Relationship Connection: I think I ruined my children

Photo by Bina Sveda

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.


My children are all out of the home now and I worry that I’ve really messed them up. They all struggle with their marriages, some have addictions, and some don’t have stable work. I honestly feel like it’s all my fault. My husband and I did the best we could, but it just seems like my kid’s lives are in shambles. Is there anything I can do at this point?


This is an important question that affects so many parents. It’s painful to see your children living lives that don’t reflect the values you tried to teach them. Let me reassure you that there is still much you can do to as it relates to your adult children.

Let’s start by debunking a popular myth about humans. The “blank slate” myth says that children are born as blank slates and parents basically create the kind of child they want on that blank slate. This has been proven false many times over in scientific research, not to mention through casual observation (especially if you’ve lived in a family for any length of time!).

The truth is that children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by a variety of things, such as their temperament, siblings, peers, environment, health, and, yes, their parents. A parent who completely blames themselves for their children’s behaviors ignores the complex reality of being human.

Give yourself a break and widen your lens. Own what you need to own as it relates to your influence as a parent, but also make room for all of the other factors that shaped your child. And, even if you were the worst parent in the world, please realize that your children would still need to decide how they wanted to live their lives. None of us are powerless to change the course of our lives.

Even though your children are struggling right now, it doesn’t mean this will define the rest of their lives. Granted, they may be digging themselves into holes that will be difficult to escape, but there is always hope that people can change. While your anxiety is understandable, it’s important that you don’t overreact and give up on them.

Another point to consider is that your role as a parent is no longer “manager.” Instead, think of yourself as an “influencer.” In other words, your behavior-changing days are over. If you believe that you should be doing something to help your children change their behaviors, you will not only drive yourself batty, but you will also ruin your relationship with your children and their spouses.

Influencing your children means that you continue to live the life you taught them to live. Be a stable base for your family. Let them see how great your life is and how happy you are living the life you choose to live. Don’t pressure them to live your life, but instead, support them and love them for being your children. Take an interest in their lives and find ways to interact with them.

I have a friend with a son, who decided to take up smoking pot, quit his job, and join a reggae band. This was devastating to my friend, but he realized he would lose connection with his son if he didn’t find ways to show up for him. So, he decided to show up at a couple of his son’s concerts to show his support and love for his son’s interests. Surprisingly, his son began reaching out to him and they were able to keep their relationship intact. The father kept boundaries and didn’t give him money or allow him to smoke in his house, but he treated his son with love and respect.

As you work to maintain a connection to your children, it will open up opportunities for them to see you as an influence and support when they begin making changes. Emotional support isn’t enabling. It provides the bridge between you and them. They may never choose the life you live, but since they are your children, your primary responsibility to them through life is to stay emotionally connected to them.

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