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Parenting Young Adults: Adaptability

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parents talking with their son about changes in society
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Adaptability as a parent requires a mom or dad to get rid of the “shoulds” that tend to come from comparing their experience as young adults to that of their kids.

Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine. We were catching up on the changes in society and how to be adaptable. Soon, we began talking about what was happening with one another’s children, all of whom are in their 30’s. I circled around to some previous discussions, mentioned how God had provided some wonderful solutions to difficult situations, and asked for prayer for one of my daughters. My friend provided some updates for me, as well, to which I replied, “I really love that we can talk so openly and continue to pray together for our kids, even though they’re now adults with families of their own.”

Without hesitation, she said, “Oh Joannie, I think we’ll be on our knees for the rest of our lives praying for their needs and thanking God for their blessings.” She was so right! I think that parents of young adults feel especially compelled to pray for their children these days.

My mom used to tell me, “Joannie, life was harder for us than for our parents, it’s harder for you than it was for us, and it will probably be even harder for your kids.” I’ve found this to be true. Life just continues to get more complicated. 

The Prolongation of Adolescence

For one thing, in the past few decades, a trend known as “the prolongation of adolescence” has become prevalent among young adults. Kids in their 20’s and 30’s are now taking longer than previous generations to reach emotional and social developmental milestones which requires adaptability on our part. Several changes in society may be responsible for this trend:

  1. First, it is taking young adults longer to complete their post high school education and begin a career. These milestones are important for learning new skills such as cooperation, collaboration, and fiscal responsibility.
  2. Secondly, the need to live at home in order to pay bills may prevent young adults from feeling the need to seek out their own friends and worship communities.
  3. Lastly, many young adults are unemployed, underemployed, or are dealing with chronic illnesses that may interfere with regular employment. This leaves them with few resources for participating in intimate relationships and special events that encourage the development of social and emotional skills.

It is important for you to recognize that your role as a parent shifts from one of protector and provider to that of coach and mentor when your kids make the transition into early adulthood. All of these scenarios underscore the need for parents to continue coaching and mentoring their young adult child. Therefore, married young adults may need your support in this arena also. Even though they are married, the demands of marriage in today’s culture are greater than in previous generations. Your adaptability and input is vital to help them reach maturity before they become parents.

How can you demonstrate adaptability – one of the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting – with your young adult child? Here are 4 important strategies to employ:

1. Throw Out the “Shoulds”

First, many parents assume that their young adult children should be at the same place they were at the same age. When their kids don’t meet this expectation, parents tend to chastise them. Here are some things that parents tend to say:

  • This should have been achieved this by now
  • You should be acting this way
  • You should have reached this milestone

Adaptability as a parent requires a mom or dad to get rid of the “shoulds” that tend to come from comparing their experience as young adults to that of their kids.

Our young adult children are facing a reality that is vastly different from the world of 20-30 years ago. Since we were kids, there have been significant changes in society. Today’s young people have major decisions to make. Should they go to college? Where will they live? Should they marry? Have children? The list goes on. These decisions are far more complicated than when we were young adults. Our children need adaptability, support, and encouragement, not criticism, as they navigate this mine field.

2. Adjust to the Realities of the Digital World

The single greatest difference between middle-aged and older adults and emerging adults is that young adults engage with the world via technology. They depend on technology to communicate, study, analyze, socialize, and stay informed. Technology has benefits as well as drawbacks. It is important for parents of young adults to encourage the use of technology in beneficial ways and discuss its potentially harmful effects with their children. Focus on the Family has developed a free resource to help tackle this issue. It is available at:

3. Adapt to the New Reality of College and Career

Many young adults face financial challenges related to college and career choices. Changes in society within the world of education and employment has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Because of this, parents might find this another area where adaptability is a challenge, and where it is difficult to offer guidance and support.

I can attest to the fact that kids who were born in the 1950s-1970s were strongly encouraged to pursue a college degree. In turn, this would lead them to a good career. Kids were also admonished not to drop out of college. Statistics showed that college dropouts rarely returned to complete their degree. This could be due to the fact that, at the time, most colleges did not accept students over the age of 25. Colleges that did accept older applicants rarely offered class schedules that accommodated work or being a parent. In addition, students were told that they could earn more money over their lifetime than someone without a degree.

Dramatic Changes

In the past 30 years, however, changes in society have shifted these factors dramatically. Adult educational programs have been created and developed. Many colleges and universities have more adult learners than younger students. Meanwhile, the cost of obtaining a college education has risen so dramatically that the tuition paid over four or more years may be far greater than the extra lifetime income one obtains, due to having a college degree. Many people in jobs that do not require a college degree reach higher positions and pay after 4 years of job experience than an entry-level position for a person who has earned their bachelor’s degree. The person with the degree then still has to pay back the student loans that were required to get 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. I encourage the pursuit of a degree for those young people with 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. There are numerous training, certification, and apprenticeship programs that equip them to earn a good living without college loans.

How to Support Your Children

The bottom line: as the parent of a young adult, it’s critical that you adapt to this new reality and to the changes in society. Avoid sending the message to your child that a college degree is their only real chance for success in life.

Technology can be a great help. Parents can prepare a young adult child by encouraging him or her to make use of the many career assessments that are available online. Having your child research information about college and other career preparation programs can help them decide the best choices to make.

4. Understand How Social Media has Refined Dating for Young Adults

The world of social media is likely to affect a young adult’s dating life significantly whether or not they participate in online dating. Pictures of dates posted on Facebook, changes in status from “single” to “in a relationship,” and posts about one’s love life add drama and confusion to the lives of young people who are dating.

Social media also tends to leave those who are not dating feeling left out and worried that they’ll be single for the rest of their lives. The pressure to be in a serious relationship is far greater than in previous generations for two reasons. First, there is a large audience who is not afraid to offer unsolicited advice. Second, there is the sense that the audience is “keeping score” of dating successes and failures. Every marriage proposal, engagement event, shower, wedding, and birth is advertised in living color. For those who are single, these images are a constant reminder that he or she is not measuring up.

The Impact of Social Media on Relationships

Parents of young adults need to adapt their thinking about dating to incorporate the impact of social media on romantic relationships. For example, one of my friends noticed that her son and his girlfriend were having frequent arguments about their relationship that were largely stirred up by social media posts. She gently suggested that the couple “fast” from technology for a week. The couple found that their arguments decreased significantly when they stopped discussing their private affairs on social media platforms.

Some Final Thoughts

Today’s young adults need just as much encouragement and guidance from their parents as their parents once did. Empathy and understanding are the building blocks of a healthy relationship between parents and their young adult children. Meaningful conversations should include equal doses of listening, discussion, problem-solving, adaptability, and suggestions for healthy changes. Conversations with these elements – rather than lectures with unsolicited advice – contribute to healthy interactions between parents and children. These interactions are critical during this time in a child’s life. Learning to be adaptable as a parent, especially where changes in society are concerned, will contribute to greater adaptability for your young adult child as well.

© 2018, 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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