Note: this article was originally published on April 21, 2021 and revised on October 16.
One request I make of parents of young adults who come to see me in my private practice is to construct a list of actions they will do and won’t do as well as specific expectations they have of their young adults. One of the biggest challenges parents have is deciding when to support their young adult and when to let go. Actions that say “we love you and you matter, but we also believe you can move forward into adulthood.” How do we combine love and backbone in our approach to our young adults? This is the heart of my book entitled: Parenting Our Young Adults with Love and Backbone.
4 Ways to Demonstrate Love and Backbone
First, parents need to face the limitations they have in controlling or even influencing their young adults. There are several false assumptions or beliefs that set parents up for failure:
- I can control my young adult and their decisions and behavior.
- I am responsible for my young adults’ decisions and behavior.
- I will explain and therefore excuse my behavior or my young adult’s based on our history.
Consciously or unconsciously, we still believe that we can get them to do what we want them to do even though they are adults by society’s standard. When they don’t land on the straight and narrow path, however we define that, we beat ourselves up and feel like a failure as a parent. Furthermore, we tend to excuse irresponsible behavior because of something they or we did in the past (i.e. a divorce). Consider that our problem may lie more with holding onto these three assumptions than the actions of our young adults. So, challenge this “stinking thinking” every time it creeps into your psyche.
Second, parents need to construct what they will and will not do for the young adult with three questions in mind:
- Are my actions and decisions motivated by love or hurt, anger, frustration, and guilt?
- Are my actions and decisions aligned with my beliefs and values?
- Are my actions and decisions likely to foster greater independence and self-sufficiency in my young adult or greater dependency?
Third, we need to be clear with our young adults about our expectations of them, so they know and understand these. But understand this is an area that we can’t control, and they may have to face the consequences of their actions which may involve moving out of the home or the reduction of supportive resources.
Fourth, we need to evaluate the effectiveness of our approach based upon our adherence to the criteria above and not on how receptive the young adult is to our approach. This is what I call “doing your own report card.”
The Source of Unhappiness
Many parents hand their report cards to their young adults and are upset when the young adult is angry, resentful, non-compliant, abusive, and in other ways tells us we have failed. Holding your ground, especially if you have been a bit lax in the past, will likely generate a lot of resistance and challenge initially. You are changing the expectations or rules in a way the young adult doesn’t like, and naturally, they will be unhappy. We need to try to focus on what we can and can’t do, which is under our control, not the young adult’s response, which is not under our control. This is not to say we don’t share our desires and hopes for the young adult, but we don’t make the attainment of these the source of our happiness.
Parenting Do’s & Don’ts
You may be thinking – “Okay, what are some examples of appropriate do’s and don’ts?” On the “do” side, there are some different categories to consider.
- First, consider how you will approach your young adult. These can include acting in love, being honest, being willing to listen and trying to understand decisions, supporting independence, keeping promises, being consistent in messages from parents, and following through.
- The second set of do’s relates to tangible ways we can support their goals. I generally encourage parents to take or share responsibility in areas that could be devastating if neglected by the young adult. These include helping with the cost of health insurance, car insurance, and any counseling help that they seek.
- Finally, parents may consider helping with education, shelter, food, transportation, and cellphone costs depending on the situation and a parent’s resources. On these types of actions, there are some caveats. Ask yourself the three questions outlined above. As much as possible, deliver resources after the young adult has met specific expectations and/or use a matching approach where it is not just welfare, but they must pony up some amount of money or effort to receive your tangible support.
On the “don’t do” side of the ledger are actions on the young adults’ part that you will not accept and things you will not do for them.
- On what you won’t do, consider things like giving money, buying discretionary items (e.g., clothes, video games, etc.), driving them places, paying their cable or phone bill, doing their laundry, making appointments, cleaning their room or their apartment if living away from home.
On “expectations,” parents need to differentiate between “deal breakers” and reasonable requests of the young adult. Deal breakers, if living at home, are behaviors that will not be tolerated and will be an indication that the young adult does not agree with or is not willing to abide by these rules and is choosing to live elsewhere. Note: you are not kicking the young adult out. They can indicate that they want to live elsewhere by moving out or not complying with the deal breaker expectations. Some examples are illicit drugs in the house, violence, or threats of verbal or physical abuse or threats, destruction of property, stealing, dishonesty, girl, or boyfriends sleeping over if there is a rule against this. If living outside the home, support for their education may be contingent on them getting passing grades.
I suggest to parents take a sheet of paper and use specific bullet points to complete the three lists above – do’s, don’ts, and expectations. The to do list should include any requests by the young adult that you believe you are willing to meet as well as those you are already meeting. Then review this with your young adult, negotiate where possible but prepare to stand your ground particularly on the deal breakers. It is also important, if you are a two-parent family that the two parents agree on all items on the sheet and commit to following through on these.
Note: These are general guidelines, and each parent needs to consider the circumstances, particularly where there may be a young adult with special needs. We’re all trying to do our best; the more we act in love and in support of what will be helpful to foster responsible independence, the better. We’re all a work in process, and neither parents nor young adults have experience with these new roles nor an operating manual that gives us all the answers.
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