Stop Projecting Your Anxiety onto Your Adult Child

Oct 19, 2017 by

Stop Projecting Your Anxiety onto Your Adult Child

If you have an adult children, you likely want nothing more than to see them happy, healthy, and successful. Unfortunately, your own fear that they will fail or be harmed can get in the way of allowing them to live their own lives.

Perhaps even more hurtful, projecting your anxiety onto your adult child will seriously harmful effect on the relationship.

Being a person who has struggled with anxiety, I understand this problem. I’ve had to learn better ways to interact with my own adult children in order to not only help them but to also maintain our relationship.

In this post, I want to share some essential tips I’ve learned over the years that you can put into practice today.

Acknowledge It’s Your Anxiety

The first thing you absolutely must do is to acknowledge that your fear is due to your own anxiety.

Sure, there are situations that your child might be in real danger where you need to step in. But these are more rare than you may be willing to accept. Unless it involves physical danger (not future physical health!) or risk of death, it probably is not necessary that you step in.

“But, but, but…,” you may say, “what about if they lose their job and can’t pay their rent? What if their habits lead to chronic illness? What if their choice in a girlfriend leads to a lifetime of heartache?”

Yep, none of these require your intervention.

Unless there is imminent danger, what you are experiencing is a creative imagination. Your mind is creating negative scenarios about the end result of your adult child’s behavior.

And there could be good reasons why you tend toward the negative and get into a panic. This is most likely a survival strategy you adopted long ago in order to cope with not knowing what to do with anxious feelings while growing up. This could’ve been due to chaos in the household due to a parent or child with an illness or addiction. Or it could’ve been an abusive or negligent parent.

However it developed, in order to respect your child, you will need to acknowledge that this is the way in which YOU handle fear.

Doing this serves to first of all name the feeling you are experiencing. This in itself can help to calm the emotion.

Say It Out Loud

I have found it to be even more powerful if you will say it out loud.

“Wow, I seem to be pretty worked up about what I’m imagining could happen.”

Or, “I’m getting myself wrapped up in running my child’s life because of the stress I’m feeling.”

It sometimes helps me to tell my husband, “I seem to be allowing myself to be more concerned about this than our child is.”

Doing this is like confession — it puts the responsibility on you for how you act. It also gives clarity about who’s responsible for taking action.

Instead of Projecting Your Anxiety, Learn Healthy Boundaries

But when you see your adult child making the same mistakes over and over, surely it’s time to step in, right?

Yes and no.

What you think is the right solution for them is really only your opinion. It is not fail-safe. You are not God and don’t know all the variables.

But, even if you knew for sure, you still shouldn’t declare the way.

In their childhood years, yes, it was appropriate as a responsible parent to protect and teach them. They needed you to tell them the way to go.

As adults, you are now a consultant. A consultant is one who is called upon to offer their knowledge and wisdom. However, someone hiring a consultant doesn’t have to accept the advice. It is their life and it’s their choice.

HOWEVER, you do have a right to say something about how your child’s behavior is impinging upon your own life. It’s as though their dog is pooping in your yard instead of keeping it contained within their own.

In this case, you can be assertive and state where the boundaries of your “yard” are.

Talk to Your Adult Child Differently

Now that your child is an adult, you cannot tell them what to do.

Not only do they not have to obey, but they will either ignore you or do just the opposite just to spite you.

Telling them what to do will put a huge wall between you.

My guess is, however, that you want to be close to this person in whom you’ve invested so much time and care.

They are important to you and you want to have a fulfilling adult-to-adult relationship with them.

Then YOU (are you seeing a pattern here?) have to change how YOU talk to them.

The way I describe this to my counseling clients is to imagine a large inflatable beach ball. This represents your child’s problem or dilemma.

Unless there are unbearable circumstances (such as sudden illness, accident, or unforeseen tragedy), your child needs to be holding and figuring out what to do with this beach ball.

They may, however, attempt to toss it to you to hold for them. They do this by ignoring their situation then allowing the fallout to land upon you to clean up.

If they do this, don’t hold onto it. Catch it only long enough to toss it back to them.

Here’s what this would look like in practice:

Adult Child: “Mom, I don’t have any clean clothes for work today.” [tossing ball to you]

You: “ Oh no! What a tough situation. I hate when that happens to me.” [empathizing]

“What are you thinking YOU’LL do?” [tossing ball back]


Adult Child: Sitting playing a video game late at night and having to get up early for college or work the next morning. [You feel like the ball has been tossed to you because they appear to not be taking action and YOU’RE feeling anxiety and it looks like they aren’t.]

You: “I don’t know how you do that, staying up so late when you have to get up early. I guess it works for you though. Myself, I wouldn’t be able to function the next day. But [tossing ball back], I know you’re smart enough to figure out what works best for you.” [You walk away before you try to take their ball away from them and make them go to bed.]

This type of interaction does three things:

  1. It convinces you of their capability.
  2. It shows them you believe they are competent (so they’ll be more likely to live up to that belief).
  3. It replaces your anxious feelings of helplessness and hopelessness with power and confidence.

I don’t know that anything is more valuable to a young adult than to know that their parents consider them competent to make good enough decisions without them.

People have a tendency to live up to the view we have of them.

Also, if you are projecting your anxiety onto your adult child, the alert you send to them isn’t about action for their situation. Instead, it conveys anxiousness about their capability. They therefore will collapse from their own fears.

At first this will be tough to do. You will struggle to give the ball back to them. And you will struggle to actually say the words stating their ability to figure the situation out.

It takes practice but it becomes more natural and you begin to pick up on evidence that, indeed, they really are capable.

Projecting Your Anxiety onto Your Adult Child

If you’re noticing your young adult pushing you away, my guess is you’re trying too hard to pull them in.

This very well could be due to you projecting your anxiety onto them.

But don’t do it! It keeps a young person from maturing. It also causes them to resent you.

Lastly, it can result in them giving up and only relying on you or others to provide a way for them.

A healthier and more satisfying relationship results when you each take responsibility.

On your end, take responsibility for your own anxious feelings along with your actions.

Change your thinking by naming what you’re feeling then choosing to look at how your child is perfectly capable of coming up with a solution, which may include consulting with someone to get ideas.

If your child asks for ideas, first toss the ball back to find out what they have considered and tried. Ask what they are considering trying next.

Only then should you give advice. You could even say, “Hey, I see you’ve got a tough situation here. I know you’re perfectly capable of thinking through your options. If you get stuck or need ideas, I might be able to help. If you’re good on your own, that’s great — I’ll let you be.”

Then you can walk away and focus on your own life.

If their problems are flowing over into yours, get my guide “50 Ways to Keep Healthy Boundaries.” (Click below to get started).

Then talk with a friend to figure out ways you can comfortably draw a healthy line without totally cutting off that person you love so much.

In my next post I’ll discuss what to do with anxiety you may have about wounds your child has experienced and the impact they’re having on their adult life.

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