By Stephanie Thompson, Crosswalk.com
My husband’s wise grandmother once told me that parenting never ends.
At the time, I found the comment puzzling. As a parent of small children whose life consisted of long exhausting days, I couldn’t really grasp how you parent an adult. And I pondered what her comment meant as I looked toward the future and the gradual independence of my children.
Fast forward twenty years (time is so surreal in the context of parenting) and here I am, along with my husband, parenting a teenager and two young adult children. Lately I find myself feeling a whirlwind of emotions over their experiences.
You see, in their young adult lives, everything is new for them.
This young adult life is new for them. And for me.
Twenty-two years ago, I arrived at the hospital pregnant with my first child, feeling a bit overwhelmed that the day I had long anticipated arrived.. A whirlwind of excitement mixed with fear churned inside. I’d never been in this place before. Everything we would encounter from that point on would be new to both of us.
Just as when they first entered the world, we are learning to navigate this territory together.
While we may have been young adults once, we have never parented them before. It requires open communication and incorporating wisdom from those who have experienced it as well as help families navigate this season of life.
Here are five virtues parents can offer their adult children.
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They say that age is just a number, but turning 18 carries many life changing implications.
Legally, you are responsible for your decisions. However, no magic trick instantly gives you the life experiences and skill set necessary to confidently navigate all of them.
Learning to manage a budget, live independently , navigate a new school or work environment, own your faith, and discern career paths can feel overwhelming. Jacob Goldsmith Ph. D. says, “Although the transition to adulthood is ultimately a move toward independence, emerging adults can benefit from maintaining deep ties to their families. Parents can be a knowledgeable, empathic source of feedback.”
It is helpful to remember that the human brain is also in transition, not finishing development until around age 25. “In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”
Acknowledging this truth can alleviate the temptation to react out of frustration when your child makes a decision that seems foolish or results in harsh consequences. Walking with them and helping them learn from mistakes assures that you both recognize this season of development.
Empathy also gives you the tools to better understand your child’s fears. They are likely the same ones you had at their age! This understanding is crucial to remain a safe place for your child as they navigate new, scary waters.
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As parents, it’s tempting to rescue our adult children from accumulating the skills necessary for overcoming mistakes. Responding to our children’s fearful cries without rescuing is hard.
We have learned to attend to them and offer our calming presence since they were infants. But now, we must change how it’s done. “Ups and downs are the very definition of the emerging stage and with them will shape the resilient, self-sufficient people they will become. And beyond the many mishaps are the projects that do work out, the lasting relationships that are worth waiting for, and the confidence that comes from standing on their own feet.” writes Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Elizabeth Fischel in their book Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years.
Last year, one of my children arrived at a point of discouragement and confusion. The choices faced as a young adult can feel overwhelming. Am I studying the right field? Is living on campus worth the extra money? How do I meet new friends?
In addition, balancing work with school and juggling new responsibilities feels exhausting. Many times, we talked through tearful phone calls wondering if the right decisions had been made. And thoughts of making drastic changes without prayer and discernment entered the conversation.
I wanted to fix the situation but I knew the only person able to do that was my child. I remembered my own angst as a young adult and recognized those hard places built confidence and skills necessary for navigating through life.
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Several years ago, I hesitantly decided to try a high ropes course element at our church camp. As I initially surveyed the height of the track above the ground, it didn’t cause fear.
However, once I climbed to the first level and looked down, my perspective changed. Walking across the beam seemed terrifying. The irony was that I was tethered to a rope above me so that even if I lost my balance, I wouldn’t fall. But the uncertainty made putting one foot in front of the other a scary process.
At any time, I could have asked to be pulled back to the safety of the landing step. I confess that a few times I verbalized that desire. The landscape scared me.
But through the encouraging voices of the trained facilitators, I continued walking forward. I gathered confidence to use when I would be faced with other life situations which appear daunting.
Our children need encouragement to keep navigating forward when fear of new experiences looms before them. But experts say there’s a line between supporting young adults and stifling their growth. Ms. Lythcott-Haims compares it to teaching children to drive--the parent starts in the driver’s seat, but the goal is to end up in the back seat. “You can’t just arrive them at the future you want for them,” she said. “They have to do the work to build the skills.”
But your celebrating of small victories along the way will help them to build this future themselves. When they pay their rent on their own for the first time, or get their oil changed without being reminded, or create new healthy habits for themselves, let them know how proud you are of them!
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My husband’s grandparents’ home served as a refuge for many in our family. During various life transitions, family members found safety and security living there short term. Adult children and grandchildren as well as a few friends of the family were offered hospitality when crises hit.
His grandparents recognized that they couldn’t fix the problems but they could alleviate stress and provide a sanctuary of restoration.
Refuge may extend outside of a physical place. It may look like short term financial help. Besides the offer of actual cash, it could mean paying certain bills such as healthcare expenses or car insurance until the individual reaches a place of financial stability.
Perhaps offering your home may include full-time residency or for an agreed upon short time. Other offers can include meals, use of laundry appliances, and extra vehicles. Communicating clearly about expectations is key. That way, both parties are in agreement and the best environment for refuge is cultivated.
Joanna Moorehead reflects on her own journey as she parents young adults, “But whether things are going well or badly, we remain, and always should be, the safe haven, the last resort, the taken for granted, the ultimate backup. I can still remember how reassuring it was to know during my thrilling, terrifying, tedious 20s that if this project or that relationship crashed and burned, there was always a place for me. A door I could knock on day or night. A friendly face, someone ready to put the kettle on, share a meal, take a friendly interest or, yes, offer that crucial hug of reassurance.”
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Navigating new territory leaves all of us vulnerable to knee jerk reactions.
As relationships change between parents and children, identities and rhythms do as well. When we feel lost and confused, the temptation is to take out our frustrations on others. Particularly those whom we love the most.
Adult children need parents to be mindful of the challenges they face. That does not mean parents become a doormat for unrestrained anger.
What we can offer is implementing the compassion and mercy God extends to all of us. Here are some texts to keep in our hearts:
- “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8
- “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
- “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23
Parenting young adults requires a delicate dance.
On the one hand, they have joined us in a stage of development. On the other hand, it is just that: developing. We find ourselves both reflecting on our own journeys as young adults yet trying to offer them the blessings of parenting.
Jim Burns, author of Doing Life With Your Adult Children, offers this reminder: “We have the option to do life and parenting with or without God’s help. Since he is the author and creator of life, I choose to trust him by keeping him and his principles close to me. I hope you will make that same choice."
Stephanie Thompson is an ordained pastor, speaker, writer and mental health advocate. Her writing can be found on various sites around the web. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and three children. You can learn more about her at www.stephaniejthompson.com and follow her Facebook.
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