How to Parent an Adult Child (Living at Home)
by Cynthia Koch, Psy.D.
Here at the Koch Center, more than ever before, we are seeing a generation of parents of young adults encountering a new challenge, that of having an adult “child” living at home. Some of these young adults fit the term “failure to launch” which essentially refers to those ages 18-28 who are having a difficult time making the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
It is important, however, to bear in mind that this is a cultural phenomena. In generations past, it was not necessarily unusual to live at home until marriage or to live as part of an extended family group, getting support from many people around you in an ongoing way. Certainly now there is a huge emphasis on independence. The world has become smaller in the sense that everything global is at our fingertips via the internet, and yet, it is larger in that extended families are often oceans away. The ability to navigate this type of independence with little or no family or community support requires skills and abilities that many young adults simply do not have.
Julia Lythcott-Haims, as the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University, has written a book entitled How to Raise an Adult Child. She wrote this book because she observed the increase of parental involvement on campus coupled with a decrease in young adults’ ability to navigate college on their own. She discusses a number of important shifts that took place in the mid-80’s. Some of these were: there became an increased awareness in child abductions (faces on milk cartons) which gave way to an incessant fear of strangers thus increasing parental involvement, the publication of A Nation at Risk which argued that American kids were not competing with their peers globally which led to a college arms race, the creation of the “playdate” which emerged as a practical scheduling tool for moms who entered the work force – this led to parents scheduling, observing and being involved in play. Leaving kids home alone became taboo as did unsupervised play, thus robbing children of the opportunity to develop creative skills and problem solve relationships.
Parenting changed from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life. Ironically, while our kids have so many more opportunities available to them (internships abroad, advanced technology, higher education), many are much less prepared to clean a bathroom, balance a budget, shop for and cook a meal.
So what to do now? After many years of noticing this trend, we at The Koch Center asked ourselves: What is going on? How can we help? What do we (including the young adult) want to accomplish? How is that best done?
I like to think of life skills as being in two camps. There are ‘Practical Life Skills’ and ‘Emotional Life Skills.’ As a parent, you may find yourself needing to teach ‘Practical Life Skills’ (understanding basic contracts, like an apartment or car lease/having a basic understanding of finances). These may be things you, as a parent, need to explain and oversee so that with practice, your young adult child can do them independently. Then there are what I will call ‘Emotional Life Skills.’ These are things like being able to tolerate frustration, to control anger, to be in a healthy relationship. As we noticed over the years that many young people were lacking some of these ‘Emotional Life Skills,’ we became intensively trained as a team in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT skills are a combination of acceptance skills (like how to tolerate distress and boredom) and change skills (like how to regulate your emotions so that you are more in control of your emotions as opposed to being controlled by them). DBT includes skills that teach healthy relationship building and how to make “wise-minded” decisions. There are also skills for parents that aid in how to communicate more effectively in the home. Since we have begun teaching these skills (it has been about ten years now), we have seen wonderful results which has left us heartened and inspired.
Our mission remains to treat each person as the individual they are and to help people to improve their lives and sense of fulfillment. Seeing positive results is most certainly fulfilling. There is nothing more gratifying that seeing your young adult children find a footing in the world and experience a sense of competence and satisfaction.
For more information or to speak to me directly, please call 201-670-6450 ext. 1.
Dr. Cyndi Koch
Director, The Koch Center