Parents typically come to my private practice to complain about their adolescent or young adult. They either explicitly or implicitly want me to advise them on how to change or fix them. Sometimes they are fortunate enough to coax their young adult to come in with them. If they do, they expect me to tell the young adult where they have fallen off the straight and narrow and convince them to make a course correction. Clearly, I don’t have that power. Even if I were a judge and the young adult were facing jail time, the young adult still may not be convinced of the need for a change of lifestyle. Parents may feel disappointed and discouraged with me, especially if I am seen as their last hope. This can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Parents Can Change First
There is some good news. Parents can change first. They don’t have to wait for the young adult to change. Parents can work on changes in their thinking and behavior and ultimately in their heart that can make a difference. A parent’s behavior change can foster a change in the relationship and possibly the young adult’s behavior. But there are no guarantees. One parent said to me that “the problem with young adults is that they are adults.” They are free to ignore efforts to control or influence them if they so choose.
A starting point for parent changes can be drawn from the writings of Jim Collins in his book – Good to Great. He describes the highest level of leadership (level 5) as one in which leaders look through a window when the people are doing well and compliment them. Then when the people are not doing well, these leaders look in the mirror and ask what they can do differently to help these people be successful? In applying this concept to parenting young adults, we need to look in the mirror and ask what change can we make that will be most helpful to our young adult?
Looking in the Mirror
Here’s some “looking in the mirror” advice.
- First, recognize our limitations to control and to be responsible for your young adults’ behavior. Both positions are irrational- they are adults who make and are accountable for their decisions and actions.
- Second, take time to send a message in word and deed that they are loved no matter what. Without this foundational guarantee, the relationship will suffer, and their self-worth will be at risk.
- Third, shift our mindset to focus and recognize positive behavior that is indicative of their appropriate striving for identity, independence, and healthy intimate relationships. Reduce the focus and drama around what they are not doing right. Such actions will often cause them to pull away or even increase their resistance to change.
- Fourth, it’s crucial to pick our battles, and when we find something that we can’t tolerate because it is a core value (i.e., honesty, keeping promises, etc.) we need to stick to our guns. If we don’t believe it is right to give our young adult money outright, we need to learn to say no. “No” is not a four-letter word and may be the most growth-producing message we can send to our young adult.
Finally, it is essential to do our own report card. By this, I mean to measure your success based upon carrying our changes and the behavior you believe is the best you can do as a parent. Don’t give your young adult your report card and allow their opinions to be the measure of your effectiveness as a parent. To do your own report card – look in the mirror. You may not get the changes you want to see from your young adult, at least in the short run, but you will sleep better at night, knowing you are doing your best as a parent.