Parenting adult children is more challenging than I anticipated.

When my three twenty one year old daughters were younger, I had an easier time figuring out my role as their mother. If they were hungry, I fed them. If they needed help with their homework, I sat with them. If they fell down, I picked them up and nursed their wounds. If they were having trouble in school, I picked up a phone to consult with their teacher. If their behavior was out of line, I addressed it. If they needed to be somewhere, I drove them.

When my daughters began to reach for their independence, it became time to take off the training wheels, let go of the back of the metaphorical bicycle, and let them ride away on their own. As a result, my role as their mother has shifted. It’s far less defined and delineated.

I assumed that letting go was a permanent act, but this is not always the case. As important as it is to know when to let go, it is sometimes more crucial to know when to reach out and grab back on. To me, this is probably one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. We raise our children to be independent. We want them to spread their wings and fly away. But if one of their wings gets damaged, sometimes it is necessary to swoop in and take hold of them before they plummet. Other times, they need to fall in order to learn how to get up on their own. The correct course of action that we need to take as parents is rarely obvious; and to make things even more complicated, what is right for one child can be dead wrong for another.

As the parent of an adult daughter with anorexia, I struggle with the balance between involvement and detachment, between holding on and letting go. As much as I want to let go, sometimes my daughter needs me to hold on. And as much as I want to hold on, sometimes my daughter needs me to let go.

I read an article a few weeks ago written by a father who lost his thirty one year old daughter to anorexia. One of the things he wrote was that his daughter begged not to be hospitalized. She was an adult who had been living independently for years. She was a paramedic who knew full well what the effects of starvation are on the human body. She was the kind of good, solid person who had gained her parents respect over the years; and as such, they did not want to force her into the hospital against her will.

My heart goes out to those parents because I understand. I understand how quickly an eating disorder can possess a person’s mind and destroy a person’s body. I understand how anorexia can look like a shadow; one second you see it and the next second you aren’t quite sure whether it was really there. I understand wanting to believe that your child has enough inner strength to battle her demons and come out the victor. I understand the desperate desire to believe your child when she says that she’s got things covered on her own and that everything will be okay. I understand how counterintuitive it feels to pull your independent daughter back toward you; what guilt feels like when you invade your child’s life that should, by all accounts, be hers alone to run.

Identifying when your adult child is in over his/her head and knowing when to intervene is rarely simple. When your child has anorexia, it is that much more complicated. More often than not, someone with anorexia will deny the severity of the illness. She will say that it’s under control, that she is handling it, that she can get better on her own. If that child is an adult, it may feel wrong to intervene. In addition, it’s hard to force help on someone who doesn’t want to take it, even when that person is your own child, and especially when that person is an adult.

For me, the decision to step in and get involved in an adult child’s life is one of the most difficult parenting dilemmas imaginable. There are at least two sides to every situation, pros and cons to be weighed, consequences to be considered, and variable outcomes to be evaluated. Throw in the bottomless depth of a parent’s love, the paralyzing fear of making a critical mistake, the endless game of devil’s advocate, and a healthy dose of self doubt, and the decision at hand becomes positively agonizing.

If only I had a crystal ball.