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March 26, 2001
Teen Angst at Twenty-Five?
Strategies for "raising" your adult child

first letter belligerent, mouthy, too old for curfews, and ready to party until 2 a.m." -- that's how a seasoned social worker described her adult son who still lived at home. "I can't say anything unless I want to suffer through his childish insolence. He's 21 going on 16. He's making me crazy all over again!"

State of Mind


By Nancy Duncan, M.S.W.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you're not alone. According to 1998 Census Bureau figures, nearly 22 million young adults (ages 18 or older) continue to live at home, up from 15 million in 1970. There's no definitive age at which children should leave the nest; however, a few rules prevail when it comes to establishing healthy bonds with your grown children. Interactions with your adult child don't have to be emotional strained and fraught with roller-coaster arguments.

"Egalitarian communication is essential," says family therapist Larry Stockman, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., and author of Adult Children Who Won't Grow Up. "Adult children want good relationships with their parents." Establishing appropriate boundaries in conjunction with mutual respect is another key ingredient, according to Stockman. Creating an arena that is both supportive and nonjudgmental is a crucial step toward a young adult's autonomy.

Lillian Robbins, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Rutgers University, explains, "Ongoing parental support and genuine friendship can only develop if there has been input and interplay all along. At the same time, as children become adults and, hopefully, increasingly independent both economically and socially, the balances do need to shift."

One of the ways to help get your adult child to grow up and cope with the consequences of his or her actions is to remove yourself from the disciplinary authoritative role while maintaining your boundaries. For example, if you don't want your adult child to bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend for an overnight stay, keep that rule in place while being careful not to intrude on or criticize your child's relationship. And being a good listener helps build the trust that will encourage your child to listen back. Bethany Murray, a therapist and a parent of grown children, advises, "Listening to our adult children tells them they are important. It's essential to remember they are adults now and that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn."


"Egalitarian communication is essential," says family therapist Larry Stockman. "Adult children want good relationships with their parents."


Strategies for success

  • Set boundaries. All relationships require healthy boundaries. As a parent, limit your advice to the most important issues, and you'll avoid overstepping personal boundaries. We all learn by example.
  • Listen without judgment. Adult children will talk and confide in their parents if they know it's safe.
  • Be patient. Like toddlers and teens, young adults require a great deal of understanding. Though your adult child might not admit it, he or she may be fearful and confused. Wisdom and maturity come with age. Remember your own young adult years?
  • Step back. Disconnect yourself from your child's problems, and allow him or her to grow. This can be hard for parents to do. Try to remember that the world is full of wonderful and wise people your adult child can benefit from and that having many experiences, even the occasional frightening one, can be beneficial.
  • Mistakes are a process. Mistakes are healthy if they're utilized in a manner that is constructive. Remember, it's your child's life -- not yours -- and consequences are a reality.
  • Communication. Effective communication is an art, and it's the key to building strong bonds between people. Talk openly about your concerns. Speak from your heart and avoid phrases like "You should have" or "I told you this would happen." A judging tone only creates tension. Subtle, supportive input can work wonders.
  • Give guidance. Share examples of your own youthful struggles as lessons. And as Stockman advises, "Don't give commands. Get their input."
  • Have a contract. A contract that spells out household rules and financial arrangements is a healthy foundation for a good relationship. Young adults should not be wholly dependent upon their parents, but rather should be financially responsible and contribute to the household expenses.

Life is a process of small steps toward autonomy and healthy parent/child relationships. The most important thing to remember on both sides is that growing up takes time.

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Nancy Duncan holds a master's degree in social work and works in the state of California with children and adults of all ages.