The above design describes the approach or practices parents need to take to let go and launch their young adult children. Parents need to:
- Understand and relate
- Show unconditional love
- Say they are sorry
- Forgive their kids and themselves
- Learn to say “no
- Say goodbye
Let’s discuss each of these practices in a bit more depth to appreciate how strengthening and implementing these can make a real difference in the successful transition both parents and children need to make at the young adult stage of the family experience.
Understanding & Accepting Limits
There are three challenges to understanding and building our relationship with our young adults. The starting point for parents is to understand and accept the limits that exist to control, fix, change or manage young adult children. As one parent in a survey I conducted stated – “the problem with young adults is that they are adults.” If we want to have a better relationship with our young adults, we need to change how we think. As hard as it is for all of us, we must come to a point where we adopt a mindset that embraces the following assumptions:
- We can’t control, change, or fix our young adults.
- We are not responsible for their decisions or actions.
- We are accountable for our decisions and actions.
- We cannot use the past to excuse our actions or our young adults.
We can avoid much pain and suffering if we adopt these assumptions. Whenever we suffer, it’s essential to ask if we have not accepted one or more of these assumptions. We may keep trying to fix or change our young adults and end up angry, hurt, fearful, or frustrated. Or we may fail to say “no” or set limits because our young adult has had a problematic history, or we excuse inappropriate behavior because we feel guilty about our decisions or actions.
Increasing Awareness of the Young Adult’s Experience
The second area of understanding and bettering our relationship with our young adults involves increasing our awareness of their world and experience. There is a widespread belief that today’s millennials and GenZs are taking a different route and a longer time to get to responsible independence and self-sufficiency. Today’s young adults launch and progress toward independence in much more a zig-zag path than ours or our parents. Young adults change jobs about every two years in their twenties; they are often in and out of secondary school programs to the point that we now have normalized the” skip year” option with college attendance. Young adults also get married later – the first marriage for males is 29, and for females, it is 27. This positive trend is likely contributing to decreasing divorce rates. We must understand that we can’t apply the template of our own experience to that of today’s young adults.
Investing in the Relationship
A third challenge involves investing in the relationship with our young adults. Learning to listen from the heart deepens our understanding of why they feel the way they do and strengthens the connection. Because our young adults are more focused outside the family, we must intentionally spend time and connect with our young adults. The quantity of time we have with our young adult children may be less, but the quality should not be. For more information on understanding and relating to our young adults, see:
Showing Unconditional Love
Showing unconditional love is another foundational practice, along with understanding and building a relationship with our young adults. This message in word and action creates the safe and secure launch pad from which young adults can venture forth. The awareness that we will always love them can be a lifesaving message to young adults experiencing a period in their lives. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional approval of their actions but emotional support that will always be there for them no matter what. For more information on the practice of showing unconditional love, see Love to Let Go: Loving Our Kids into Adulthood.
Apology & Forgiveness
Apology and forgiveness are two practices that can heal the wounds that keep parents, and young adults stuck on the launch pad. My wife once exclaimed -“parenting is an inherent guilt trip.” My guess is most parents would agree with this statement except those perfect parents who I have yet to meet. Unresolved guilt about one’s parenting can often affect parents’ decisions and actions consciously or subconsciously. Being too harsh or not available or divorcing during a young adult’s childhood can lead to compensatory measures to make up for these shortcomings or assuage our guilt. If we feel guilty, we may have difficulty saying “no” or overcompensating by indulging our young adult children. The answer to guilt lies not in such compensatory actions but in expressing regret and apologizing. Likewise, we may need to strengthen the practice of forgiveness that keeps us stuck in anger or resentment with our young adults. Whether the young adult deserves forgiveness is not the point; since forgiveness is about setting the forgiver free and helping us let go. At the same time, it’s essential, to adopt this practice for both their sake and ours. Sometimes, particularly for those parents who suffer from a lot of guilt, self-forgiveness is necessary to let go of the past and free the young adult in the process. For more information on these two practices, see
Balancing Love & Backbone
Balancing support and integrity or love and backbone is the most common challenge I hear from parents. Love creates the security need for the young adult to venture out, but backbone provides the solid ground from which the young adult can step up and out. Saying “no” is not a four-letter word. Requiring young adults to step up and take on responsibilities whether at home or outside the home says both “I won’t do this for you” but also “I believe you are capable of doing this on your own.” Saying “no” to funding or underwriting certain expenditures forces the young adult to take the initiative to find work or other ways of accumulating funds. We didn’t have trouble saying “no” to our toddler who reached for the stovetop or headed into the street, and we now need to send the same message if a young adult is irresponsible and wants to drive the car into the street. Likewise, we allowed the toddler to fall and skin their knees as they tried to walk or learn to ride a bicycle, so we now must allow our young adults to experience the version of skinning their knees of young adulthood. If they lose a job, fail at school, get dumped in a relationship, they need to learn to develop the “grit” to bounce back.
Finally, parents need to say “goodbye.” We need to recognize that our children are adults, and we must back off and let them live their lives and make their own mistakes. We must come to grips with the inevitable sadness that arises when we realize they are no longer our little girl or boy, and we have to adjust our relationship with them to accommodate this fact. Letting go in how we think about them and treat them is critical to their independent success. Shifting our relationship from one of directing and controlling to one of advising and consulting and acknowledging this to the young adult are ways we can demonstrate it’s time for us to step back and our kids to step up. Refocusing our attention and energies on our self-care and finding happiness and fulfillment outside of our kids is another sign we are letting go. This also signals to young adults that they can focus on living their lives and building a future without the need to make us happy.
In conclusion, each parent must identify which practices need to be strengthened to help let go and foster the young adult’s launch and progress toward responsible independence. Apology and forgiveness may not be required in each case, but continuing to understand, love, and relate to our young adults are enduring practices we must embrace. Although backbone becomes less critical as a healthy adult-to-adult relationship emerges, it’s always good to have a clear sense of what you will or will not do to help the young adult grow. Finally, we need to make the time we connect with our young adults as positive as possible because after each time we greet our young adult children we are also saying goodbye.