Mothering Challenging Adult Children: Difficult Mothering

The following is an essay drawn from a forthcoming book, Difficult: Mothering Challenging Children Through Conflict and Change (Rowman & Littlefield, paperback, April 2024), by Judith Smith, PhD.

Jillian, at age 76, described her situation as being like a mule held back by a harness. The harness was her commitment to providing shelter and safety to her daughter, Celia, who had her first psychiatric break at 22. The next 20 years in Jillian’s life were framed by finding and re-finding new apartments for her daughter. She moved Celia 21 times in 20 years, setting up each place with new curtains, new dishes, and a hope that this time it would work out.

And every time, Celia’s mental illness reemerged in the form of paranoia, which triggered her anxiety, fights with neighbors, and recklessness. Friends thought that Jillian’s doing the same thing over and over again was pointless. Others said she was only being a good mother. Jillian explained to her friends that she had to keep doing what she was doing over and over again because Celia “needed to eat … she needed a place to live.” She believed her efforts were necessary to protect her child.

Jillian was one of 50 women I interviewed in my research project on how older women are affected by their adult children’s problems. Most mothers of difficult adult children do not have the resources that Jillian and her husband did. The women I spoke to had diverse resources: some were poor, some were affluent; they were black, white and Hispanic; their adult children’s problems varied.

Despite the unique circumstances of the women’s lives, I discovered many commonalities in their stories. Nearly all had re-opened their homes to their adult child when they had nowhere else to go and could no longer support themselves. Many of the adult children had mental health problems or substance abuse disorder—or both. None had expected their own later years to be framed by being once again a “parent.”

‘Looking after the well-being of a young child is not the same as protecting an adult child.’

The types of protection and mothering work they provided went beyond offering shelter: they provided food; advocated for daughters or sons during psychiatric hospitalizations; gave advice (often unwanted); took care of grandkids; paid for psychotherapy; chauffeured a son to a methadone clinic; and “put up with her” as one mother succinctly put it.

The commonalities of the mothers’ attempts to fix a complicated situation in their adult children’s lives led me to search for a name to describe what I was seeing. I ultimately coined the term Difficult Adult Child. I chose this name to acknowledge not just the challenges faced by the grown children, but the hardships passed along to the mothers who cared for them. If “difficult” seems a harsh label—one that blames, not just identifies—consider how the dictionary defines the word: 1. when something is hard to do or carry out; 2. hard to deal with, manage or overcome, and 3. hard to understand. Mothering adult children is hard to do. Tolerating the tensions in a relationship with a struggling adult child is extremely hard to manage. Understanding the problems that might have caused your child’s situation is hard, and knowing how to intervene can feel impossible.

There’s no shortage of opinions on what it means to be a good mother. No shortage of saccharine quotes as to how a woman’s fulfillment is based on her child’s happiness. “You are only as happy as your least happy child.” “Being a mama isn’t the easiest job you’ll ever have, but it’s definitely the best.” Consider, too, how one of the oldest images, that of the Madonna, exemplifies the view of the dedicated, selfless, nonsexual, faithful woman devoted only to her son.

Every mother measures herself against the particular images, or myths, of motherhood within her culture. “Intensive mothering” has become the norm and mothers today spend more time on childcare, whether or not they work outside of the home, than their mothers and grandmothers did, often sacrificing time with friends or for hobbies.

Looking after the well-being of a young child is not the same as protecting an adult child. Mothers of young children foster the growth of a being whose emotional, cognitive, sexual, and social development changes every day. It can be a fascinating and enriching experience. In contrast, mothers whose adult children may be depressed, anxious, mentally ill or despondent are immersed in a relationship that offers none of the magic a young child can provide. Instead of witnessing daily changes, parents of a difficult adult child often feel trapped in their child’s despair and bad decisions. The interaction may be additionally strained because the adult child resents her new dependency on her parents and may become sullen, uncommunicative, and angry. This is a hard burden for a mother to bear.

