Parenting adult children: it’s one of the most difficult—and yet least discussed—life transitions facing today’s boomers. Toddler tantrums and teen hormones were no picnic, but there is an abundance of resources available for those stages of parenting—not so much for how to parent adult children, though. That’s why we’ve created this guide. Use this as a resource hub and reference it for tools, tips, and strategies so you can better navigate this challenging time in your adult children’s lives.
When Your Children Become Adult Children
Whether you believe adulthood begins at age 18, or that it’s less about a number and more about maturity, the reality is that today’s young adults live in a very different world. Crippling college debt. A highly competitive job market. The pressure to perform—and succeed—early on. Constant comparison with peers via social media. Because of these changes, new definitions of adulthood are emerging.
In fact, experts are using the term “emerging adulthood” more frequently, thanks to the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties. In the book, Arnett explores the demographics of this life phase and marks the distinction between adolescence and adulthood.
But life for a 20-year-old adult child looks totally different than that of a 30- or 40-year-old adult child. If you have a large family, you may have adult children in all three of these stages of young adulthood.
There may be overlap and outliers in these decades—for example, more than 10 million millennials are currently caregivers for a parent or grandparent—but these are among the general milestones and markers for young adults:
- Life in the 20s. Finishing college (or attending other post-secondary institutions), applying to/attending graduate school for an advanced degree, looking for jobs, dating, exploring identity, defining career and life success.
- Life in the 30s. Career advancements, relationship changes (longer-term dating, marriage, cohabitation), travel, saving for/buying a home, starting a family.
- Life in the 40s. A more focused career (or perhaps a career change), raising children, starting to think about retirement, planning for caregiving as parents and grandparents age, continued education.
Parenting Adult Children
Your diaper-changing and chauffeuring days are over. Whether you feel relieved or conflicted about this change, it’s time to embrace your adult child’s independence and enjoy a new phase of parenthood; there are different ways for parenting adult children. Here are eight ways to grow a healthy relationship with your adult children and how to parent adult children in their 20s and beyond:
1. Recognize and respect your differences. If you and your child had conflict well before adulthood, it won’t disappear overnight on their 18th birthday. Sometimes, the conflict is simply the result of a personality clash and being under one roof can intensify it. Good news: there’s no time like the present to accept—and celebrate—the uniqueness of your child. You may not always agree with their life choices, but as their independence grows, find joy in connecting without conflict.
2. Share your wisdom and insight (without being critical). Because your child may have a very different temperament than yours, they may not always respond well to your suggestions—helpful as you think they may be. If they sense criticism, they may even shut down completely. If you’re sharing wisdom, do so with grace and sensitivity. This is one of the many challenges in parenting adult children, but it is also a strong way to build a bond of understanding and empathy with them as well. Learn how they communicate.
3. Setting boundaries with adult children. No matter what your living arrangements are—adult children living at home, adult children living overseas, and everything in between—you still need boundaries. There may be times when you’re the first person they call in a crisis, and other times they’ll want to figure it out with a friend first. Likewise, just because your children are adults doesn’t mean you should tell them all the intimate decisions and discussions you may be having at home with a spouse or partner. Set ground rules for how to disagree. Setting boundaries with adult children may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it and stick to it, the easier it will get.
4. Do things you love together. If you loved shopping with your daughter when she was a teen, there’s no reason to stop now. Maybe this is a time to discover new things you both love. Whatever traditions, hobbies, or activities appeal to you and your adult child, commit to enjoying them together on a regular basis.
5. Make room for significant others in their lives. It may be hard to share your children with their significant others, but these relationships are an important stage in their launch toward independence. Be open-minded and gracious as you meet this person and find ways to get to know them without being too pushy or critical. This doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of adult children but giving them the room to grow and learn at their own pace.
6. Be a consultant, not a CEO. Tess Brigham, an LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist) from the Bay Area, says this phase of parenthood is not about running the company and being in charge of their life as you were when they were a dependent but, instead, parenting adult children may mean offering expert advice and guidance that adult children can implement.
7. Be a sounding board for adult children. Create an atmosphere in which your children always feel like they can talk to you, says Cynthia White, a Canadian-based freelance writer with a 29-year-old daughter and 32-year-old son. “Adult children will not always be asking for advice, but rather, just asking for a sounding board,” White says. And, in addition to keeping the lines of communication open, keep a poker face when they do talk to you about stuff that makes your skin crawl, she adds.
8. Make family meetings a regular occurrence. If you’ve fostered open communication throughout your child’s life, regular family meetings will feel much more natural, says Dr. Richard Horowitz of Growing Great Relationships. In large families, keeping everyone on the same page can be tricky. Regular family meetings allow a safe space for siblings and parents to share issues of concern, and to process hard things together.
Adult Children Who Ignore Their Parents
Not every parent and child have a happy relationship, and adulthood can widen that gap. Look for opportunities to foster a healthier relationship than you had in the past, now that the dynamics of authority may have shifted. Try to find common interests—if your daughter loves sports, plan to go to an event together. If your son loves art history, invite him to meet you at a museum on a Saturday.
