Parenting Emerging Adults: Adaptability

Parents and adult son talking on back porch
David Sacks/DigitalVision/Thinkstock

In the past few decades, a trend known as "the prolongation of adolescence" has become prevalent among young adults. This refers to the tendency for post-high school age kids to take longer than previous generations to reach some of the emotional and social developmental milestones that were previously expected of 20- and 30-somethings. The reasons for this trend are varied:

1. In some cases, it's taking longer for young people to complete their post high school education and begin a career, which in turn would involve learning new skills such as cooperation, collaboration, and fiscal responsibility.

2. The need to live at home in order to pay their bills may prevent young adults from feeling the need to seek out their own friends and worship communities.

3. Many young adults are unemployed, underemployed, or dealing with chronic illnesses that interfere with regular employment, leaving them with few resources for participating in intimate relationships and special events that tend to encourage the development of social-emotional skills.

If you're the parent of an emerging adult in one of these situations, it's important for you to recognize that your role shifts from one of protector and provider to that of coach and mentor when your kids exit childhood and make the transition to early adulthood. All of these scenarios underscore the need for continued coaching and mentoring from the parents of single young adults. Married young adults may need your support in this arena, as well, because even though they're married, the demands of early marriage in today's culture are greater than for previous generations. Your input is vital to help them reach maturity before they become parents.

How can you demonstrate Adaptability, one of the 7 Traits of Thriving Parents, with an emerging adult child? Here are 4 important strategies to employ:

One: Throw Out the "Shoulds"

Many parents wrongly assume that their young adult children should be where they were at the same age. And so they chastise them by saying, "You should have achieved this by now," or "You should act like this," or "You should have reached this milestone," and so on. Adaptability as a parent of a young adult requires a mom or dad to get rid of the "shoulds," which tend to come from comparing their own young adult experience to that of their kids. The problem is that our young adult children are facing a reality that is vastly different from the world of 20-30 years ago. The major decisions young people have to make at this time of life — whether or not to go to college; where to live; whether or not to marry and, if so, who to marry; how to earn a living; and so on — are far more complicated than they were when we were young adults. Our children need support and encouragement, not criticism, as they navigate this mine field.

Two: Adjust to the Realities of the Digital World

The single greatest difference between middle-aged and older adults and the emerging adults of today is that young adults were taught to engage with the world via technology rather than face-to-face. They are dependent on technology in order to communicate, study, analyze, socialize, and stay informed about the world. Technology has benefits as well as drawbacks, and it is important for parents of emerging adults to know how to encourage use of technology in beneficial ways and to engage in meaningful discussions with them about its' potentially harmful effects. Focus on the Family has developed a free resource to help you tackle this issue, available at focusonthefamily.com/TechGuide.

Three: Adapt to the New Reality of College and Career

Many emerging adults face financial challenges related to college and career choices. This is another area in which their parents might find it difficult to offer guidance and support, because the world of education and employment has changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years.

I can attest to the fact that kids who were born in the 1950s-1970s (and able to afford it) were strongly encouraged to pursue a college degree in order to be prepared for a good career. They were also admonished not to drop out of college, because statistics showed that college dropouts rarely returned to complete their degree. That was probably because at the time, most colleges did not accept applicants over the age of 25. And even colleges that did accept older applicants did not offer class schedules that accommodated being a parent or being employed full time. In addition, students in earlier decades were told that they could be able to earn more over the course of their lifetime than someone without a degree.

In the past 30 years however, these factors have changed dramatically. Educational programs that appeal to adult learners have been created and developed to the point that many colleges and universities have far more adult learners seeking degrees than younger students. Meanwhile, the cost of obtaining that education has risen so dramatically that the tuition paid over four or more years may be far greater than the extra income one earns in a career over his or her lifetime. In addition, the earning power of a college degree is diminished in some cases. Many people will have a higher position and be earning more after 4 years of experience in a job that does not require a degree than someone in an entry-level position who has earned a B.A. or B.S — and the person with the degree still has to pay back the student loans that were required to get them the education necessary for that entry level position!

Having spent nearly 20 years working in a university setting, I recognize the value of a college education, and I encourage the pursuit of a degree for those young people who seem to be the right fit for the college track or who have a passion for a career that requires a degree. At the same time, I acknowledge that there are other ways for young people to become skilled and prepared for a successful career and that there are numerous training, certification, and apprenticeship programs that equip them to earn a good living without the burden of college loans.

The bottom line is that, as the parent of an emerging adult, it's critical that you adapt to this new reality by not sending the message to your child that a college degree represents their only real chance for success in life. This is where technology can be a great help. A parent can assist a young adult child to make wise choices about college and career by encouraging him or her to make use of the many career assessments that are available online, and to research information about college and other career preparation programs.

Four: Understand How Social Media has Redefined Dating for Young Adults

Whether a young adult participates in online dating or not, the world of social media is likely to affect his or her dating life significantly. Pictures of dates posted on Facebook, status changes from "Single" to "In a Relationship," and conversations between someone and her 1,303 Facebook friends about her love life (complete with a plethora of comments, advice, and criticism) add drama and confusion to the lives of dating young people.

They also tend to leave those who are not dating feel left out and as if they are bound to be single for the rest of their lives. The pressure to be in a serious relationship is greater than for previous generations because there is an audience of many who are not afraid to offer unsolicited advice and to keep score of a person's dating successes or failures. Every marriage proposal, engagement event, shower, wedding, and birth is advertised in living color, accentuated with special invitations and pictures of gifts received. For those who are single, these images are a constant reminder that they are not measuring up.

Parents of emerging adults need to adapt their thinking about dating to incorporate the significant effects of social media on romantic relationships, and to remember those effects when offering guidance. One of my friends noticed that her son and his girlfriend were having frequent arguments about their relationship, largely stirred up by reactions to Facebook posts, Twitter comments, and Instagram photos. She gently suggested that they "fast" from technology for a week. The couple found that their arguments decreased significantly when they stopped discussing their private affairs on public social media platforms.

Some Final Thoughts

Young adults today need just as much encouragement and guidance from their parents as their parents did when they were younger. Empathy and understanding are the building blocks of a healthy relationship between you and your emerging adult children. Meaningful conversations that include equal doses of listening, discussion of problem areas, and suggestions for healthy changes — rather than lectures that offer unsolicited advice — contribute to healthy parent/child interaction during this critical time. Learning to be adaptable as the parent of an emerging adult will contribute to greater adaptability for your young adult child, as well.

Dr. Joannie DeBrito is Focus on the Family's Director of Parenting, and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with more than 30 years of experience.