Parenting Kids Over 18:The Stakes Are Higher

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When parenting was more tiring, but easier.

I really enjoyed reading an article about parenting kids from age 18 to their mid-20s from the NBC News Think website. I’m sure it’s because it hit home to me. It’s a whole different type of parenting from when they were toddlers. I’m treading water trying to figure out how to be there for my kids, offer support, but not take over. From the time they left for college, I felt like the stakes were so much higher and I had less control than ever. I’m trying to relax and let them live their lives and just listen without jumping in to solve problems or tell them what to do.

In Parenting kids over 18 is still parenting. You just get less control and the stakes are higher, by Meagan Francis, she echoed my worries and concerns.

I once looked forward to my kids’ legal adulthood as a kind of finish line, but I now I know how delusional that vision was.

When my five kids were small, I naively saw the age of 18 as the light at the end of the tunnel. During that sleepless stretch in which my life felt like an endless blur of night feedings, diapers, bandaging boo-boos and navigating piles of sippy-cups and sippy-cup lids that never seemed to match, I looked forward to my kids’ legal adulthood as a kind of finish line. Once they’d crossed it, I figured, I could relax and celebrate having gotten past the hardest parts of parenting.

Now, with two of my children well past voting age and their three other siblings hurtling ever-faster toward that benchmark, I can look back at my former self and say with the benefit of hindsight: Hahahaha!

Instead, I often feel like I’m learning “how it works” all over again. Parenting older kids is still very much parenting — only you get even less say, the results are more public, and the stakes are higher. The lines between appropriate helping, spoiling and enabling are often difficult to define and the concept of parenting “to the child” rather than following a one-size-fits-all plan starts to feel less conceptual and more necessary.

It’s true that my two eldest sons, ages 20 and 22, are less dependent on me now. When they were young, my entire existence seemed to revolve around stopping them from doing certain things while compelling them to do others. Today I no longer need to teach them basic life skills, like how to cross the street without being annihilated by a garbage truck or why showering every day is a good idea — though, let’s be clear, there are days I ponder reviewing that particular lesson — and I have neither the responsibility nor opportunity to monitor their schedule minute-by-minute.

But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Nor that my duties are behind me. Despite all the bold statements I made when they were 8 about tossing them unceremoniously out of the nest the moment they turned 18, I have since realized my smug error in thinking they would be fully formed adults ready to be thrown out into the world without repercussions.

That’s largely because, while the government may tell us that once you’re 18, you’re an adult, neuroscientists now know better. Emerging research on brain development shows that a young adult’s brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25.

Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls this period — the seven years between the day a kid legally becomes an adult, and the day they have the reasoning power and impulse control of an actual adult — “emerging adulthood.” And navigating it can be tricky for both children and their caregivers.

“Parents are often glad their kids are more mature and can do more things for themselves,” he notes, “but at the same time you often realize they’re making decisions that aren’t wise, or that they aren’t ready to make.”

This can be particularly difficult because those decisions often carry larger weight. Arnett compares it to the damage done if a toddler takes a spill while learning to walk versus when an adult falls. “Questions like whether to move in with a girlfriend or boyfriend, drop out of college, choose a major — those choices have big, long-term implications,” he says. “Naturally, you have ideas about this — and not unreasonably, they also feel like it’s their life to live.”

That’s why it’s important to listen as much as instruct, according to Lisa Heffernan, co-author of “Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults.”

“Since our ability as parents to mandate and control our kids’ decisions is lessened, it’s time to switch to listening and modeling adult behavior,” she says, suggesting acting like a “sounding board” for them. “Getting kids through this stage is all about showing them what adulthood feels like and sounds like and looks like — literally walking them through your decisions and explaining, ‘This is why I did it this way; here’s what happens now.’”

Taking cues from my kids, I am trying to be a better listener. When they call and complain about a co-worker or roommate, they are not necessarily asking for my advice. They want to vent and explain to someone who loves them what is on their minds. When they want advice or my opinion, they always ask for it.

I tend to be a worrier. When I don’t hear from them, they are most likely okay, but I worry. When they tell me their problems, I worry more. With an attitude like this, it’s amazing they tell me what’s going on in their lives at all!