If the wounds of your painful relationship run deep, you may want to seek out a therapist who can help you understand the roots of the hurt, and work toward healing. There may be an opportunity to bring your son or daughter to a session with you so the therapist can mediate an open conversation about these past hurts.
No matter what the situation, be persistent in pursuing a relationship with your adult children, recognizing that you may be closer to some of them than others. If your child is completely ignoring you and you’ve already attempted to ask why you may need to give them time and space. Don’t take it personally, and consistently express your desire for a relationship when they’re ready.
Adult Children Who Disrespect Their Parents
While you may not always agree on everything in this new phase of your parent-child relationship, adult children shouldn’t be testing you or rebelling against you anymore. Set an expectation for respect: you are still the parent figure.
If your adult child moves back home, you may also be providing room and board. Tess Brigham, a trained psychotherapist turned 20-something life strategist, says one of the most important things parents can do before an adult child moves back home is to evaluate what you want from this arrangement—instead of immediately preparing your child’s room and filling the refrigerator with food.
“It can be so hard for parents to say no,” Brigham says. “That’s why it’s so important to set an intention, to think about what this might look like and set clear boundaries.” For example, you should still go to a yoga class or the gym and keep your own commitments—instead of dropping everything to go get milk or pick up a job application for that child. This prevents resentment on the part of the parent and helps ensure that self-care remains a priority. “You need to support your child without getting lost in the process,” says Brigham.
Adult Children Who Move Back Home
Dr. Horowitz says there are two main reasons kids move back home: money and parenting styles. It’s harder to be financially independent in today’s society, where college debt often far exceeds what new graduates are able to earn—if they are fortunate enough to find a job. They either rely on their parents for income or must move home.
Even if you wouldn’t have considered yourself a helicopter parent, many young adults are less resilient if you’ve intervened often on their behalf. “They hit an obstacle and are less likely to cope,” says Horowitz. “This may be because they’ve become too attached, and it gets in the way of independence.”
Whatever the reasons are for your adult child’s moving back home, your success in making the arrangement work for the short-haul depends on setting clear expectations and rules for adult children living at home.
Rules for Adult Children Living at Home
1. Beware of—and undo—old patterns. Even if your son kept his dorm room surprisingly neat, it’s easy to slip into old patterns and habits once he moves back into the comfort and routine of home. Be prepared for this possibility by discussing the way things were and share how you’d like to see those old patterns change in the present.
For example, if he came home from his high school job and plopped down on the couch to watch TV—leaving his dirty clothes scattered about the living room—set an expectation early on: when he gets home from work now, you’d like him to leave his belongings in his room before he hangs out in a family common area.
Whatever conflicts you had with your children before are likely to resurface, although they may look different now that they’re adults. And your relationship is different because of it, but that doesn’t mean old patterns—particularly negative ones—should be part of the new living arrangement. You may not be “in charge” anymore, but so long as they’re living in your home, work toward a better relationship with honest, open communication.
2. Make sure the burden of chores and household work is shared as equally and fairly as possible. They don’t need a sticker chart anymore, but your kids should still contribute to the work of the household. Sit down together and discuss timing, and what’s realistic based on their schedule and yours.
If your daughter loves to cook but works at a restaurant during dinner hours, perhaps ask her to make some freezer meals on the weekends or mornings off so you’ll have access to easy options throughout the week.
If your son has his own bathroom now, it’s his responsibility to clean it—unless he is willing to do some other household tasks (mowing the lawn, replacing burned-out light bulbs, taking out the trash) in exchange for Mom’s white glove touch.
For more guidance on setting rules for adult children living at home and making an at-home relationship work with your adult children, read our article, [link to new spoke: Boomerang Kids: When Adult Children Move Back Home].
Letting Go of Adult Children as They Transition Into the Real World
If your children are still teenagers, the successful launch into adulthood starts even now. Here, Amy White, MBA and creator of the Daily Successful Living Blog, shares what worked for her and her husband as their three teens (who are now 20-somethings) transitioned into adulthood:
- Help, without giving handouts. “One of the decisions my husband and I made as our children began to leave home was to provide support, but not give a hand-out financially,” White explains. “As a parent, it is hard to see your kids struggle, which leads to a tendency to overindulge. To help our kids, we continued to pay for their health insurance, cell phones, and kept them on our car insurance.” White says once their children started their first real jobs, she and her husband sat down with them and explained the cost of their phones and insurance, then let them know that this was a cost for which they were responsible.
- Set up a system for payback. Each month, our adult children are responsible for paying us back, says White. “All of our kids have slowly begun to transition these accounts into their own names and take this responsibility on themselves. We now have one child on our phone plan and one on our car insurance,” she says.
- Letting go of adult children means celebrating the transition to independence. White and her husband have enjoyed this shift. “It has been really fun watching them begin to stand on their own financially,” she says. “I think that by gradually letting them transition—while providing the financial support they needed at the time—helped each of them to experiment with money and find a way of budgeting that worked for them.”
When an Adult Child Has Mental Health Issues or Special Needs
Monica Garret-Hughes, an RN at BrightStar Care based in Lubbock, Texas, offers advice on establishing healthy boundaries when your adult child lives with mental illness. “It starts before day one, with understanding their illness and background,” says Garret-Hughes.
