But What If?: Adult Children With Extenuating Circumstances

Brian* always seemed a few steps behind everyone else socially, unsure when to laugh, when to put himself forward, when to retreat. His stutter contributed to his painful shyness. And from the get-go he had never managed to get his school work done.

Not from the time he was in first grade and was expected to memorize spelling words, not when he had to read 20 minutes a day in fifth grade, not when he was–most unrealistically–expected to memorize the parts of a cell, and not when he was supposed to find the value of ‘x.’

His parents, anxious that he should succeed, at least in the bottom level courses into which he was placed, worked hard with Brian, but always wound up more-or-less doing the work, as Brian was so slow to catch on, and became more anxious and agitated as his parents pushed him to perform.  And, when they tired of doing the work, they hired tutors to do it, under the guise of ‘teaching’ Brian.

Diagnosed as dyslexic, ADHD, with executive functioning difficulties, and an IQ that put him in ‘dull normal’ range, Brian underperformed even his parents’ adjusted expectations, and, in their heart of hearts, his parents believed the high school graduated him because they were big muckety-mucks in the community. He had no friends, no skills of any use, no ambition, nowhere to go–and no hope for the future.

Renee* was a serious over-achiever, and had been from the moment she pushed herself out of her mother’s womb ahead of her twin, who, by anatomical rights, should have come first. She had the best dioramas in elementary school, gave the longest oral report on Roman aqueducts in the history of her school, wrote the most creative essays, attended the local community college during math class time since she finished calculus her junior year, and–to no one’s surprise–graduated valedictorian.

Given a free ride to a top-tiered school only a few blocks from her house, Renee continued to excel, finally needing special permission from the dean to take a class load as heavy as she wanted. Eating, exercising, socializing went by the wayside as she pulled a Hermione Granger, seemingly accomplishing the impossible with the amount of time spent in learning and studying.

Her mental breakdown junior year was severe, profound, and not unexpected.  A year later Renee’s parents watched as their Renee’s twin scraped by with no honors but with, thank the Lord, a diploma, at the local college, and as the rest of Renee’s class turned the tassels on their graduation caps, indicating they had completed one more of those tasks that set them on the road to independent adulthood.

Their daughter, on the other hand, was still in and out of hospitals, and, as a more-honest-than-one-would-have-hoped-for-psychiatrist shared, her prognosis was very poor.


Joan* had always felt insecure about her weight, which was, to call a spade a spade, definitely on the high side. She watched as her friends flirted with their boyfriends and coupled off, remaining, despite her deep desire for male companionship, almost stubbornly single.

It was a common topic of conversation at family meals, as her father tried to control her caloric intake, and her mother comforted Joan and apologized for her father’s ‘cruelty.’ Joan, a bright enough girl, under-achieved in high school, and attended the local community college, where she made few friends.

Invited to a bar one night by one of those friends, she met a foreign man–no one really ever figured out his origins, and Joan kept his secrets. We might say he swept her off her feet–not by his sheer romantic prowess, but by his ability to look at, engage with, and be interested in her. For Joan it was the proverbial love at first sight.  Jerry* was older, in his thirties, and in the country illegally, and generally signficantly restrained when discussing his background, but all that seemed as nothing to Joan when he took her out, spent time with her, kissed and stroked her.

Over significant parental protest–well, at least on Joan’s side (Jerry didn’t seem to have any family at all)–the two married in a small ceremony with Joan two months pregnant.

Jerry didn’t believe in birth control, didn’t believe in Joan keeping up steady contact with her own family, didn’t believe, apparently, in working (that is, his working–Joan worked hard as a part-time secretary to try to make a dent in the bills that just grew with each child), and, Joan’s parents later found, didn’t believe in keeping his fists away from Joan.

In a sign of how damaged Joan’s sense of self was, she never left, even as she had to take on a second job, which never quite worked, given childcare needs, even as her six children grew to fear their father, even as she had to try new makeup application techniques to hide her bruises, even as their debt accrued, despite her best efforts, due to Jerry’s impulsive spending.

It was Jerry who left. He was just gone one day, with nothing so much as goodbye, as a thank-you for the 10 years, the financial support, the brood of children. And once he was gone, creditors Joan hadn’t known about began to swarm around her, like flies on a dying man.

With no ability to pay the rent, let alone keep the kids in clothes and school supplies, with even full government benefits not cutting it for food and health care, Joan did what numerous single mothers before her have done: She moved herself and her children back in with her parents.


Sometimes, whether due to a learning disability, a serious physical or mental illness, or circumstances beyond their control, adult children do wind up back with and supported by parents–and the tough love approach I outlined in past posts is inappropriate.

What is the best way to encourage as much independence as possible in children who currently need full support, to get the parents’ needs met to best avoid frustration, and still allowing the parents to be parents–the ones children turn to when they have nowhere else to turn?

They do it by going to Plan B.


*As with all characters in this blog, there is no actual Brian, Renee, Joan or Jerry, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  Rather, these are teaching stores, compiled of bits and pieces from real lives, books or movies, and altered to make my points more interesting and educational.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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