21 is the New 16

The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes – naturally, no one wants to live any other way. ~Judith Martin

A funny thing happens in the summer when the college kids return.  In the beginning of the summer, when you are glad to see them home, you may chuckle about the ways they have changed and the pseudo-adult habits they have acquired while at school. But after a very little while this oh-I’m-going-out-at-one-a.m.-to-none-of-your-business-where-Can-I-borrow-the-car-and-can-I-get-some-money routine gets real old! And after a few short weeks and some heated text messages between you, the new, less romantic kind of mid-summer madness takes over. Pretty soon, everyone is counting down the days until school starts again!

I know this is not just happening in my household because my husband came home from grocery shopping this evening, having run into two friends of ours.He was a little amazed and overwhelmed because both friends immediately complained about the drama unfolding in their homes, too. He said their exasperation was the top of the conversation, as if they were all escaping to the grocery store to find each other and commiserate! The question on everybodys’ lips, What do we do with the Frankensteins we have created?

In light of this reality, I have decided to reprint the following post that I wrote 2 years ago. I offer it as hope, and comfort…with the upmost compassion and empathy for all of us parents questioning what we did to end up here. And how it is that we are experiencing such a profound generational misunderstanding about what growing up means–what work ethic and true independence and fundamental respect are supposed to look like.
I hope this helps!

21 is the New 16: Launching or Re-Launching an Adult Child

I am sitting on the cold, stiff, white paper-covered stirrup chair in my OB/GYN’s exam room. I am there for my annual check-up. She delivered all of my children and she has taken liberties with my body in furtherance of its care that I do not much like to think about. So we know each other fairly well. She is a personable, but a very busy, woman. Her exams are thorough but efficient, with no time for dilly-dally. After the usual battery of examinations and questions, she asks her exit question, “Everything seems great. How is your stress level?”

Most years, I say, “Oh, not too bad…considering life!” And she, most years, chuckles and shakes her head with understanding as she says goodbye and backs out of the door.

But this year, I say, “Funny you should ask because my stress is through the roof right now!”

“What’s going on?” The Good Doctor asks, concerned.

“My oldest son is home from college.” I moan, “Need I say more?”

“Ohhh,” she laughs that mother-to-mother commiserating laugh, “When does he go back?

“No, I mean, he is HOME from college”

“Ahhh…okay…yes.” She says as she walks back into the room and takes a seat on the rolly chair. She is perhaps remembering the conversation we had just last year when I mentioned that he was going off to college. “He is back for a while, then?”

“I am afraid so.”

“Take heart and do not panic, Mom” she says sticking her pen in her breast pocket and rolling her chair closer, “He will get it together and he will finish college. He will grow up and he will eventually be on his own.”

“How can you be so sure?” I ask, pleadingly

“Because I, too, have two boys, do not forget. And I am happy to say one is graduating from Wharton with an MBA and an interest in international business. And the other is graduating next year with his undergraduate degree.”

She, registering the sudden and not-so-subtle slump in my shoulders, quickly explains that her sons’ graduations are proof of the truth of her statements.

“Four years ago, I was feeling the way you are now. That’s when my oldest came home his sophomore year. And then I lived a déjà vu two years later, when ‘baby boy’ came slinking through the front door with bags in hand!” She says shaking her head in remembrance. The Good Doctor goes on to tell me how both of her sons stopped out of college—one to “find himself” and the other because he “just didn’t like it.” She describes exactly what I am finding out, which is, that our sons are a part of a trend. Young adults are flowing in and out of college, and in and out of their jobs. And they are coming home in droves. They just do not seem to know what they want to do or how to do on their own.

“When they got home, I was beside myself.” She says. “I wanted to go ‘Old School’ on them. I do think I threatened each of their lives at least once! I just could not relate to this lack of direction. Back in our day, you went to college; you took care of business; and you graduated. It was a four year plan. Our parents did not have the resources, nor the patience to hear about ‘finding yourself’. ‘You better find your self in class!’ is what they would have likely said!”

She is so right.

“But these kids are different. They have different expectations and we have allowed them to delay growing up,” the Good Doctor concludes.

She is alluding to the well-documented “pandemic” of “unreadiness” among our youth. As Jane Isay, author of Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, points out in her interview with USAToday.com:

Grown kids in their 20s are expected to be adult children, but as psychology has taught us recently, they’re not. They’re floating. For the parental generation, it’s very discouraging. When we were that age, we were already married and had children. Many people I interviewed in their 20s said, ” ‘When my mother was my age, she had three children.’ ” Every daughter knows the age her mother was when she was born and when her father and mother found their professions. They’re aware of the arc of their parents’ lives, and they look at it and say ‘I’m not there.’