What do you find easier, raising young children or young adults?

 

Is Parenting Over When Kids Grow Up?

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My kids at ages 18 and 21.

How much support should parents give their kids — emotionally and financially — when they’re technically grown up? When I was young, in my early 20s, I was on my own and didn’t receive help financially or emotionally from mom or dad. In fact, I moved to California, got a job and was married within a couple years. Several months after college, I was basically on my own.

Today, parents are helping their kids by paying rent or giving monthly stipends until their kids are “on their feet.” My best friend from college explained to me, “The less you do for them, the faster they become independent.” While that may seem like contradictory advice, it’s really the truth. If you do too much for your young adults, the more dependent they become and the less likely they will grow and learn life lessons. I have two separate friends with daughter’s the same age as mine who said something like, “The Bank of Dad ends in six months after graduation.”

In a Wall Street Journal article called Parenting Isn’t Over When Kids Grow Up by Mark McConville, he explains the challenge of how to help your kids without undermining their independence.

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My daughter after she finished college.

Let’s say that you have recently launched your son or daughter toward college—or a job, or the armed services or perhaps graduate school. In any case, you are done with parenting, ready to collapse into an easy chair, pour yourself a drink and reflect on a job well done.

Then the phone call comes about an intolerable roommate or unfair professor, or hours cut back at work, or a request for a small loan for recording equipment or perhaps a donation for a three-month trek through Europe. And it suddenly dawns on you: You’re parenting in overtime.

How does this happen? Forget the myth that adulthood begins at age 18 or 21. Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has famously charted the developmental stage that he calls emerging adulthood—“a gradual transition from adolescence to full adulthood that stretches from age 18 to roughly age 30.” His research shows that only in their late 20s do most people feel like an adult “most of the time.” Young people must accomplish a host of big and small developmental tasks to help make the transition, from getting their own living quarters to changing the oil in their car. And one of the paradoxes of growing up is that true independence involves learning when and how to ask for help.

Meanwhile, for economic reasons, more emerging adults remain intimately connected to their parents than ever before. A recent U.S. Census Bureau study shows that over 30% of young adults ages 18-34 still live with their parents. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that the majority of these parents provided financial (60%) and emotional (77%) support within the past year.

So, like it or not, your job isn’t finished. But what should overtime parenting look like? Fortunately, there are some principles that can minimize your sense of powerlessness and frustration while maximizing your ability to support your transitioner’s growth.

One of the ideas I liked the most in the article was the rule that if you’re invested more than 49% of any task, financial support, etc., then in essence you own it. You’ve taken over and you’re doing more than you should. That’s a pretty good guideline to go by.

Follow the 49% rule. Most 20-somethings need emotional support and practical coaching as they face unfamiliar hurdles—filling out applications, opening bank accounts, interviewing for jobs. But however much initiative, energy, or emotional investment is required to accomplish a task, limit your contribution to 49%. Once you drift over 50%, you own it, and you’re likely to see your transitioner’s motivational investment diminish.

That is what happened with a 19-year-old client of mine the summer before beginning college. He was highly anxious about the transition, and this manifested as foot-dragging on a variety of mundane but necessary tasks: submitting medical forms, selecting courses, confirming dormitory placement and so on. His father, anxious about his son’s stalled initiative, stepped in to “help” by tracking due dates, completing forms and generally nagging his son to take care of business.

Unwittingly, his father had crossed the 49% line and taken ownership of the transition process. I said to the dad: “Think of yourself more as a consultant than a supervisor—ready with your wisdom and guidance but allowing your son space to wrestle with the key challenges of initiative and ownership.” He did, and in a few short weeks, the young man got his act together and headed off to a successful college experience.

Another important tip is to allow our children to learn from failure. If we get worked up over their failures or impending tasks and act like everything is a crisis, then we’ll probably jump in and take over. That doesn’t allow our kids to learn from mistakes and become competent adults. Life is a learning curve. I’m continually learning about how to improve — even with parenting my 20-something-year-olds. My kids should be allowed to learn at their own rate, too.

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Me at around the time I graduated college.

How do you help your adult kids and set limits so you don’t do too much?