Here is a plug for one of my favorite authors and reads of late. Kate Bowler is a New York Times best-selling author of No Cure for Being Human. I heard her speak a few weeks ago, and my daughter snapped this picture of the two of us. I look a little stiff next to such an exuberant person. She doesn’t write about parents of adult children, but her messages of honesty, transparency, and vulnerability greatly apply to our connection with our adult children.
She recounts her battle with stage four cancer and some of her questions and doubts about faith during her treatment ordeal. If you have battled or are battling, cancer or some similar disease, this is must-read. If you want to learn more about being human and real with yourself and your kids, read this book. Bad things happen to good people – illnesses, accidents, losses, and parenting challenges. As parents of young adults, we learn we can no longer control their behavior and often wonder why one child seems to have such a hard time launching while many other young adults seemed to sail smoothly through this stage. Kate says the following:
- “…some pain is for no reason at all. It became clearer than ever that life is not a series of choices. So often, the experiences that define us are ones we didn’t pick. Cancer, betrayal, miscarriage, job, loss, mental illness, COVID.” (I’d add failure to launch).
Suffering is a Common Denominator in Life
Many parents and young adults experience a level of suffering when both parties feel stuck. Parents are anxious, frustrated, fearful, and helpless to know how to move their son or daughter toward adulthood. Parents see their young adults ensconced in their rooms for hours, playing video games, smoking pot, and avoiding contact with other family members and friends. You harken back to easier parenting times when you put them on a bicycle, gave them a push, and they started to pedal forward. Now they seem unwilling to get on the bike to adulthood, and no amount of pushing or encouragement makes a difference. You feel stymied. They are stuck but suffering as well, whether they want to admit it or not.
Several young men, I have seen describe themselves as “losers.” They avoid family gatherings because they don’t want to answer the inevitable questions about their status. “What are you doing these days, Johnnie?” Unfortunately, research on young adults suggests they avoid their friends because they don’t want to indicate they are still living at home. In 1990, according to Richard Reeves, author of Of Boys and Men, 45% of young men would reach out to a friend if they had a problem. Today that figure is 22%. Young adults stalled in their development have fewer friends and are less willing to reach out to those they have if a problem exists.
An Opportunity to Connect
There’s a particular shame that both parents and young adults feel because of this lag in development. But the point is that there is an opportunity to connect with your young adult out of the level of suffering that both experience. It’s not about “bad” parenting or “lazy/entitled” young adults but a more challenging time to move toward emancipation. Parents and these young people need empathy and compassion. We need to know that as parents, we hurt because they hurt, but we will be there for them, no matter what. At the same time, these kids have to step up and find some initial win. We must offer encouragement and emotional support while giving them the requisite space.
Beyond the fact that both parents and young adults suffer, there are two other commonalities that I point out when meeting with both parties. I have found in my interviewing great support for the fact that parents love their kids, and kids love their parents even if the relationship is contentious. Being angry and frustrated about the challenges of everyday life does not mean that the underlying love is absent. We’re still going to love our kids no matter what. And our kids will still want to love us. When I ran a drug treatment program for adolescents and young adults who were also part of the juvenile justice system in Dane County, Wisconsin, I had them write letters to their parents as if they were never to see them again. I was surprised to find that, to a person, they expressed regret and said how much they loved their parents. We are wired to love each other.
A third commonality between parents and young adults is that both want the young adult to be happy, successful, and fulfilled. When I ask young adults where they intend to live in five years, no one has said they want to live at home playing video games and mooching off their parents. Many parents let out a sigh of relief when they hear this. These kids’ five-year work or career plans can be fuzzy, and the path to that career is sketchy. As we say, the devil is in the details, but at least they have a vision of where they want to be and what they want to be doing, and that’s a start. As a parent, you may not be thrilled with their career choice, like desiring to be a tattoo artist, but it’s their plan, and it can be a beginning step to self-sufficiency. And by the way, young adults change jobs every two years in their twenties, so don’t assume an aspiration today will be the reality tomorrow. Celebrate a direction and any movement they make forward, and practice patience.
In conclusion, we can connect more deeply and intimately with our young adults because this is what both parties want and is essential to the launch process. We do this by sharing with them the challenges of this period and the fears and worries we have and inviting them to do the same. We reassure them that no matter what, we love them and will be their cheerleader in their efforts toward self-sufficiency and independence. Finally, we share their desire for a happy, successful, and independent life and commit to partnering with them on their vision and journey.