Parenting Emerging Adults: Adaptability

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
David Sacks/DigitalVision/Thinkstock
Adaptability is a big part of helping older children "leave the nest" well.

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

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.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

About the Author

Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT

As the current Director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and licensed mental health professional.

You May Also Like

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.

If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.