Mothering challenging adult children

Happy Publication Day to Judith Smith, author of Difficult: mothering challenging adult children through conflict and change, which is published today!

Reading this very welcome book, I was faced with a barrage of emotions:  

  • Terrible sadness at the sacrifices made by so many women to keep their child as safe as they know how.
  • Anger at the expectations and prejudices in the attitudes of others towards mothers giving a home or a helping hand to their adult children.
  • Weary resignation in the knowledge that the public services needed to take over the care still do not exist in sufficient numbers.
  • A smile at the similarities in so much of the book with my own field of child to parent violence and abuse.
  • And a shout of joy that the book exists – an answer to so many emails and calls for help that I and others receive each week!

Dr Judith Smith is a senior clinical social worker, psychotherapist, professor and researcher in the field of gerontology. This book is based on 8 years of work in which she interviewed more than 50 women, over the age of 60, about their experiences of mothering children who returned home in later life, and whose behaviour was described as challenging – sometimes dangerous. She coined the expression “Difficult” to give a name to the experiences of women in this position, offering a phrase that encapsulated the ambivalence in their feelings as well as the day-to-day practicalities of life, without attaching blame. 

From the start we hear from a range of women about their lives, their hopes and fears. Learning that you are not alone, starting to speak openly about the issues, reflecting on the reality of choices available can begin a process of change in thinking. And the focus is very much on the mothers here – this is not a book about how you can make your child change what they do. Judith explores the ambivalence felt by the women she met, holding in mind both negative and positive feelings about children; and offering new ways to handle uncertainty. The truth is that the options available in terms of alternative care may be few and far between, through a combination of societal expectation and underfunding of public services. There is tremendous empathy for all these women throughout the pages. 

In the final chapters, Judith explores how the Stages of Change model can help to provide a framework for understanding what level of intervention might be possible; and then also looks at the different levels of support that are needed. Building social networks, devising self-care strategies, staying safe, and exploring avenues of help for the child – all sadly familiar for those working with younger children too. While the resources listed are generally for a North American audience, there will likely be enough similar in other countries to make this section useful too. 

There are different legal positions here, than with children and young people under 18, different recourse to law, remedies or responsibilities; but the bond that ties mother and child remains, with its complex emotional and societal meanings. So much resonates with my own work, not least the lack of understanding from both the general public and many in positions of authority. 

It will be good to have something to offer that growing number of people seeking help with their difficult adult children. Their numbers may be expanding for the reasons outlined by Judith, but I hope that that there is also a developing sense that others are in the same boat as more and more people speak openly about their lives. There are no easy answers, and it requires hard work, some practical, but also a lot of emotional work – but if you are ready for change then Judith offers this book for you. 

Judith R. Smith, Difficult. Mothering challenging adult children through conflict and change, Rowman and Littlefield, 2022

Judith welcomes feedback, questions and conversation with parents and can be contacted via her website, Facebook page and Twitter.



Filed under Book review

2 responses to “Mothering challenging adult children

  1. Jordan

    I tore through Judy Smith’s outstanding book “difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children” this past weekend, and all I can say is that it is an invaluable tool that every parent should read. While it certainly focuses on the ordeals facing mothers of difficult adult children who initially move away to later return home, parents dealing with (challenging) children of any age will greatly benefit from what Prof. Smith has to say.

    The love-hate relationship (i.e., ambivalence) with one’s kids throughout their lifetime; the shame we feel, and the blame we get from others, when our children are anything less than “perfect” or even … god forbid … “troubled”; the feeling of being torn in two between what the head knows is right but what the heart cannot accept regarding the tough love we sometimes must show our offspring; the chronic sorrow we feel about potential not realized – the life not lived – by our children – all are important areas that every parent faces at one time or another, and for many of us more often than we ever thought possible, and that Dr. Smith explores in depth.

    At some point, as Dr. Smith aptly notes, we come to realize that Hallmark (and Disney for that matter) has been fooling us – there are no easy answers or happily ever afters. Parenting is a complex, sometimes heartbreaking, life long struggle in many ways – even more so with difficult adult children. While there is no guidebook with all the answers, Dr. Smith’s insightful manuscript is quite a start.

    • Thank you Jordan for your comments. I am sure that Dr Smith will be delighted to hear that you found it so informative and engaging. I will pass on your appreciation to her. With very best wishes, Helen.

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