Just when you think you’ve gotten accustomed to your adult child with special needs living outside the home, something happens.

Recently, my daughter was at a Christmas party. And all hell broke loose. First, a little background. Becky is 27 years old and lives with four other women in a well-run and caring group home a few miles from where we live. She has moderate intellectual disabilities, an active seizure disorder, as well as some challenging sensory issues.

She moved into the group home two years ago. The move was more traumatic for me than it was for her. She was ready! She acclimated within a few weeks and had no desire to move back home. “I love them, mom!” It took me months. There were a few bumps in the road, but overall, things were going well. Until that night!

I should have seen it coming. She had gotten overstimulated with performing in the chorus, the music was very loud, and her best friend was not paying any attention to her. She got very emotional and wanted me to do something about her friend. In the past, I would have ushered her out of the environment to a calmer, quieter place until she settled down. However, that night, her staff was with her. Staff, along with myself, as well as a well-intentioned party guest surrounded her, which, of course, only escalated the situation. The result: A monumental meltdown—a 190 lb. woman screaming and throwing herself on the dance floor.

Here’s the problem. The staff was directing her their way; I was directing her my way. It didn’t really matter who was right. What mattered was that she was getting two conflicting messages which made the situation far worse than it might have been. We were all pretty shaken up.

After I got her back to the group home, I went home and had a long talk with my husband and son, basically about my role in Becky’s life. For the first time, it dawned on me that Becky was no longer mine to control. She now lives with someone else. And she needs to respect the rules of the house where she lives. This was an important “a-ha!” moment for me.

Letting go of your adult child with special needs is different than letting go of your adult child without special needs. You find yourself holding on too tightly—the same way you would if you were crossing a busy street with a young child. Often, they will hold on just as tightly. Sometimes their maturity is so slow that you don’t even notice that they are now adults. But they need to find their own way—with support, yes, but their own way.

What I needed to understand was that Becky was truly living her own life outside of my control. It’s ironic, because that’s what I always wanted for her. I was finally getting it. She was living her own life. I just didn’t know it! My role has changed. My hold on her has changed. It’s not that it has gone away, it’s just different.

The experience, as painful as it was, helped move me to my next step in parenting. It moved me towards treating her as an independent woman who lives in her own place. That means I can’t just march in there as you would with a child. Obviously, this does not include times when speaking up is necessary. But it does acknowledge that Becky is now living her own life, and she has to deal with the demands of living in a group home with staff and four roommates. That’s her job.

My job is to continue loving her. I am now just a mom, a more enlightened mom, but still, just a mom who will encourage her to make a life for herself, rather than my always designing it. In many ways, it’s a harder role to play—after years of building a life around her needs. But it’s one that was necessary for me to recognize. Of course, she was already doing it! Same as her brother, our adult son.

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