We all want our kids to ultimately take over the running of their daily lives. We want them to soar out on their own and thrive as adults whom we trust and respect. We hope they evolve into responsible adults, capable of solving their own life problems without constant parental supervision. But all too often, parents are inadvertently undermining the confidence and opportunity to gain experience that lead to autonomy in adult children. Parents “helicopter.” Parents control. Parents criticize and thus dishearten teens and young adults instead of encourage and empower them.
When parents undermine, it occurs accidentally, born out of attempts to teach, guide, and support. But what’s the difference between useful guidance and clipping your young adult’s wings? Consider the following Do’s and Don’ts for empowering your young adult to soar independently.
Don’t: Say, “You’re doing it wrong.”
Parents often want to share their experience with budding young adult children. You may watch and observe your child making obvious mistakes, However, saying, “You’re doing it wrong,” is likely to crush your adult child’s confidence and stop her dead in her tracks. Or worse, if you hurt her feelings, she might shut you out and refuse to listen to your advice in the future.
Do: Say, “Can I tell you what has worked for me?”
Instead of pointing out that your adult daughter is “wrong,” try telling her about your experiences. Say, “Can I tell you what I have experienced and what I learned?” Explain what your situation was, how you made mistakes (or succeeded) and then why her current situation made you decide to share the personal history. And then step back and allow her to make decisions on her own.
You might feel tempted to offer your emerging adult child feedback, but tread lightly. Giving your opinion is only helpful when the listener is open to hearing it. Because you’re the parent, your opinions carry an emotional heft that is likely absent when the feedback comes from a third party. As the parent, your comments have a higher likelihood of resulting in hurt feelings and thus proving counterproductive. Maybe you’re just not the right person to offer a critique.
Do: Praise and give constructive feedback
Instead of pointing out your criticisms, try focusing on praise. Tell your emerging adult what he does well. Doing so helps encourage him to do more of his best. If you can’t keep quiet when you see an area in need of improvement, take care to give your criticism the kindest, most constructive fashion. Your emerging adult wants your approval. So make sure your admiration and affection show.
Don’t: Offer unsolicited advice
Your emerging adult needs mentors and parents, but those roles are often divided into multiple relationships. Because you are Mom or Dad, you may not also be the best person to provide sage advice. Why? Your child knows you have a vested interest in the outcome, so you’re not objective.
Do: Ask permission to share your opinion
When it’s time to give advice, shift into advisor and student roles by explicitly requesting permission. Doing so will increase the likelihood your adult child will listen to the wisdom you offer with an open mind rather than dismiss you as a biased family member with an emotional agenda.
Don’t: Take over
Sometimes emerging adults children seek out the help of their parents. When they come to you, make sure you help in just the right way. You probably spent years running your adult child’s life. Remember, now it’s his turn. Let him drive. Taking the wheel and controlling the situation robs your adult child of the opportunity to learn and practice under your wise tutelage.
Do: Support and offer to share your experienced opinion and guidance
If you’re fortunate enough to function as an advisor to your adult child, be a teacher instead of a controlling boss. Instead of usurping power, give the power to your budding adult. Let him steer and position yourself squarely in the passenger seat. Remember, you know how to run your life. Let him learn how to run his.
Don’t: Threaten punishments if your emerging adult child refuses to cooperate.
Teaching your kids through the use of punishments should be a thing of the past by the time you reach the young adult years. Your young adult child must function in the world of adults day to day. She has to accept the natural consequences as her teachers, not worry about whether Mom and Dad will ground her when she gets home.
Do: Explain the rules and how you can (or cannot) support his or her choices.
Instead of punishments, parents of adult children help best when they make offers of support that come with clear expectations and rules. Say, “I can give you a loan for $700, but I expect to be paid back in 6 months. If that’s not enough money to meet your need, I can’t give you any more.” Making rules and allowing your adult child to operate within the rules or deal with the consequences of non-compliance will make things work more like the real world and prepare them to succeed..
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.