Parenting Your Young Adult Child

Parenting Your Young Adult Children

By Lisa Schainker, Extension Assistant Professor

Family

As a parent, watching your child become an adult can be extremely rewarding. After all, you get to see how years of hard work helped to produce this seemingly independent person you see before you. Yet for some parents, their child’s transition from a teenager to a young adult is one of the most challenging developmental stages to navigate. This may be because most 19- to 29-year-olds don’t believe they are adults (Arnett, 2000) and their parents tend to agree (Nelson et al., 2007). This leaves many parents feeling like there is still work to do when it comes to helping their children figure out who they want to be as adults, while at the same time determining how much support to provide (Nelson et al., 2011).

Below, we discuss five of the trickiest situations that parents may confront during this developmental transition, as well as some strategies for dealing with them.

  1. Let them know when it’s time to be financially independent.
    For many years, you’ve paid for their clothes and food, and you’ve probably had to endure pleading and begging when they wanted the latest toy or gadget. Many parents end up providing some financial support to their young adult children while they are finding their way (Schoeni & Ross, 2005). Common examples include paying for cell phone plans, helping with car payments, or covering health insurance premiums. At some point, they have to take responsibility for their own financial situation. So how do you reduce your support without making it seem like you are punishing them? Start by giving them a transition timeframe so they know what to expect and by when. Explain that you aren’t taking away support to be mean. You are allowing them to grow into a financially responsible and independent person. Let them know that you are giving them plenty of time to plan ahead so they can decide what steps they need to take and by when. They may need to find a roommate to help pay rent, find a higher paying job, or just save money by limiting how much they go out with friends.
  2. Let them make mistakes.
    When your children were younger, it was your job to keep them from getting hurt or doing things that would get them in trouble. That was necessary then because their brains weren’t ready and able to understand future or abstract consequences (Murdock, 2020). Even as your child becomes a young adult, chances are your instinct is to continue to step in to save them from making mistakes or poor decisions. For example, you may not approve of who they choose to hang out with or date, or not agree with how they spend their money. So how do you stand by and watch? First, remember that you have the benefit of experience and wisdom, and they do not. Second, keep in mind that this developmental stage is all about exploration and identity formation. There is a lot of learning that takes place by trying things for one’s self and finding that they didn’t work. Finally, as hard as it may be to let them make what seems like the biggest mistake of their life, your job now is to let them find their own way.
  3. Offer advice without judgement or expectations.
    As their parent, your role has always been to tell them what to do and their job was to do what you asked. As you support their growing independence, these dynamics need to change. So how do you manage to tell your child what you think without them resenting you for treating them like a child? Consider how you would approach a friend with advice and try to use a similar strategy with your young adult child. It often works best to listen without judging and let them talk through their problem until they come to their own solution. If they ask for your input, you should share it in a calm and neutral tone. It’s key for you to accept that they might not follow your suggestions and to respect their choices even if you don’t agree with them.
  4. Don’t enable them, empower them.
    Many parents want their children to have more than they did growing up and for them to be happy and successful. It can seem like giving them everything they could possibly want or need is the best way to support them. It might even make you feel good to do small things like their laundry, cooking their meals, or making their appointments. What’s the harm in helping if you have the time or financial means to do it? The answer is that you may be keeping them from learning how to manage their own life and all of life’s challenges. Just like you would for a friend, it’s okay to help them out when they run into a jam, but constantly catering to their needs isn’t doing them any favors in the long term. Try to empower young adult children to feel confident in their ability to rise to the challenges they will face, solve their own problems, and learn from their mistakes. Helping them develop resilience is one of the best resources you can provide. 
  5. What if you aren’t ready to let go?
    This final situation is hard for many parents. They have been such a big part of your life for so many years. The good news is, while you need to let go of the idea that they will always be your little boy or girl, you can welcome them back into your life as a friend. Take pleasure in seeing who they become and what they choose to do with their life and pat yourself on the back knowing that you helped them through their journey.

References

  • Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480.
  • Murdock, A. (2020, March 25th). The evolutionary advantage of the teenage brain. News. https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/evolutionary-advantage-teenage-brain
  • Nelson, L., Padilla-Walker, L., Carroll, J., Madsen, S., Barry, C., & Badger, S. (2007). ‘If you want me to treat you like an adult, start acting like one!’ Comparing the criteria that emerging adults and their parents have for adulthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(4), 665–674.
  • Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Christensen, K. J., Evans, C. A., & Carroll, J.S., (2011). Parenting in emerging adulthood: An examination of parenting clusters and correlates. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 730–743.
  • Schoeni, R. & Ross, K. (2005). Material assistance received from families during the transition to adulthood. In R. A. Settersten, Jr., F. F. Furstenberg, Jr., & R. G. Rumbaut. (Eds.), On the frontier of adulthood: Theory, research, and public policy. University of Chicago Press.