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The Untold Stories of Mothers Living with Difficult Adult Children


It’s a tale as old as time: Mothering is difficult. Raising children until they are old enough to leave their childhood home is a task that brings many joys, and many challenges. But what about the times when the child, now an adult, returns or never leaves? 

Judith Smith, Fordham GSS associate professor, gerontological researcher, and senior social worker, set out on a mission to research the effects of what she calls “difficult adult children” on mothers. In her new book, Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children Through Conflict and Change, she provides the untold story of mothering a challenging adult child, maternal ambivalence, and aging. Smith claims it is the first book to name this problem and illustrate it with the real-life stories of women who have lived it.

Smith and I sat down to talk about her research, the untold stories of these mothers, and some strategies mothers of difficult adult children can use to ease the challenge of their situations.

I see that you shifted your research area from young children to adult children for this book. What was the influence for that switch?

Well, I got older. My son got older. My friends’ sons and daughters got older. I saw many of them were struggling. As a child development researcher, I became interested in what had been written about mothering in later life. I was shocked to see the void regarding this topic. It was as if mothering ended when our kids were young adults and hopefully launched. 

At the time, I was also shifting my teaching to include courses on working with older adults. This was influenced in part by the many initiatives at Fordham to encourage that social workers study and teach content on aging. 

I also became more familiar with the dynamics of elder abuse, and that the primary perpetrator of what we call “elder abuse” is often the adult children who had mental illness or were abusing substances, living at home and dependent on their parents.

So, this dynamic surprised me. As a child development person, I wanted to understand it. I started a qualitative research project to understand this dynamic from the mothers’ point of view. I’ve always been interested in the internal experience of mothers. Now I wanted to know what older mothers were feeling if their kids were off track and not doing well.

Reading your website, this seems like this is a research area that’s been overlooked until now. Why do you think that is?

 As an identified social problem with empirical data it has been overlooked, in part because so many parents who have difficult adult children feel embarrassed, they feel ashamed, and don’t reach out for help. The larger societal problem of the invisibility of older women also contributes. And the fact that the data collected on elder abuse often does not specify who in the family was the perpetrator – the spouse or the adult child – leaves unmeasured how many older women are experiencing physical or verbal abuse by their adult children. In addition, often the reports of elder abuse do not identify if the victim was male or female. 

The fact that most people who are suffering with the problem will not openly talk about it also has kept the issue under the radar. Acknowledging that your adult child has a mental illness or is addicted to drugs and stealing from you, or physically attacking you, is something that most parents try to keep secret. They assume that others will blame them and assume that they were not “good mothers.”

So let’s talk a little bit about the word choice of “difficult adult children.” Obviously, it’s more than just semantics. What was the inspiration behind that labeling, and what does the phrase really mean?

Well, it’s interesting because I struggled with naming the book and naming the adult children “difficult.”  Several colleagues and parents when they have first heard about this name warned me that it might come across as pejorative. But the theme of “difficult” was what had come across in all the interviews. I had spoken to mothers of adult children with mental illness, mothers with kids with substance use, and mothers whose kids were unable to work — and the commonality among all of them was that the situation was really difficult for them as a mother. 

So, I could have called the book “Difficult Mothering,” but the women were telling me about their challenges as mothers because of their difficult adult children. I also saw the positive potential that offering readers the name provided. It is my hope that mothers might start saying “I have a difficult adult child” and experience this term as a useful way to talk to others about their situation. It is less pejorative than saying “my son is an addict” or “my son assaulted me.”

For each woman I spoke to, the situation was difficult. They wanted to protect their adult child and they also wanted to take care of themselves and have some “peace” in their later years.  But they saw no way to do both. If families can start framing their situation as “difficult,” there is an assumption that there might be avenues for making the problem easier. Obviously, as a parent you cannot get rid of your child’s mental illness, and you’re not going to cure your son’s drug abuse problem, but you can find a better (and safer) way to live with it.

Could you talk about some of the key strategies you discuss in the book for mothers with difficult adult children to find those solutions that make their situations easier? Are there some common themes?

First, you have to allow yourself to recognize that you are uncomfortable with your adult child’s behavior.  You have to let yourself “see”.  So many parents do not want to acknowledge that their child has problems.  

Then, once you acknowledge that there is a problem, you can begin to find out for yourself what you’re willing to change. 

Getting social support is extremely important in these situations. When a mother joins a group with other older mothers whose adult children are also being abusive to her, or groups offered by NAMI or Al-Anon, she can see different ways to handle her own situation.   

 Does there ever come a point where a mother has to get out of the mindset that she has to be the one to protect her child, which you say is felt by many as “if not me, then who?” and consider cutting off?

Definitely. Usually this happens when a woman’s own life is at risk. 

Learning to set boundaries and keeping oneself safe is what many social workers and counselors in the elder abuse community offer their clients. 

And I would have to think that, in some cases, the parent allows the child to stay in their life because the parent is frail and needs someone to help with both their physical limitations and possible loneliness.

Yes, and it is more difficult to set firm boundaries and/or cut off if you are physically dependent on your adult child. For those who are frail and can’t get out of the house and are relying on the adult child to buy groceries or fill their prescriptions, cutting them off can be dangerous. 

A study was done in Appalachia by Karen Roberto and colleagues from Virginia Tech. They used data collected by Adult Protective Service workers that documented how adult children/caregivers were stealing their parents’ prescribed pain pills and using them themselves. Many of the mothers were aware of the problem but covered up the situation. They knew that their adult children were breaking the law, and depriving them of their own pain medications, but they would lie and tell their doctor, I flushed the pills down the toilet rather than indict their child. It’s a terrible no-win situation that is connected to the holes in our nations’ safety net for older people, and the holes in the safety net for vulnerable adults with mental illness and drug abuse.

Back to your point about loneliness, I think the label some people will use for mothers living with difficult adult children is enabler. They say, oh she’s an enabler; she’s enabling the situation. I’m sure there are some parents who infantilize their kids for their own needs, but I do not believe that enabler is a helpful term. It blames the victim. 

Do you think this problem has been/will show to have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with people losing jobs, moving back home, and suffering from more anxiety and depression over their situation and their health status?

Certainly. Domestic violence went up during the pandemic, and elder abuse did, too. One person whose story is included in the book described that exact situation. Her son lost his job and moved into her one-bedroom apartment. He was depressed and unable to control his moods or temper. He threatened to kill her and kill himself. She luckily called 311 and got connected with an elder abuse social worker who provided her with strategies for staying safe.

Many of the adult children who initially moved in with their parents during COVID have been able to since move back out. The difference with difficult adult children is that none of the mothers saw this as a temporary issue. They were not boomerang kids. The mothers didn’t think that kids were going to bounce back and be okay. 

Can this book be used also as a tool for social workers to educate themselves about these types of situations? 

Yes, and not only social workers, but also physicians. Most times, when women are being treated by a physician, the physician asks, do you live alone, and the mother answers, no, I live with my son, the doctor thinks, oh, that’s nice, there’s someone at home. But hopefully Difficult will remind them to ask more questions to ascertain whether there are possible risks for the mother by living with her adult child. 

Anything we missed today that you’d like to speak about?

The book not only names a social and personal problem, it also includes many resources for families. There are about forty pages linking readers to social service agencies, national hotlines, and legal assistance. While this is a problem that doesn’t have an easy fix, there are resources for getting help—but most people don’t necessarily know where or how to locate them.   

I hope that this book reaches the families who are living with difficult adult children. If I can reach the millions of parents who have adult children with serious mental illness and/or drug abuse disorder, I will be offering a needed lifeline to many people. 


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