By the time you're in your 50s or beyond, you expect that your heavy-duty parenting is nearing an end. If your kids are between the ages of 18 to 29, a period called "emerging adulthood," you most likely expect that they'll gradually become more and more independent and your official empty nest period can get underway. Increasingly, however, emerging adults are delaying their complete autonomy and entry into full adulthood. There are economic and social factors at play, particularly with the economic downturn of the past several years, which keep these young adults from achieving financial independence. On top of that, college loans shackle many in this generation, forcing them to make personal sacrifices for years. Between having fewer job prospects and having to pay back those loans, many college grads can't afford to live on their own.
Although we hear about the horrors of helicopter parents, research on young adults and their parents shows that the economically-strapped younger generation do better psychologically when they get the help they need from their folks. For their part, however, parents wrestle with the uncertainty of feeling that they should maintain more of a hands-off attitude when it comes to their emerging adult children. They want to help them, but fear that they'll be doing their children a disservice by staying involved in their lives.
Fortunately, parents can now turn to an empirically-based advice book written by Clark University professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and popular writer Elizabeth Fishel. Having coined the term "emerging adulthood" in 2000, Arnett has spent his entire career investigating the personalities, values, life choices, and family relationships of the "20-somethings," ranging in age from about 18 to 29.
This highly readable and informative "Dr. Spock" for parents of emerging adults called "When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?" provides practical advice in a clear and engaging manner that covers the broad range of situations that many of us face in our later parenting years. It's a book that's a must-read for 50-something parents, especially if you're struggling with feelings of uncertainty, doubt, and perhaps guilt, regarding the way you're handling your own family dynamics.
Begin by recognizing that emerging adults are going through a number of developmental issues. During the emerging adult years, your children are exploring their identity, making their lives seem unstable to an outside observer. They're trying to find their direction, and sometimes take extra twists and turns along the way. As they search for their own self-definition, they may seem focused on themselves and not others, but they need to look inward to gain the strength and stability to help them make it through the rest of their lives. They may feel in-between, in part because they don't have that clear path, but also because when forced into economic dependence, they aren't truly on their own. However, emerging adulthood is also filled with a sense of the possibilities that lie ahead, and in this regard, they are hopeful and optimistic.
With this background in mind, here are your 7 parenting tips:
1. Don't be afraid to talk the big talks. You may feel that it's impossible to talk to your kids about sensitive topics such as their education, sex, relationships, and money. In many cases, it's a matter of getting information before you rush to judgment. For example, when it comes to college, you and your child can work together on such problems as how to find the best value for the price you're able to spend after you look at all the options, including what you've got in your bank account and can reasonably afford. Arnett and Fishel give loads of great advice on how to approach this and almost every delicate conversation, along with a Parents' Do and Don't List.
2. Put yourself in your child's place, but not too much. You may think you understand your child based on the experiences you had as a young adult, but there's also a good chance that you don't quite have the full story. You may already open your mind to the possibility that your children take a slightly different view of the world than you do. Try to understand that view, but also maintain your own boundaries. You don't have to become just like them to get along with them, and in fact, your relationship may benefit from your willingness to embrace your own occasionally fuddy-duddy-ness.
3. Be willing to learn from your child. If you have ever benefited from your child's technological savviness, you know that there's plenty you can gain from the "upstream" influences that the young have on the older generations. Not only can you glean valuable knowledge and skills from your kids, but in the process, you can help them feel better about themselves. For your sons and daughterswho are out of work or back home after a failed relationship, it can boost their self-esteem to be able to give back in return for all you're doing for them.
4. Understand that times have changed. The world is a different place than the one you occupied in your youth. Comparing your kids to your own generation when you were young can only bring heartache to all of you. We all develop within a social context, and in the early years of adulthood, we are all particularly likely to be shaped by our culture. For better or worse, social media are here to stay, everyone's a bit more casual in dress and speech (thanks in part to the Baby Boomers!), and public facilities ranging from schools and colleges to grocery stores and libraries are all far different than they were even 10 years ago. You don't have to give up all of your cherished icons to accept the fact that theirs are different than yours are, or were. However, keep in mind too that your recall of the "good old days" probably is a bit biased, and that the experiences you think you remember from the past may be distorted by the experiences you've had in the intervening decades.
5. Maintain your sense of humor. Arnett and Fishel cite the now classic movie "Failure to Launch" in which empty nester parents aren't so empty nester. They plot and scheme throughout the film in order to get their 30-plus son married and out of the house. The ensuing hilarity, though not very realistic, puts a humorous face on what can be a stressful situation for many families. You don't have to go that far in order to find ways to relieve the burden of two generations of adults in one household, but allowing some comic relief from time to time will make everyone feel better.
6. Don't give in to media portrayals of the Millennials. The media have already declared the verdict that the 20- and 30-somethings are narcissists with no interest in anyone but themselves. Shiftless, lazy, and happy to live off their parents is the picture portrayed of today's young adults in the popular press. However, as I have argued in my Psychology Today blog, the data to support the anti-Millennial argument are based on some pretty thin evidence. Look at your kids for who they are, not as representatives of the "Me generation." Remember who else was criticized for being the "turned off and tuned out" generation? Oh yeah, it was yours. In the 60s and 70s, parents despaired that their Baby Boom children would never amount to anything. These very parents were themselves written off by their own parents, who despaired at the advent of Rock and Roll. Instead of allowing yourself to fall prey to these media stereotypes, try to see the good in your kids. Chances are, you'll find a great deal of which to be proud.
7. Show, don't tell. Parents who want their children to have happy close relationships might remind themselves that the behaviors they demonstrate in the home will have a far more powerful impact than the lessons they preach about the importance of a good marriage. If you are no longer in a relationship with your co-parent, you can offer your children hope by being open about what went wrong in that relationship and help guide them into making better choices than perhaps you did.
Being a parent of a child at any age has its challenges and rewards. With the advice offered by this wise and well-written "Dr. Spock" for the older set, you'll be more likely to experience the rewards, and so will those emerging adults of yours.