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Being there for the breakup Add to ...

A friend called me, her voice quavering. She was in the middle of a romantic breakup. She really liked the guy, and had envisioned him in her future. But now it was over, and she was feeling sad and overwhelmed.

The only problem? It wasn't her breakup - it was her 20-year-old daughter's.

My friend spent the next few months on the other end of the phone with her daughter, away at university - intense quasi-therapeutic discussions into the night that left her exhausted the next day.

Looking back, my friend shudders at her level of involvement. She understands now it was born of a genuine desire to help her heartbroken daughter, coloured also by the emotional residue from her own divorce. She wanted her daughter to be happy in a way she had not been.

But, she vows, never again: "I will not get involved in any of my kids' relationships unless they are actually getting married."

We're familiar with "helicopter parents" who hover over their university-age kids and swoop down to solve their school problems. We've heard of parents micromanaging their kids' job searches. But are we also too enmeshed in our children's love lives?

Having just been at the other end of the therapeutic phone call myself, helping a child through a breakup, I do have a few discomfiting thoughts.

I wonder whether this generation of kids rely too heavily on parents for the kind of emotional support that, when we were their age, came almost solely from our peers.

(Back then, who trusted anyone over 30?) I also wonder whether they tell us way too much about their personal lives.

Finally, I wonder whether we are, as one expert put it, "creating fragile adults" in our zeal to "be there" for our kids as they navigate perfectly normal speed bumps on the road to adulthood.

After all, we've allowed them to regularly offload their headaches and heartaches onto us, sometimes leaving us drained while they, feeling so-o-o much better, go off for a beer with their friends. (One university student I know says she calls her mother at work several times a day "mostly to talk about boys.")

Today's technology - text messaging, cell phones, e-mail - facilitates the kind of minute by minute updating on minor crises that most parents in the past would thankfully not have been privy to. Perhaps we boomers are not so much helicopter parents as venting machines.

But consider how previous generations handled these life issues: One 80-year-old grandmother I know remembers her dating years, in which she was very popular in university and had no end of gentleman callers, one of whom proposed marriage after a few dates. Her parents were appalled - you're way too young for this, they told her - and forbade her to see him. It didn't occur to her to rebel.

Today, even parents who talk incessantly with their kids about their relationships have no illusion they have even a smidge of control over who their children date or even marry.

"We don't condone, we don't say anything, we just make sure the kids are supplied with birth control," says one mother who chooses not to be involved.

But because kids today are much more open with their parents about their sexuality and feelings, Toronto family therapist Diane Moody says, " this puts us in more situations where our opinion matters to them."

In general, Ms. Moody says, we have to resist getting too caught up in their romantic difficulties.

"Growing up is largely about taking responsibility for oneself. If we get overly involved, we thwart that process."

Yet this generation of kids conduct their love lives in a way that makes it difficult for us to stay aloof. That openness can be a positive: We can make a difference in how they view healthy or unhealthy relationships because occasionally they actually do listen to us.

And because some parents allow their children to have 'sleepovers' at home with their significant others, the boyfriend or girlfriend quickly becomes a family intimate, another tousled head over the Shreddies.

You can moralize about this, but many parents rationalize that the kids are having sex anyway, they're in a committed relationship, and to spend time with them you need to let them be at home.

However, I know parents who have tried the sleepover on for size and then backtracked after a breakup, deciding this privilege was only for the very committed - we're not running a hotel here.

Most times, their offspring actually won't disagree. "Parents are not informed of one-night stands," says one young man. (In other words, we should also not assume they're telling us everything; of course they're not, thank God.)

Perhaps it all comes down to this: Many boomer parents proudly believe they have a far better relationship with their kids than they did with their own parents. They are thrilled that the closeness results in a continuing dialogue and a sense of trust on the part of kids that their parents will, well, "be there" for them.

My friend, the briefly over-involved mother, is much more sanguine now about her daughter's ability to handle her romantic ups and downs. And if there is one piece of romantic advice she would give each of her children it's this: "The end of a relationship is not the end of the world - we do get over it."

Even if we're just the parents.

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