” was not helpful, so I had to tell the relative to cut it out. If you need to step in, God will confirm this and you will know when the time is right. You trust him for you – you can trust him for your son.

Praying for you.


If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. – James 1:5 (NIV)

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