When I counsel parents of young adults, one of the most common questions I get is “What is the goal of counseling?” On one occasion, I was asked this question by an angry 22-year-old living at home who was not receptive to my helping his parents. My answer was to help parents find the right combination of love and backbone that would help their son move toward responsible independence. More recently, the parents of a thirty-two-year-old young adult with a likely paranoid personality disorder, who refuses to acknowledge his condition and seek appropriate professional help, asked me a similar question. What am I trying to accomplish?
What I Can’t Do
Let me answer this question by first saying what I can’t do – I can’t fix, control, or change your young adult if they refuse help. Some parents secretly hope that I will have the answer to force their young adult to change because they have not been able to. Unless the young adult violates the law, attempts or threatens suicide or murder, or acts in a bizarre way that infringes on the rights of others, one can’t force the individual to get help, much less change. Involuntary commitments are complicated to obtain, even in situations where behavior is psychotic or bizarre. Often with threats of suicide or homicide and an individual is forcefully taken to a hospital for a seventy-two-hour hold, they will deny that they have such thoughts and are released. Parents of such young adults are often angry and frustrated that nothing can be done. I can provide understanding and emotional support but can’t take away the sense of helplessness and despair.
What Can I Do?
So why should any parent of an adult child seek help from me? First, I believe every parent is wired to love their child, and every child is wired to love their parents. I work with parents to find a way to continue to love their children despite their behavior or the circumstances. Extreme proponents of the popularized notion of “tough love” would argue that there are circumstances where you cut off contact with your child because of their abusive, dependent, or threatening behavior. I disagree with this approach. We need to give expression to the love we have for our kids, no matter what. Sometimes this is just a card that says we love them. One young man threatened his parents with a gun and then moved out. The parents didn’t cut him off and instead took a bag of groceries to his house every week.
Second, I believe we are responsible for modeling and expressing our values and principles so that the young adult experiences both love and firmness. “Honesty,” for instance, should be a principle we do not compromise. If we lie on our child’s behalf or ignore their lying, we are not helping them prepare for a world where such behavior isn’t rewarded or tolerated. My role with parents is to help them be clear about what they will and will not do for the young adult and the expectations they have of them. Then parents need to muster the courage and fortitude to stand behind these commitments. This combination is close to my definition of “Tough Love” that you can read about in my book- Parenting Our Young Adults with Love and Backbone. Another way to describe this combined approach is to choose to act by doing what is loving and right. I hope to give parents some peace of mind to know that they are doing what is right and loving.
How Can Parents and Young Adults Work Together?
There is another role I play with parents. This further role is to align the needs and desires of the young adult with the parent’s needs and desires. In this regard, every young adult has to meet the challenges of developing an identity, establishing independence, and building healthy intimate relations. Are they not the same goals we want for our kids? My typical approach is to ask the young adult, with the parents present, to come up with a five-year plan. Much to the parent’s relief, I have never had a young adult say they want to be living with mommy and daddy in five years. Once the plan is in place, we discuss how the parents can be partners in helping them achieve their goals. I often advocate that parents help with certain critical expenses such as health or car insurance. Beyond this, when it is time for the “basement dweller” to leave, if still at home, parents can negotiate an exit strategy. Parents can introduce this exit plan, not to kick them out but to help them move forward on “their” desire for independent living. Sometimes subsidy may be necessary and helpful to support this transition. Even under adverse circumstances, moving out can be a time of celebration with help in moving, providing furniture, helping them set up the kitchen, etc.
Finally, I work with distraught parents to help them understand the challenges of the young adult transition and the need for greater patience and self-care. Patience because the transition to adulthood is longer and the ride bumpier for kids today than for us. Self-care, because we need to invest time in ourselves and our marriages to have the resilience necessary to prepare the launch pad and find peace in doing what is right.