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Encouraging Spiritual Formation in Young Adults

By Rob Jackson, MS, LPC
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Young Adult Praying
Parenting isn’t easy, but it can be supremely rewarding when done according to God’s plan.

Many parents of young adults wonder how to encourage their children’s spiritual formation. It felt a lot simpler in those early years, when we still had control over what messages they received, and from whom. Once our children enter their late teens and early twenties, however, the task of shepherding their hearts feels more elusive. Most of their messages come from their peers, the online world, and their professors. Christian parents often struggle to take our role to the next level.

God designed our children to continue to need our support during adulthood too. Your new role may look very different from the sweet, affectionate relationship you enjoyed with them in their early years. It won’t involve the same influence you had when they were in middle school and were still asking you to drive them places. But this chapter of their lives still has a place that only you can fill.

Cooperate With God’s Design

God desires a personal relationship with your children, and He designed them to see it acted out first in you.

  • You cooperated with Him through procreation. Your child’s birth or adoption into your family is a picture that illustrates his or her eventual rebirth in Christ.
  • You continue to cooperate with Him through parenting. Being raised by Christian parents is a process that points to your child’s spiritual formation through the Holy Spirit dwelling within him or her.

People often say, “Children don’t come with an instruction manual.” This is true in one sense, because God did not give us a list of specific do’s and don’ts to guarantee success. If He had done so, we might be prone to treating our children as projects to be completed rather than hearts to win for God’s kingdom purposes.

On the other hand, the Bible is a life-giving guide for all things, including how to pass on our faith and nurture our kids’ spiritual development at every age. There are precepts and principles throughout scripture that equip us for the task at hand.

Parent With the End in Mind

Be Proactive

Your transition from parenting a child to parenting a young adult will be much smoother if it happens in purposeful stages. The failure to do this is evident:

  • Colleges now struggle with helicopter parents who try to protect their immature freshmen. 
  • Families engage in power struggles that provoke even more rebellion in their older adolescents.
  • Young adults are leaving their parents’ faith in record numbers.

Number the Days

A good way to avoid these pitfalls is to ask yourself annually, “Where are we, in the timeline of parenting this child?” Take each child’s age and divide it by eighteen. This gives you the percentage of time that has already passed in your opportunity to prepare them for adulthood. 

  • Is your twelve-year-old being given the opportunity to control 66% of her tasks? 
  • Do you treat your sixteen-year-old as if he can make 88% of his own decisions? 
  • Has your eighteen-year-old taken full responsibility for his or her life choices, requesting your advice and input only as needed? 

If so, you are well on the path of equipping your emerging adult children. With their basic, developmental skills solidly on track, they will be much more likely to steward their own bodies, minds, and spirits well.

Equip Your Child With the Fundamentals of Spiritual Formation

This process of spiritual formation includes such important motivations and skills as:

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.

Model, Don’t Coddle

As they mature, instead of making your kids depend on you as their source of strength, comfort, and motivation, point them to God and these important truths:

Renegotiate the Relationship Along the Way

As you approach the finish line, remember that God has hardwired your child for independence and emerging adulthood. Weed out your own fears and attempts to take control. Remember to:

  • Parent based on their needs, not your neediness.
  • Equip rather than control.
  • Never project your traumas, fears, and failures onto them.
  • Respond in the power of the Holy Spirit instead of reacting in your human nature.

Prepare for the Long Road

Parenting isn’t easy, but it can be supremely rewarding when done according to God’s plan. You and your child will have unexpected detours and navigate disappointments with each other. You may even have to endure a period when your child is a prodigal. If so, follow the example of the father in Luke 15, pray, and watch for God to work.

When in Doubt, Remember the Three R’s

Being responsible to your young adult, rather than for your young adult is a tricky balance to find. Circumstances will change and you will need to flex based on real needs rather than feelings or preferences. When you mess up, apologize and change the offending behavior. Pray for God to remove your insecurities and empower you to do life well, for your sake and for theirs. Embrace the challenge using the following touchstones:


What’s going on in your body? You telegraph your positive and negative emotions through your body language, countenance, and behaviors (James 1:20).


Your child is a person, not a project. Lose the agenda. Ask thoughtful questions that help you get to know them. Avoid unnecessary declarations that reveal you haven’t really listened and simply wanted to be heard (James 1:19).


Share your heart and be open to theirs. Have conversations instead of monologues. When you must share concerns, convictions, or boundaries, do so with love.                             

Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor

Now that your child is a young adult, you can step back and gain a better perspective on who he or she is becoming. Some finishing touches remain, but you can set your brush down and celebrate that it’s your time to stop. Though your work is finished as a hands-on parent, you can build a friendship with your young adult based on mutual respect and trust. Most of all, you can know that God is at work in their life and yours, to accomplish His grand and beautiful purpose. 

© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. 


Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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About the Author

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson, MS, LPC

Rob Jackson is a licensed counselor with Focus on the Family’s Counseling Services department specializing in calls related to sexuality, marriage and parenting. Jackson has provided counseling services through his private practice since 1991 with an emphasis on helping individuals recover from sex addiction through integrated care that helps people mature and heal spiritually, psychologically, and behaviorally. In addition to …

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