Grieving Unfulfilled Expectations for a Child

Have you ever grieved a child? Certainly if one of your children has died you have. But there are other situations besides death where grieving is beneficial. Even before a child is born, it's natural to have hopes for that child, and those hopes can engender expectations—that the child will develop certain qualities, make certain choices, achieve certain things. We tend to steer our children in the direction of our expectations, but children don't always follow the path we hope for them. Our unfulfilled hopes can harden, producing negative emotions and prompting actions that can breed resistance or resentment in our child. Often, we and our offspring can get stuck in this negative feedback loop.

Grieving helps us face loses

Sometimes characteristics that must be grieved appear early in a child's life, such as a chronic illness or massive disability. More commonly, the things that need to be grieved don't appear until later, in adolescence or adulthood. Possible conditions and characteristics that may need to be grieved are substance abuse, violent tendencies, highly dysfunctional ways of relating to others, emotional problems, or failure to assume responsibilities suitable for the child's age. Most commonly, such conditions are eventually resolved, either through treatment, the shaping effect of consequences, or the gradual process of maturation. When such characteristics persist unchanged for many years though, it may be that they will never change and need to be grieved.

A woman I know (let's call her Joan) had five adult children, most of whom repeatedly behaved in ways that caused problems for them or others. One child went on drunken binges, another wasn't responsible enough to hold a job, a third cycled through relationship after relationship, each more tumultuous than the last. Joan was constantly worried about the goings-on in her children's lives. She tended to enable them, thinking that with just a little more help each child would turn the corner and everything would be alright. As with most enabling, hers was accompanied by efforts to control that in turn led to conflict. "Why do they resent me?" She wondered. "I do so much for them."

Finally, after the latest episode with her alcoholic daughter, Joan felt broken. "My kids don't have the lives I had hoped for them," she told her therapist, "and it looks like they never will." This was the start of a two-year period of grieving. By the end, Joan was less anxious and less preoccupied with the difficulties of her children's lives. She still enabled them some, but was aware when she was doing it and was careful not to use the help she offered as a means of control. She felt as if she were released from bondage to her children's problems and, for the first time since they were born, she could live her own life.

David's unwillingness to grieve

A biblical character who perhaps should have grieved for an adult child, but didn't until it was too late was David. Absalom, one of David's sons, killed Amnon, another Davidic son (2 Samuel 13:23-29). David mourned Amnon while Absalom fled into exile (vs. 30-37). Once, while grieving for Amnon, David longed for Absalom (vs. 38-39) and eventually allowed him to return to Jerusalem (Chapter 14). Absalom soon began denigrating David and stealing the people's affection (15:1-6), but David addressed neither Absalom's murder of Amnon nor his undermining of David.

Was David's failure to act due to his unwillingness to admit to himself that this beloved son was not the person he should have been? In other words, was David unwilling to admit his unrealized hopes for Absalom and grieve them? That certainly seems likely and David's inaction proved costly. Absalom rebelled, was killed by David's forces, and David experienced a much more profound grief than he would have had he mourned his unrealized hopes for Absalom earlier.

Grieving is for our benefit

Grieving unfulfilled expectations for a child is not meant to be a strategy for changing the child. Sometimes when a parent has grieved and no longer conveys expectations or tries to control, the child may start being more responsible. Behaviors and attitudes that occasion a parent's grieving are deep-seated though, and even after the parent has mourned, the child may continue on as before. The goal of grieving is not to change the child, but to free yourself from the anxiety, turmoil, and sense of desperation that the child's behavior causes in you. Note that the child whose behavior concerns you may be your grandchild rather your child. Grandparents also have unfulfilled expectations that have to be grieved.

So if you have a child or children who, as Joan put it, don't have the life you had hoped for them, consider how you are reacting to the situation. Are you still constantly worried and in turmoil, trying to figure out what to do to change the child? If so, it may be that you would benefit from grieving the hopes you had for that child. You are captive to your unfulfilled expectations and grieving them can free you.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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