Do we sometimes “ghost” our kids because we are frustrated and disappointed with their attitude or actions? In other words, do we shut them out, stonewall, or ignore them? When I arrived home at the age of twenty-one proudly sporting a new scraggly beard, I was not well received. My mother said she had nightmares about me, and my father would not speak to me. It later occurred to me that my father was “shunning” me as a way of showing his displeasure (something he no doubt had seen with his father, who was raised Amish). We may not resort to shunning our young adults, but we can shut them out in other ways when we are displeased. Such actions, on our part, undermine the normal and healthy process of letting go. Our young adults can’t move forward with the moving on process in a healthy way if our relationship with them is broken.
Relationships with our children at any age is fundamental to their emotional health. It is no less important when they reach the launch stage of development. Experiencing a caring relationship with parents enables them to feel secure in venturing out into the world, not unlike a toddler who begins to explore distant corners of his environment. So rather than back off in efforts to nurture and connect to our young adults, we need to move closer.
Let me clarify this. I’m not talking about moving closer in a controlling or suffocating way; instead, move closer to reassure that we are here for them, we care, and we want the best for them. This may be challenging because they are likely moving away from us toward friends, a significant other, or non-family activities. Their actions should not be interpreted as a signal to back off. By continuing to demonstrate that we care and want a relationship with them, we are more apt to see them reciprocate.
5 Building Blocks for Healthy Connection
I want to propose five behaviors or building blocks that parents can undertake to stay connected in a healthy way with their young adults and thus support their path toward responsible independence. We can remember these building blocks by using the mnemonic – CLEAR:
- Compassion – Being a young adult these days is difficult. A large number of young adults are living at home (46% of young adults in New Jersey between the ages of 18-34 are living at home). The trend is for them to change jobs every two years. Having a desire and mindset to understand and appreciate that young adulthood is difficult, yet critical to establish and sustain a relationship with our young adult.
- Listen – Our ability to listen with openness and without judgment is a second behavior that is critical to connecting with our young adults. In this regard, trying to understand their world and their experience sincerely is crucial. It’s hard to be supportive or compassionate without understanding. Asking about their world without judgment and a need to critique, but with a genuine desire to understand them will invite them to share more. We have to remind ourselves that today’s world is much different for Millennials and Gen Zs than the world in which we grew up.
- Empathy – We not only have to understand as good listeners, what we hear our young adults say, but we must also tune into to how they are feeling. When we tune into our young adults emotionally, they “feel felt.” “Feel felt” is a term Daniel Siegel uses that describes a connection between what a young adult feels and our ability to feel that in our brain. He uses the word attunement to describe this ability to connect emotionally. When we feel what they feel, and they feel felt.
- Attend – We cannot understand or “tune in” to our young adults if we are not paying attention and accessible. This takes time and effort and is often a challenge with work pressures and other demands. Sue Johnson, in Hold Me Tight, discusses the need for couples to be accessible and responsive when there are opportunities to connect. This need applies no less to parent-child relationships. Being there for our kids can be challenging as they are often focused outside the family. However, it can be as easy as setting up a once every two weeks or once a month breakfast meeting where the aim is to listen and understand; lectures and arguments not allowed.
- Reflect – An important skill for us as parents is to reflect what we are hearing or experiencing in our communication with our young adults. Listening can’t be just nodding and saying, “I understand.” There is no way for a young adult to believe that we truly understand them and have tuned into their feelings unless we check out what we have heard. Summarizing or stating back what we have heard at the level of the message they are communicating as well as the underlying emotion shows we are truly connecting to them.
There is no recipe or magic sauce to connect to our young adults, but CLEAR can remind us of the essential blocks to build a stronger relationship both now and when they become independent adults. We can all do better as parents. For more ideas on connecting with your young adult see “Can You Speak Millennial” ese?” How to Understand and Communicate with Your Young Adult.