Young adults experience a range of challenges, not the least of which is the classic developmental tasks of identity, independence, and intimacy (the three I’s). In fact, most struggles of young adults can be understood as an effort to address these three tasks in healthy or unhealthy ways. If you listen and observe you will see these. The harmful habits stick out like a sore thumb – failures at work, school, and relationships, not to mention complications arising from mental health and substance abuse concerns. So what’s a parent to do?
Adopt a Mindset
The way we think about our young adult, our role, and our relationship will affect what we do and how we feel. Here are two irrational beliefs that many parents may hold:
- I can and must control, fix, or change my young adult. If we hold onto this belief, we will experience much frustration and suffering.
- I am responsible for their decisions, behavior, and wellbeing. If they are over eighteen, there are natural consequences to unhealthy choices that are out of our hands.
What are the rational beliefs that parents can adopt?
- I am responsible for my decisions, behavior, and wellbeing.
- I never stop loving my son or daughter for our sake as well as theirs. We can’t let their behavior, no matter how rejecting or destructive cause us to withdraw our love. If we do we lose, they lose, and the relationship suffers.
Actions Under Our Control that Can Change Us, if Not Our Young Adult
Although, as irrational belief #1 states, we can never control our son’s or daughter’s actions, there are some sources of influence that can support a help-seeking response on their part:
- Love them unconditionally and communicate this. Sometimes this is the only thing we can do, but it’s so important. In their darkest times, if they know they are loved, in spite of their actions, it can be lifesaving.
- Make special efforts outside of the home, in some neutral space, to truly try to understand them by listening without judgment. We may have conflicts on occasions but establish a regular time out space where conflicts, lectures, and challenges to their behavior are off limits. This creates a bridge to a more adult to adult, positive relationship that can emerge in the future.
- Raise your concern with your young adult and ask them if they are concerned? Indicate you are not a professional and you don’t know how concerned you should be. Ask them to rate their concern on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being extremely concerned and 0 not concerned at all. If they say “0” you are back to 1 and 2 above because the message is they do not believe they have a problem or just don’t want help. If their rating is something different than 0, you can ask them what concerns them about their behavior. If they share this, then introduce a solutions discussion – see #4.
- Approach your young adult with a focus primarily on solutions and not the problem or them as a problem. A problem focus can trigger defensiveness. It’s best to start with how much you love and care about them but acknowledge that deciding on how they will deal with a concern is their decision and responsibility. Indicate that you would like to offer to explore some solutions with them. Even though we can’t make the decision for them, we can affirm them and express the belief that they will figure out the right action to take.
Begin to propose different solutions starting with doing nothing. This could be followed by talking with a trusted friend. Another option is to speak with an adult whose opinion they trust. Finally, offer a choice of seeking out a professional where they could have a private conversation and explore ways to address their concerns. Be sure to elicit their options first. Put all of the decisions on the table – literally write these out or put them on a 3X5 card – and then ask them which one or two they would want to pursue.
Seeking Professional Help
Having young adult children who are in trouble in various ways but refuse help can feel almost unbearable, but we have to let go and allow them to find their own answers. This doesn’t mean we don’t care. We can always offer our ideas as a consultant who leaves the decision in their hands. At a minimum, we need to take care of ourselves by finding support through our spouse, best friends, or talking with a professional. It may be their problem, but our love for them leads to our suffering if only for the fact we can’t help them. Here are two statements we can tell ourselves to get us through this stage of development.
- My son or daughter is a work in progress. Brain development continues into the mid-twenties; marriage is delayed until the late twenties and settling into a steady job as part of a career isn’t happening until the early thirties.
- This too, shall pass. Their behavior and the way the relationship is today will change over time for the better. Stay hopeful and optimistic.