Parents of Difficult Adult Children May Feel Trapped in Children’s Bad Decisions

An older mother who willingly interrupts her life when her adult child is in trouble because “that’s what a mother does” is demonstrating what sociologists refer to as the “societal norm of intergenerational solidarity.” Parents will protect their children in need, even when those children are adults. Yet, side-by-side with this notion is the belief that it is a parent’s job to usher in a child’s ability to become an independent adult. These two obligations require opposite behaviors and create ambivalence for all parents. No wonder parents struggle with how much financial and emotional support to give their adult child. “Am I hindering my child’s independence by helping him out?” There’s no easy answer to this common question.

The relationship a mother has with her adult child is the longest phase in the parenting career, lasting 50 or even 70 years. Yet, no one has come up with a model to describe how this relationship changes over time. Most parenting books end with adolescence, perhaps with a little attention to the “launching stage” when children are in their early 20s and assumed to be on their way to living independently. As of yet there is no agreed upon name for the stage in life in which an older mother has to resume worrying about and trying to protect her adult child.

‘One mother feared that others would judge her poorly and assume that she did not instill the right values into her son’s life.’

One sociologist used the term “linked lives” to describe how changes in the lives of adult children impact their parents and vice versa. I suggest the name for this maternal work as “difficult mothering.” When adult children get into a situation where they can no longer support themselves and/or have no place to live, “difficult mothering” begins. It is “difficult” because it is not what most mothers hoped for or expected for their adult children. Nor was being responsible for another what they imagined for themselves in later life. As both mother and adult child adapt to a new and unexpected dependency of the adult child, both live with the uncertainty as to when this will come to an end.

The women I spoke with came from diverse backgrounds with varied resources at their disposal. Nevertheless, the one resource common to all the mothers I spoke to, was a home, no matter how small. Whether they rented or owned, they could provide shelter. In fact, all of the women I interviewed had opened their homes to their adult children when their “kids” were in the midst of a crisis with no place to live.

Many people assume that when adult children live with their older parents, it is the older parents who benefit. This belief is based on an antiquated notion in which a widow or widower with few resources is invited to live with their offspring. The assumption from years back is that older parents are physically and economically vulnerable, socially isolated, and in need of protection. Today, however, older people are on average healthier, live longer, have greater financial security, and value their privacy more than their predecessors did. It is the adult child who is the likely beneficiary in an intergenerational household.

There are myriad issues that can interfere with an adult child’s independence, but the event that usually triggers a move into a parents’ home is financial. For the difficult adult child, a financial crisis may be compounded by personal factors such as mental illness, substance abuse disorder, unhealthy alcohol use, and depression. Parents who open their homes to their difficult adult children cope with more than the end to their “empty nest.” They have to deal with the realization that their adult child may have serious problems. Living with adult children who are dealing with mental health problems, emotional distress, financial issues or legal issues is stressful for parents.

Some parents feel ashamed that their adult children are not self-supporting and still need parental support. One mother feared that others would judge her poorly and assume that she did not instill the right values into her son’s life. She quoted scripture to me to illustrate her church community's teaching on the value of promoting self-sufficiency. “The Bible talked about treating the children in a way they should grow and when they grow older, they should not be part of you.” A parent’s sense of worth can be affected not just by their adult children's accomplishments, but also by their failures.

Much more is known about the stress on adult children when they become the family caregivers for their frail parents, than is known about the stress on older women when they become the default safety net for their adult children with serious mental illness and/or substance use disorder. “The wonderful before” is how Leslie referenced her family’s life before her son’s mental illness. Starting when her son was 16, her life became framed by her son’s 21 hospitalizations.

Deinstitutionalization in the 1960s brought important changes to the way we care for persons with serious mental illness. But the institutional system of care has not yet been replaced with the community-based system that was promised. Without safe, affordable and appropriate housing, help with reintegrating into school or work, and health insurance to pay for medication and services, family caregivers are left with an unfair burden. This mothering situation in later life is truly difficult in so many ways.

Judith R. Smith, PhD, LCSW, is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Services at Fordham University and lives in New York City with her husband. She welcomes feedback, questions, and conversation with parents, at

Photo caption: Author Judith R. Smith speaks to women at a book signing.

Photo credit: Courtesy Judith R. Smith