Defining A Parent’s Role After A Child Leaves Home

There are tons of books and articles offering advice on how to parent. They span (almost) every stage: Train your baby to sleep restfully through the night; Teach your toddler manners; Get your kids to eat their vegetables; Talk to kids about sex; Improve your relationship with your teen; Help your kid go to the best possible college. But what about books or articles advising when and how to stop parenting? Where are those?

Letting go after finishing the parenting job is perhaps the biggest lesson of all. Parents wonder: What is the parents’ role when a child leaves home?

The stage between childhood and adulthood can last through the college years, into the mid twenties, and sometimes into the late twenties, thirties, and beyond. Without a clear line between childhood and adulthood these days, how are parents to know their role? But, there is an answer: each family must define the process for letting go of each child.

Defining the parent’s role depends on what path a child takes. If a child is going off to college, parents may be helping pay tuition and living expenses. In some respects, parental support extends childhood for a few years. College students are often not expected to be fully accountable for paying all of their own bills or even for making all of their own decisions. A college student is usually more independent than he was at younger stages of childhood, but he is still more dependent on parents than the average thirty-year-old.

In fact, a parent’s level of involvement may determine whether the child will remain in a dependent child role, or be released into the world as an independent adult. When parents continue to pay the bills, offer sage advice, and oversee young adult offspring, then young adults behave and function much more like adolescents than like bona fide adults. With active parental oversight, why would they act like adults? Why not defer to the “real” adults?

If a child is leaving home for the Army, a parent can hug her and write her lots of letters, and essentially let her go. Other than checking-in by phone or email, leaving home for the armed services doesn’t require much parental oversight. The same applies for the Peace Corps, a job on a cruise ship, or an adult child starting a career away from home. In these cases, parents might have in mind some guidelines for how to help if the need arises.

Will you pitch in funds if your kid has trouble starting out? How much? Under what circumstances?

What if she is making a big purchase, like a car or a home? Will you offer financial assistance?

Aside from money, do you intend to offer other types of support? Advice? Resources, like use of your lake house?

Can your child move back home if life out on her own is too difficult?

Just as parents have done throughout the stages of childhood, parents must dial-back involvement as adult children gradually move toward full independence. And then at some point, parents must lovingly let go. The endpoint of parenting is releasing a child, ready, into adulthood. Trusting adult children to manage their own lives is the ultimate goal.

Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.

Posted on May 19, 2014 .