Learning to Let Go: Choice making for Adult Children with Special Needs

It can be difficult for any parent to learn to let their adult children go off into the world to succeed, and inevitably, fail on their own. The desire to protect is a strong one and may be especially true of parents of children with special needs. These parents may wonder what adult life could possibly look like for their children and whether their children could receive the same level of care and support from the world that they have at home.

The transition to adulthood is a long and ongoing process that begins in infancy and continues long past your child’s 18thbirthday as your child gradually becomes more independent.

Self-determination, which is about making choices and decisions that affect one’s own life, is an important aspect of fostering independence (PBS, Mitchell, 2012). In fact, choice-making is viewed in Western society as part of transition to adulthood (Mitchell, 2012).

Encouraging self-determination and choice-making does not mean allowing your child to make every single decision that impacts his or her life. But it does mean gradually relinquishing parental control in order to allow your children to develop the skills and self-confidence necessary to manage doing some things on their own.

In wanting to protect their children and keep them from harm, some parents of older children may even make decisions for their children without them being aware of the decision in the first place (Mitchell, 2012). There is a fine line between being a protective, concerned parent and becoming overprotective. Nevertheless, overprotective parenting, even with the best of intentions, can have a negative impact on your child’s self-esteem and perception of their capabilities (Sanders, 2006).

It is helpful to consider family choice-making along a continuum (adapted from Mitchell, 2012)

1. Exclusionary –

Here the aim is to protect the child. This results in the child not being involved in the choice.

2. Informative –

The aim is to help the child understand and participate in choice-making, but parents make the final decision.

3. Collaborative

Parents support and empower the child’s choice-making

4. Delegatory

The choice is completely handed over to the child.

Families may adopt differing choice-making styles depending on the decision at hand and the level of risk involved. For example, the choice of which school to attend may more easily fall into the informative andcollaborative,or evendelegatory, categories. However, the decision to undergo a life-changing surgery is more likely to fall into the exclusionary or informative categories.

Here are a few questions to consider as you think of ways to support the growing independence of your child (adapted from PBS.org) ….

  • What are our family’s ideas about becoming a successful adult?

  • How does our family make decisions? Do children have a say?

  • How might my child participate in decision making? In what ways does our family support choice making for our children?

It is every parents’ desire to see their children living to their full potential. Encouraging wise and appropriate choice-making is one way to watch your children grow and flourish as adults.




Sanders KY. Overprotection and lowered expectations of persons with disabilities: the unforeseen consequences. Work, 2006;27(2):181-8

Mitchell, 2012.Parents’ accounts: Factors considered when deciding how far to involve their son/daughter with learning disabilities in choice-making. Children and Youth Services Review, 34: 1560-1569.

Contributed by

Tamara Tatum, LMFT-Associate

Supervised by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S

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