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How do I parent my emerging adult? (Part 2)


An emerging adult with their family drinking coffee while sitting under a tree

Parenting an emerging adult can be transformative, challenging, and exciting.


Emerging Adulthood is a pretty new developmental stage (see part 1 here), and many of us might feel less confident about how to be parents to 18-25-year-olds. It's common to feel confused, uncertain, left out, hurt, disappointed, and angry. Many parents walk on eggshells around their adult kids, afraid of "saying or doing the wrong thing". Managing expectations, encouraging independence and resilience, accepting your new reality, and changing how you respond can help you maintain a close relationship and help your adult kids navigate this phase of life.


Everyone is different and your circumstances are unique to you. That means you get to decide what is right for you and your family. Don't let social media or well-meaning friends and family tell you what you "should" do. We all go through developmental stages, and some transitions might be smoother or bumpier than others. That's normal. Don't compare your situation to someone else's.


Even though we are all different, there are some general characteristics of today's emerging adults. I've listed them out along with some tips to help be a supportive and helpful parent for individuals in this developmental stage:


Emerging Adults are creating and exploring their identity: This stage is characterized by an intense search for personal identity. Who am I? What do I like? Do I really like chocolate cake or am I just used to it? Where do my parents end and where do I begin? Emerging adults may change college majors, careers, relationships, hobbies, beliefs, and more. 


Scenarios: 

  • Your 18-year-old refuses to go to church or denounces their faith.

  • Your 19-year-old decides they no longer want to play sports in college. 

  • Your 20-year-old changes their political association. 

  • Your 22-year-old decides not to return to college their senior year. 

  • Your 26-year-old breaks up with their long-term partner, a person you have cherished as family. 

A young adult traveling solo


How you can respond: 

First, pause. Take some time to respond with calm and patience. This is not your life. Adopt a curious and supportive approach even though you may feel confused, disappointed, shocked, or angry. Try to understand where your adult kid is coming from with statements such as: 


  • "I am surprised you are doing this. Can you share why?"

  •  "Your dad and I are curious about this decision, can you share your plan?" 

  •  "We would love to hear about your adventures! How would you like to communicate with us?"

  •  "How can we help?"

Keep any advice, criticism, disappointment, fear, or anger to yourself. It sends a message that you do not believe your adult kid is capable of making their own decisions and closes the door to any logical, helpful, and healthy communication. Instead, talk, vent, and scream to someone you trust. 


Emerging adulthood is a time of unparalleled freedom and independence: this is a time of freedom that most kids have never experienced, and your adult kid may or may not be ready for that level of independence. They move out, move back home, attend college, travel, work, handle their finances, and are open to new experiences. Emerging adults take control of their lives


Scenarios: 

  • Your 18-year-old decides to move across the country. 

  • Your 21-year-old, who makes decent money but can't afford to move out, routinely stays out late, parties, and brings home one-night stands. 

  • Your 22-year-old works hard, but has taken out a few credit cards, and you noticed they are late with their payments. 

  • Your 24-year-old, who works in another state, will only talk to you once a month and refuses to answer texts. 


A group of emerging adults playing music in the street

How you can respond: (full disclosure: I know full well some of these scenarios can be devastating. My suggestions here are just a start, a way to have some hope (If you are having a hard time with these transitions, consider reaching out for an appointment). 


It's helpful to view independence as a spectrum. Emerging adults slide between dependent and independent depending on their circumstances. Emerging adulthood can be an unstable, uncertain time. For example, you may have an adult kid who left home at 18 for college, and seemed to be doing great, but moved home at 22 and doesn't know what they want to do with their life. You might be sharing your house with your responsible 24-year-old and their spouse (and their kids!), who have good jobs but cannot afford a house on their own. You might have a young adult who makes great money but is impulsive, reckless, and not ready to be on their own. See what I mean about your family being "unique"? 


Start by asking if they need or want your help. When talking to your 18-25 year old, adopt the role of "supportive mentor" instead of caregiver. Avoid giving unsolicited advice. It's best to ask first. 


An emerging adult couple walking through a field

Do not compare your adult kid to others. It's unfair and unnecessary. 


Life lessons can be hard to watch but are necessary as course corrections. 


If you have an emerging adult living in your house, you quite possibly have a roommate, depending on their circumstances. Are they able to pay rent? Even a small amount every month is a positive financial boundary, essential for independence and mutual respect. 


A group of young adults cooking in the kitchen

Regardless, having an adult living in your house means regular house meetings. Weekly or bi-monthly house meetings are essential, civil, polite discussions about housecleaning, cooking, visitors, or anything else that needs to be addressed. House rules are established and followed by everyone. Even Dad. 


Maintain a healthy respect for privacy.


Create strong boundaries for yourself ("I will not tolerate...", "I will no longer allow...", "I can" or "I cannot...", or, "It's not my business") and clearly state them. 

  • "I will no longer tolerate pot smoking in my home. If you continue, you will need to move out."

  • "I cannot control how my adult kid spends their money and I will stop worrying about it."

  • "It's none of my business who you date or sleep with, but I expect you to respect the house rules we all agreed to. If you cannot, then we will revisit the visitor rule at our next house meeting." 

Being a parent to 18-to 25-year-olds requires imagination, flexibility, and adaptability. Your 18-25-year-old is in a new, unique, transformative, and potentially challenging developmental stage that is focused primarily on their identity and independence. Your role as a parent has changed, and unsolicited advice, criticism, and parental rules may no longer be appropriate or helpful.


However, emerging adults absolutely need and want your understanding, support, and unconditional love during this chaotic developmental time. Curiosity and empathy help form new, exciting, fulfilling adult relationships with your kids.


Challenge your mindset. Your adult kid can make decisions regarding their identity and independence because you gave them a supportive foundationThey know you will always be there. You taught them to fly. Now step back and watch them soar. Pat yourself on the back, and trust that you did a good job.


Try to stay patient and calm. Use active listening and maintain open, non-critical, communication. You got this.


Don't hesitate to reach out for an appointment if you need help navigating this, or any, stage of life.





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