There is a great movie called “A River Runs Through It” about family ties and learning how to unconditionally love those who challenge us with decisions and choices in their life that we may not agree with or understand.
“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
When I work with young adults and their parents this is often a constant issue. The common questions are: How do I help my child? They have such potential, how do they see what we see as parents? How do we help them thrive and be happy? Or how do we help them become more independent? How do we stop them from making poor choices?
Our program here At The Crossroads is named such because we believe that young adults need to live and learn from the mess of life as they navigate different crossroads in their journey to independence. As parents this is a difficult process to watch as young adults wade along, create messes, and as parents not want to fix it or make it better. As parents we can be so used to cleaning up, fixing, problem solving and making sure they are always OKAY, making sure they can be happy, and that they don’t struggle or suffer unnecessarily.
However it is that very struggle that pushes a young adult to grow up. Life experiences and the upsets that come with it, help young adults examine choice points and hopefully mature as they grow and gain insight into how they want to better live their lives. It helps them learn to make different choices and learn from mistakes even if it takes multiple times of the same mistake to finally learn the lesson.
A young adult can resist or fight growing up because they don’t want to take on the fullness of responsibility that comes with being an adult. They will push their parents to enable and rescue when times are tough. As parents we need to not enable and to instead hold the space of them BEING an adult, and weather the discomfort that comes as you experience them struggle without fixing it or making it better.
The tricky balance we ask our parents to walk is the fine line between support and help, without enabling. In her book The Conscious Parent, Shefali Tsabary, PhD notes that “bad” behavior is really a search for our inherent goodness. When young adults struggle, as parents it is important to have boundaries that are clear and fair.
A young adult may complain and pull on a parent’s heart by saying you don’t love me, or you want me to fail or you what have you. Our children know how to push our buttons and activate the shame we can hold as parents at not being good enough or failing our kids somehow.
I think it is important to remember poor choices and “bad” behavior is their’s to own and be accountable for, and this behavior is not WHO they are but more of a reflection of them trying to figure out their place in the world, deep down who they are, and where they fit collectively in the world outside the family system.
Getting out of the dance of enabling young adults and letting them grow up is easier said than done. Having clear and realistic boundaries can be subjective and each young adult and family is different in regard to setting boundaries and making them effective. In general it is important to set up realistic expectations for your young adult, and expect they will push every angle of your boundary to see how intact the boundary remains.
When these boundaries falter is often when I see the most difficulty for a family system to change and make space for young adult to grow up. When the same dance is enabled to continue, then a young adult cannot grow up. Fundamentally changing the nature of your relationship with a young adult is key.
There is rupture, disconnection, repair, and re-connection in any relationship. Letting the old relationship with your child rupture and change doesn’t have to be a bad thing, this process allows for healing, repair and even deeper re-connection as maturity grows and the ability to be an adult opens up, rather than hold the space of them remaining a child emotionally.
It is also important to hold the space of mature communication with a young adult as a parent, and when this is lacking hold them accountable for doing so. Letting a young adult tantrum on the phone or face to face with you, continuing to listen to demands and disrespect is holding the space of them being a tantruming child, not the young adult you expect them to be. Ending these communication promptly with the expectation for it to be better and respectful before engaging with them again is crucial.
In closing nothing is easy about parenting. Nothing is easy about becoming a young adult either. Both take willingness for parent and young adult to change what was when they were a child, and shift expectations on both ends. In the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk the author notes in the encouraging autonomy chapter to let go of your kids learning from YOUR mistakes.
As parents we want to tell our children as loudly as we can at times, “HELLO!!! I know that road, don’t go down it, it won’t bode well for you, this, this and this outcome is what is going to happen!! WHY AREN’T YOU LISTENING TO ME!! See, that thing I told you would happen did happen.”
While often times we can be right as parents in regard to messy outcomes, if we want to have or maintain the ability for our words to matter for a young adult we need to INVITE them to listen, INVITE them to care about what we think not assume that they should.
Some examples of this kind of communication are: “It sounds like a tough road you are walking, in my own experience I struggled with those kinds of things as well. Would you like to know more?” “If you ever want my perspective on that I am here for you let me know.” Again those types of ways of communicating invite a conversation not demand one.
When you are a curious parent and curious about your young adults life, and life choices even when it looks a mess, you have much more of a chance I believe to have and maintain influence than when we come across mad, reactive, disapproving and judgmental.
Becoming a parent we commit to be there when things are the most bleak and the most hard, and as parents I believe you can learn to be there for your young adult at all times without enabling them. This begins with consistent boundaries and the expectation that they DO grow up, mature, and be an adult.
This means allowing them the messy experiences that come with trying the adulting process on, failing, and going back at it without major enabling parent interference. Essentially as parents we are “fishing” for the most appropriate ways to interact with our young adult, and hold the space of that place with them. When we do this as parents, it gives them more room to actually become the independent young adults with balance in their lives, we are hoping they become.