One of the more challenging epochs for a parent who is actively and lovingly engaged in their child’s emotional growth and development is when their child enters young adulthood. As a parent, having one’s child “graduate” into adulthood emotionally healthy and independent is a source of great pride and personal satisfaction – and of course brings with it a feeling of tremendous relief! There are numerous issues and bumps in the road that arise along this shared journey, most of which relate to the dynamic tension that arises as one’s child begins to assert his or her independence, often bringing about life events that fall short of the ideals that we hold out for them, or that they hold out for themselves.
How do we simultaneously let go, yet remain involved and engaged at a level where our child feels adequately supported, without undermining his or her independence, and the confidence that comes from their tackling the challenges of the outside world and progressively mastering them? How do we tolerate and accept the emotional pain that comes along with the process of letting go, while accepting a diminished role in our child’s life? How do we simultaneously endure the ups and downs of their alternately neglecting us, or vigorously and at times excessively asserting themselves against us? How do we not feel like an outmoded dinosaur, but feel relevant and important in their lives in newly created ways?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Our children at this phase of their lives are going through what has been called the second phase of separation and individuation (the first phase occurs in early childhood). Here they consolidate an adult identity, choose a career path, and engage in more mature love relationships, eventually settling on a mate. This process takes place over a period of years, and rarely occurs without setbacks. The challenge we face as parents is to let go, yet remain engaged. This means sitting back and watching the inevitable mistakes and lack of judgment unfold as our child engages with the real world, and stepping in only when we believe that a seriously harmful result is about to take place.
As Siddhartha lamented to his friend Govinda (in the book, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse):
“Wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness… Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught.”
Our children develop wisdom through life experience – it is not something that we can impart to them – and through experiencing and overcoming disappointments and losses they become more adept at managing adult world challenges. When we try offering our wisdom it drives them away. Well then, if we can’t provide the benefits of our wisdom, how can we effectively parent during this phase? The best options include providing active empathy – listening in a supportive fashion to the issues and struggles they are living through without passing judgment. Advice may be offered if requested, otherwise keep it to yourself. Networking contacts can be valuable to help your child get launched. Offer them up and then step back and let your child decide if they want to avail themselves of your introductions.
If you get into unproductive struggles with your child, take a step back, and then speak with them about how they (and you) are going through a major readjustment of roles and responsibilities at this phase of their life, and let them know that you are there to help them, and that you will take the lead from them and wait for them to ask for help, and let you know what they need and when they need it. A book that may prove useful for some children to read is Tina Selig’s “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20”
It is important to speak frequently with your spouse during this phase, both to give and receive support, to commiserate, and to strategize on what interventions (if any) are called for. Speaking with friends whose children have successfully navigated this phase, receiving their support, and gaining their valuable knowledge and insights, can also really help.
If your child develops symptoms of excessive anxiety or depression, or suspicions develop that they may be trying to cope by using drugs or alcohol, then professional help is warranted. An existential crisis in one’s child as they emerge into adulthood becomes a crisis for the entire family. While not every story has a happy ending, most children end up consolidating an adult identity that brings them independence and newfound freedom. While this process may take up to a decade to accomplish, particularly in today’s increasingly complicated and fast moving world, by age thirty most young adults have consolidated their adult identity, and have successfully created a career path and secured a mate. For their parents, it brings a newfound freedom, and a great sense of relief.