Parenting Emerging Adults

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Back in the day, when we were coming up, our parents considered themselves pretty much done with their job as parents when we hit 18 (or 22) and graduated from school. Today? Not so much. Now, we know that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until the mid-twenties and, as parents, our experience is that our 20-somethings still need us ... sometimes a lot. Depression and anxiety are off-the-charts for this demographic (18-24 +) and suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death. So, what’s going on and what can we do to prevent disaster and to successfully launch our kids into adulthood? 

As parents of emerging adults, we need to realize that this is a transitional developmental period and those are rocky. This one was for us. It is for them. For this generation, they’re emerging out of being “screenagers.” Their immersion in social media leads to them constantly comparing themselves to the appearances their peers are posting. They are gauging their self-worth by the likes they get, the vacations they take, the photos of happy boyfriends and girlfriends, food porn. It’s a constant — in-your-face opportunity — to feel less-than based on curated representations of reality. Some of these dynamics are similar to what we had to navigate — learning how to balance focus on meeting expectations and gaining approval with communicating from our inner core and trusting our inner strength to deal with the challenges and opportunities of life. Social media amplifies all that.

Social media is also the main source of news for many emerging adults. And when so much of the news is about conflict and violence, that overload can be another cause of stress. The desire to always know what’s happening and be connected (which has its own word “FOMO” - the Fear Of Missing Out) can be draining, especially when emerging adults are in periods of adjustment and transition across different areas of their lives.

While emerging adults may have off-the-charts tech skills, we are also seeing that their in-person, in-real-time social skills are suffering. On social media, conversations are often confrontations. Emerging adults may have difficulty taking proactive steps career-wise and in relationships. Many are far more comfortable with the online part of job seeking, but don’t feel confident and competent with negotiating, with problem-solving, with soft skills of being part of a team in person, in real time.  

Plus, our kids were probably raised differently than we were. As parents, we may have done much more hovering, "snow-plowing,” and padding everything than our parents did. We may have intervened in their lives to clear away obstacles, solve their problems, shield them from pain instead of letting them learn the hard way. If we didn’t cultivate an independent mindset, if we did too much when they were younger, the result may be that they lack the survival skills that we had at their age. The point is not to beat ourselves up about the past, but to move forward, recognizing key differences between parenting children and parenting emerging adults.

Here are 5 tips:

1. Foster independence in small ways, especially when they’re under your roof. Many of us have adult children who came back after college or who moved into the basement after high school because of financial necessity or convenience or to help us out or a combination of these factors. The share of Americans ages 25-29 living with parents is the highest it's been in 75 years. In this era of increasing interdependence, we need to treat emerging adults — especially those under our roof — as adults. This may mean expecting them to do things like clean up after themselves, do their own laundry, contribute to household expenses or pay a nominal fee for rent. It may also mean respecting their privacy and assuming that they are entitled to manage their personal and professional lives. Wherever your 20-something lives, stop fixing it for them, whatever it is. Communicate your faith that they can handle their own lives. Suggest possible strategies — especially if they ask — but don’t impose your way.

2. Listen more, talk less & don’t judge. Emerging adults are going through a “quarter-life crisis.” It’s developmentally appropriate for them to be questioning the meaning of life, their purpose, faith/spirituality, lifestyle, sexuality. As parents we can assist not so much by telling them our perspectives, which they probably are all-too-familiar with, but by supporting their process and educating ourselves about what our kids are questioning. Remember that you were experimenting and exploring too at their age, but you might not have involved your parents. Unsolicited advice is cringe-inducing and will shut your emerging adult down. Practice active listening and not judging. Don’t criticize their lifestyle choices. They are criticizing and judging themselves constantly and are often victims of their own toxic self-talk.

3. Believe in their greatness (especially when they don’t). There is lots of pressure on our kids to “hit the mark.” Most want to be graduating, working, supporting themselves, partnering up, starting their own families, and feeling good about where their lives are headed. It’s painful to them when they aren’t, when they can’t. And, objectively, it's a lot harder to wheedle your way into the workforce these days. As parents, we can support our emerging adults in their struggle by encouraging them, by being positive, and by believing in them and knowing that this process will have a positive outcome, that they will make it. 

4. Enjoy them. Everybody, including our kids, needs to feel that they matter, that they belong, that they are loved and appreciated. Most people don’t want to be invaded or micro-managed or feel like a burden. Too much alone (or social media) time, contributes to symptoms of depression. Check-in with your kids, do things that you both like to do together, and let them experience that you enjoy them and their company. Cultivate reciprocity: when you invite them to assist you, it may give them a feeling of being needed, of contributing. This can counterbalance the negativity of feeling dependent. Give and take is a two-way street between parents and emerging adults, different from what's healthy between parents and younger children.

5. Model a healthy lifestyle.  Emerging adults need to witness what an appropriate healthy lifestyle looks and feels like in career, social media, social life, day-to-day self-care, food and exercise. The best thing you can do is to take care of yourself and your business and show them what holistic vitality looks and feels like. It’s positive for them to see you sweat, to see you struggling, and to see you asking for and receiving help when you need it. That makes them feel like it’s normal and not like they’re the only ones who are struggling or even suffering. It also reminds them that life and progress aren’t linear – having a hard time doesn’t have to mean they are in a never-ending downward spiral.

When you put these tips into action, what are you doing? You are reducing risks by living the Strengthening Families Protective Factors! You are practicing resilience, building positive relationships, getting support in times of need, learning about and building on your knowledge of parenting and child development, and developing and enhancing social and emotional competence. As your emerging adult transitions to full adulthood (whatever that is!)  mutual respect, empathy, and open communication will help make the transition smoother. 


Phyllis Alongi, MS, LPC is a licensed professional counselor in private practice based in New Jersey, with expertise in parenting and adolescent mental health and suicide prevention. She provides training, lectures and hands-on workshops for both staff and parents and consults with public systems and non-profit organizations. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Integral and Transpersonal Psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies. Contact her at msalongi@aol.com.

Katthe P. Wolf, MA, is the mother of one emerging adult and active godmother to 4. She is also CEO of Be Strong Families and author of Living the Protective Factors: How Parents Keep their Children Safe and Families Strong as well as a companion deck of 57 affirmation cards. Get them at www.bestrongfamilies.org/resources.