by Elizabeth M. Klaers, MSW, LSW

In part one, we considered traits that are common during emerging adulthood. Today, I want to give 6 tips that will help parents navigate this transition.

The term, “Emerging Adulthood”, coined by researcher Jeffery Jensen Arnett, speaks to an important aspect in the developmental process and the key is in the first word, emerge. When I consider the definition of the word in this context, I understand it as a “coming into view or existence,” rather than one “requiring immediate action, or urgency.” Think of a caterpillar emerging into a butterfly…it’s a transformation that takes time. In a ‘good enough’ environment, it is a natural process of integration and emerging.

What are some things that might contribute to a ‘good enough’ environment? For emerging adults, despite popular belief, parents are an overwhelmingly important part of life. Every interaction is an opportunity to impact how your son or daughter will understand themselves and their world. Whether they live at home and you struggle to get them to contribute to chores, or they are in college and conflict over money matters abounds – parents have to make hard choices. The following tips are meant as a starting place when negotiating rules and making decisions about your involvement in their lives.

6 Tips to Consider:

Practice Patience Your emerging adult is in a transition and any transition requires patience. When we get impatient worry is usually lurking somewhere close by. Worry about their choices, worry about negative outcomes, worry about their wellbeing. Remind yourself that human beings learn through their direct experience. Every single thing they go through (good, bad and ugly) are stepping stones to help them gather, integrate and use important information that they’ll need now and as an adult.

Be Curious – You cannot possibly know exactly what your son or daughter’s path in life will include. Let yourself be curious and resist giving them all of the answers or expecting them to have all the answers. Ask more open ended questions (ones you do not already know the answer to). Being curious is hard because in order for it to be genuine, you must drop your own agenda.

Acknowledge the Facts – They are becoming more adult, which requires both freedoms and responsibilities. Acknowledge that your son or daughter is in a big transition and commit to moving towards the goal together. This may require more commitment to hanging out during times of “non-conflict” so conversations are mutual rather than in lecture style. Remind them (and maybe yourself) that this is their life and they are responsible for how they live. *If they live with you, rules should be simple, clear and direct – and yes, when your house rules are not honored, appropriate consequences will be necessary.

Accept that they are No Longer and Not Yet Emerging adults are no longer an adolescent and not yet a fully mature adult. Turn toward this truth and hold it with gentle awareness. There may be some back and forth between closeness and distance. I love the title of a book called, “Get Out of My Life: But First, Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?” (Wolf, 2002). Emerging adults will often shift needs – one day being dependent, needing you there and another day being autonomous, needing distance from you. Like a young child that is moving from crawling to walking, even after mastering a couple of steps on their own, they will often drop back and reach for the coffee table or chair to help them along. What they mastered in the past is a familiar place to go as they try on and slowly integrate new behavior leading to lasting change.

Do your own work Parental expectations and the expectations society has for families and children play a big part in the suffering we experience as parents. Although well intentioned – parents really want their kids to succeed and be happy – parental expectations are often unrealistic and come from parents’ own unlived dreams, fears or internal and external pressures. Parenting often requires we step back, reflect and explore the patterns and beliefs that are keeping us from accepting the goodness that is right in front of us. With the help of couples therapy and individual therapy, parents can learn about brain development, strategies to set boundaries and learn how to transition more smoothly through this phase of life. Until a parent understands what is natural in the developmental process and how best to respond in their own unique situation, they may react out of fear and treat this phase as if it is an emergency.

Get your own life Your kids may not be the only ones emerging. This is a big transition for the mothers and fathers. If this is your youngest or only ‘child’ the approaching empty nest may bring with it all kinds of reactions so, take care of you. Consider joining a book club, taking a class with your spouse or partner or having more frequent time with friends. If there are really big challenges you’re facing as a parent it may be tough to find the energy to make plans – try as best you can. Go out there and model what it means to be an adult – which includes taking care of yourself and having some fun!

For some parents this time of life is harder than anything else they have encountered. If you are struggling with prolonged depression and anxiety, or the ongoing family conflicts are affecting your relationships, consider psychotherapy. Be gentle with yourself and make sure you take time for self-care, whether on your own, as a couple or with family and friends.

Elizabeth M. Klaers, MSW, LSW, is a parent and therapist who specializes in counseling individuals and families, both adults (emerging or otherwise) and young children. In addition to her private practice, Elizabeth is a ProBono Therapist and Development Manager at Maria Droste Counseling Center.