Parenting an Emerging Adult

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J.R. Moehringer’s famous quote that “time is a thief” resonates with parents who feel that their children became adults overnight. The season where children approach adulthood is filled with mixed emotions. The child you raised, who you can still picture running around your kitchen in diapers and dressing up for Halloween, is no longer a child. Whether they’re fully embracing “emerging adulthood” or not, their age alone tells you that they’re growing up. It’s a difficult reality for many.

Maybe you’ve got a child who can’t leave the nest fast enough. They got their driver’s license the day they became eligible, crave independence, have their eyes set on a school or job far away, and *seem* ready for it all. Maybe you’ve got a child who is struggling to figure out his/her next steps or doesn’t seem motivated to leave the nest any time soon. Maybe they’re somewhere in between, but regardless, you’re wondering how to parent them well and navigate the emotions and tension of this transitional time.

The first step in parenting your emerging adult well is trying to understand the tension points and challenges they’re working through. There are three main tension points many emerging adults experience:

Tension Point 1: Rapidly Changing Identity and Expectations

Your child knows that their life is expected to change in some ways as they wrap up high school – but HOW those changes are supposed to happen and WHAT the changes will be can be  anxiety-provoking. You’re experiencing mixed emotions right now as a parent, but they are too (whether they show it or not)!

A child who lacks confidence may question what they’re capable of doing next. A child who relied on their past identity as a good student or star athlete may struggle at the thought of losing that identity to a degree and starting over somewhere new. 

It’s normal for young adults to have mixed feelings about “life never being the same” as it was in this last season. As they process the past, they’re also doing some self-evaluation and planning for the future too – and sometimes that’s difficult. They have certain expectations for themselves, but they’re also considering the expectations that they think others have for them. 

Tension Point 2: Uncertainty About Responsibility

As you think about your young adult’s education, career, medical care, self-care, money / bank account, and more, this is a season where they should take on more responsibility in managing these areas on their own. Your young adult may have different expectations for their responsibilities than you do. If you’re continuing to support them as they become an adult, there may be tension over how those responsibilities play out. 

For example, let’s say that it’s time for your young adult’s annual doctor checkup. Who schedules it – do you, or do they? If they don’t think they need to go to the doctor / dentist right now, who ultimately makes the decision? They’re probably on your health insurance, so does that mean you get to decide? Or does the responsibility fall totally on them, and we (parents) have to live with whatever they decide?

How long will you support them financially, and to what capacity? What bills are they responsible for? If you’re helping them with college, do they need to perform well in order to receive that help? These are all questions to consider and talk through – preferably before the situation arises! Many things are “up in the air” in ways they haven’t been before, which is hard for young adults.

Tension Point 3: More Choices and Options that create more Anxiety / Insecurity

Up until this point in your child’s life, the “roadmap” for life was pretty easy to follow. For the first time, they won’t be headed to grade school in the fall. There are endless opportunities for how to proceed, including (but not limited to) going to college, entering a gap year program, getting a job, joining the military, and more. This season feels wide open with possibilities. As adults on the other side of this season, those possibilities feel really exciting. You may find yourself thinking about your own career path and what decisions you would make if you were in their shoes. But for young adults, it’s normal to feel some anxiety over making these decisions. Some students think that the vocational decisions they make now will “make or break” the rest of their career. If you thought that way, you’d have anxiety too! 

It’s a lot easier to make decisions when you only have a couple of choices. Chocolate ice cream or vanilla? The more choices you have, the harder it becomes. As parents, we have to understand that this may be the first time our child has had to process this many opportunities at once – and your child knows as well as you do that the path they choose to take has higher stakes than the ice cream flavor they choose.

Given these tension points, what steps can you take as a parent to make this season a successful one for both you and your emerging adult?

Parenting Tip 1: Take care of your own mental health. 

Notice the mixed emotions you’re having about your child growing up. Don’t “stuff them down,” but acknowledge them and work through them. Write them down, talk to other parents who have gone through this stage, and remember that the tensions of this season are normal. You won’t be able to help your child leave the nest if your own mental health is suffering. Focusing on your own mental health is very important! 

Understand that much of what your emerging adult is experiencing is likely normal. The two main developmental tasks for young adults center around vocation / career (“How can I find meaningful work?”) and relationships / intimacy (“Who will be the people / person in my corner, my true friends and possible spouse?”) — These developmental milestones are gradually achieved, and it’s normal for folks in their 20s to be in angst about them for some time. 

Parenting Tip 2: Support your child, but don’t rescue them.

This is a tricky one. Sometimes we think we’re supporting our child by taking care of everything for them; however, there is a big difference between supporting your child and rescuing them. Supporting your child helps them work toward independence; rescuing them hinders them from learning those skills. 

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Parenting Tip 3: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Be in communication with your spouse about how you’re going to approach certain situations with your child. You need to be united on the parenting front in order to navigate this season well. Talk to your spouse about the emotions you’re both feeling.

You also need to communicate with your child about what’s expected of them. Have those conversations sooner rather than later; it’s always easier to talk about expectations during “the calm” rather than during “the storm.” While your child may or may not agree with the expectations you establish, it’s helpful for them to have clarity on what those expectations are. Talking with someone about the expectations you plan to have for your emerging adult can help you evaluate whether your own expectations are realistic. 

Parenting Tip 4: Give your child space to go through this process.

You have to be aware of when you are pressuring your child to follow what you want, rather than allowing them to discover what it is that they want to do. For example, allowing your child to explore careers through employment after high school rather than making them go to college because that is what you expect them to do, or because that is what the family has always done, gives them space to evaluate what they enjoy and want to pursue.

If you’re a parent struggling to process this season and parent well, you are not alone. 

Our Wellspring Counseling team is prepared to equip you and support your family relationships as your child emerges into adulthood. Schedule a session in our Greenville, SC office by emailing us at info@wellspringgreenville.com, or calling our Intake Coordinator at 864-214-2084 (Option 1), or get to know some of our licensed counselors by reading more.

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