When she meets with families to provide care, Garret-Hughes seeks to understand triggers and how the illness presents itself. “The first priority is demonstrating clear boundaries and never wavering,” she says. But it’s important for parents to learn what their son or daughter is able to do, and encourage them along the way, per Garret-Hughes. “Establishing routines and being predictable is also very important.”
One of the biggest challenges in navigating this type of parent-adult child relationship? Separating your child from his/her mental illness. “Behind the mood swings, combative behavior and tantrums, there is a beautiful soul that still needs compassionate care,” says Garret-Hughes.
J. Hope Suis, the author of Mid-Life Joyride, assumes many of the responsibilities for her grandson, as her youngest daughter—his mother—struggles with mental illness. “My daughter, her husband, and their two-year-old son live with me,” says Suis. “I also have to work through how to handle issues like money, household chores, and other situations with her directly, and learn how to balance where mental illness stops/starts and enabling begins.” Enabling adult children can happen without you even realizing it. Suis took a course provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) so she could better understand her daughter’s illness and gain the skills she needed to parent her as an adult.
In the case of an adult child with special needs, a longer period of support may be required before a transition to independence. Some adult children with special needs may always need support, but it should be tailored to their needs and with their goals for independence in mind. Read our article, Who Will Care for My Special Needs Adult Child? for insights and advice.
Parents Enabling Adult Children
Author Heather Goodyear has a desire to see strong families in every phase of life, and this has informed both her writing and parenting (two of her six children have reached adulthood, and one is right on the cusp).
Says Goodyear, “I have learned that too many parents fall into regret as their children reach adulthood. They have nostalgia for the baby, toddler, and growing-up years—and regret that those days will not return.” This regret often fuels enabling or even conflict, because—instead of embracing all the independent aspects of their grown-up children’s lives—they begin to fight against their children’s growing independence. “This creates a turbulent time between the parents and adult children that will likely cause more regret for parents later,” says Goodyear.
How do you avoid enabling adult children, particularly when your adult child is demanding and needy (and perhaps has been that way throughout childhood)? Begin with setting boundaries with adult children and keep the goal of independence in mind. Work together to establish expectations. Talk openly about challenges and be honest in your communication about hurts and hopes.
Adult Children Taking Advantage of Parents
If you lamented the empty nest, you’ll probably welcome your child back home with open arms. But that doesn’t mean you should do everything for them or let them take advantage of your warm welcome.
Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan, advises parents to take an inventory of what they can control and what they can’t. “You may not be able to control how late your adult child stays out or sleeps in, but you might be able to control their resources like money, use of the car, etc.,” says Krawiec. “Create rules for adult children living at home and expectations for the things you can control and avoid what you can’t.”
What to Do About Adult Children Who Expect Money
Elisabeth Stitt, author of Parenting as a Second Language and founder of Joyful Parenting Coaching, offers this advice on navigating money matters with adult children:
“Let’s say your mid-20s adult has moved back in with you. You are sympathetic to the challenges of the high cost of housing and want to help. Helping is different than removing all obstacles and preventing your child from taking on adult responsibility. Sure, let them rent from you at a reduced rate, but do charge rent. How much? Well, enough to reduce the amount of struggle, but not all of it. If you are housing your adult child for a reduced rate, and he is spending a lot on his leisure activities (no matter how wholesome), you are enabling your adult children and not allowing them to be an adult.
“Gauge how much support to give by asking the question, is my support helping my child to reach a higher level of adult responsibility? For example, perhaps your providing housing allows your adult child to hold down a job and take continuing education classes at the same time, or maybe you are saving him from a couple of hours of commuting a day so that he can put in the extra hours to really impress his boss and line himself up for a promotion.”
For more on this thorny topic, read our article, Giving Money to Grown Children: When to Stop and How to Break the Habit.
Top Concerns of Parenting Adult Children
Whatever parenting adult children concerns arise in this new phase, the challenge often boils down to setting and honoring boundaries:
- How do you help them launch successfully without enabling adult children?
- How do you help your daughter struggling with money management to become financially independent?
- How do you empower your son who battles crippling anxiety to live in his own apartment?
- How do you navigate the return of a child—with grandchildren in tow—after a painful relationship or marriage ends?
- How do you balance the desire to be all things to all the ones you love—children and grandchildren, spouses, and aging parents—with doing the things you hoped and even planned for in the empty nest stage?
There are many layers of complexity in this stage of life, and resources around it are few and far between—as many of these changes are newly emerging, and life for adult children looked very different in prior generations.
As in any challenging life phase, talking through the issues with peers and those in similar situations is a positive starting point—as is seeking out counselors, mediators, and other professionals who are equipped to guide and direct—to ease the growing pains of the parent-adult child relationship. For many families, the unhealed wounds and scars of childhood (for both the parent and child) may need to be confronted in order to develop a healthy, grounded relationship.
We’re here for you through it all, and we welcome your feedback on topics you’d like us to address. Or, tell us how you’re handling a difficult situation with your adult children in the comments below.