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The hardest part of parenting? When they grow up

The rebellious teen years are often thought to be the worst of parenting, but for mom Susan Engel, watching from the sidelines as her son endured setbacks proved more excruciating. She talks about how she dealt with her son's pain.

Looking back, developmental psychologist Susan Engel says that raising her three sons as young children was a breeze. As long as she hugged them a lot and kept their bellies filled with good food, things were pretty much OK.

But, Engel wrote in an essay for the New York Times last week, she realized she can't protect them now that they are 28, 25 and 19 and out in the world.

“When bad things happen, they need you like crazy, but you discover that the kind of help you’ve spent 25 years learning how to give is no longer helpful,” she wrote.

Her essay describes the agony she felt when one of her sons experienced a series of devastating setbacks last year. He suffered a permanent injury to his finger, was fired from a job he liked and had an awful break-up with a girlfriend.

“When you’re watching your kids grab onto life and jump into it and you watch them get knocked down like that, it’s really hard,” Engel told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday.

She wrote in her essay: “I longed for help. I thought of starting a support group for parents of adult children... Then I began to hear that others — the butcher, my neighbor, my oldest friend — were feeling a similar sense of anguish. Who knew?”

Engel says she was flooded with responses to her essay, with most of the comments expressing appreciation and understanding for the pain she has felt caring for older children.

“But some people said things like, ‘You call yourself a psychologist? You should back off, or you should have backed off years ago, or you’re a helicopter mom,’’ Engel told Guthrie.

Engel said she was simply “sharing the surprise I had experienced when my kids grew up and I realized I was launched into this whole new phase that I hadn’t really been prepared for.”

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to go through that pain,” said Engel, an author and senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College in Massachusetts. “I think it’s part of being a mom.”

Many mothers agree with her.

“I have three grown daughters with children of their own,” Peggy Card wrote on the TODAY Moms Facebook page. “Being a Mom to them does not end with age, if anything it becomes more difficult with the constant juggling of helping them out but encouraging them to learn and grow. Being a parent is a lifelong role.”

 And Engel wrote in her essay that she is learning to let go.

“I’m going to skip the support group. My new parenting plan is to buy a few books on Zen Buddhism,” she concludes.

More stories from TODAY Moms:

Your teen is no teacup: If you want to hold on, let go

'Bitterly disappointed' dad unloads on adult kids in email