Experts are finding that colleges, employers and of course, parents across the country are perplexed by the difficulty many “start-up adults” are experiencing. In college, they are having difficulty due to underdeveloped skills in analytical thinking, brainstorming, creative activity and formulating and defending their opinions. Many college students who may have sailed through high school utilizing lower learning skills such as rote memorization and mimicry are not able to make the jump to the greater demands of college study. In college, they are being asked to grasp concepts, terminology and issues with more depth of comprehension. In addition, they are often lacking the experience of dealing with adults, in adult settings—that is, settings (like the lecture hall or the workplace) that are not always exciting or geared specifically for their enjoyment.

Employers often find that new hires fresh out of college lack an ability to assess the effectiveness of their own performance in the workplace. They often do not know, for example, that they are failing to show initiative. They appear to be unable to embrace necessary concepts that are crucial for success at entry level positions—like delayed gratification and long-term thinking. They seem to lack the motivation to tend to unexciting details and to early cultivation of relationships.

So they quit. They seek more satisfying endeavors. They come home. Some try to live out their senior year of high school again. Some, who were perhaps hugely successful in high school, have a difficult time coping with the new challenges of college or adult life and with failure. They may feel hopeless and lost.

How can we parents help? What steps can we take to prevent this from happening? And how can we help our adult children launch? Or re-launch?

Clearly, there are things we should do as our kids are growing up to help them prepare for launch. From the moment they take their first step, they are heading toward the moment they will step out into the world on their own. It’s our job to help them prepare. The College Board offers a helpful list of ideas for how to encourage your child toward self-reliance. The basis of their recommendations is that parents should know when to step in and help their children and when to move out of the way and allow them to “step up” on their own behalf. The College Board recommends the following:

1. Encourage Public Speaking– Speaking in public (and preparing to speak in public) are great for self-esteem and important for developing face-to-face communicative skills that may get delayed due to the new reliance on the Internet and social media.

2. Practice Negotiation– It’s important for parents to set the rules of the household. But as children age, the parents who allow their kids to be involved in the determination of regulations and limits help their children develop tools of compromise and negotiation, and allow them the kind of inclusion teenagers greatly appreciate.
3. Model Time Management and Organizational Skills– The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” approach simply does not work. Modeling timeliness and organization is the best way to influence the same behavior in your child.

4. Teach Self-Sufficiency– As the College Board says, children learn by doing. The more they do for themselves, the better they are at doing for themselves. The earlier and more consistent you are at assigning duties and chores at home and responsibilities that are their’s alone, the more confident and self-assured your kids will become.

5. Encourage Independence at School– It’s difficult for parents to let go in the academic area because they feel that so much is at stake. But by the time your children are teens, they need to be taking charge of their academic careers. You, as parent, can be most helpful in a managerial role—assisting kids with structure and reminders. But teens should be in charge of their assignments, commitments and their relationships with teachers, counselors and other authority figures.

6. Listen With an Open Mind– It’s important to teens to be heard. Open lines of communication between parent and child, and opportunity to develop their own voices at home, cultivate confidence and expressiveness that serve kids very well into adulthood.

7. Provide Structure– Parents know that teens want freedom and independence. But they may not be aware that teens thrive with clear rules and structure. Children of all ages benefit from consistency and routine. Studies show that households that are able to achieve a balance between authoritative governance, open communication and independence produce happy and successful children.

8. Remember That Every Story Has Two Sides– If you have parented for any amount of time, you have likely learned this lesson the hard way. Your child may have been involved in a skirmish. He comes home with a dramatic rendition of his side of the story, and you, as a concerned parent, jump into action. You start making calls and demanding action from others, only to discover that your child has only told you a part of the story that leaves out the true part he played. It’s embarrassing, but a valuable reminder that before you take action, you need to take a breath and then investigate. No child is perfect. Not even yours.

9. Teach Self-Respect– Self-respect is a difficult thing to achieve without the help of a parent. The development of children who feel good about themselves starts very early, with healthy doses of high expectation and positive feedback. Contrary to some previous parenting philosophies, self-respect and self-esteem are not results of false praise and artificial declarations of importance. Self-respect comes from experiencing lots of small and large successes, recovering from and coping with failures, learning good judgment, sound decision-making and solid character.

10. Teach Logical Conflict Resolution– This has become increasingly important as teens must now deal with higher incidences of cyberbullying and the expansion of their social realm through social media. If you are communicating with your teen often and openly, like during regular family meals, you are more likely to be an important resource for sorting out difficult social situations.

If you are like me, you might look at this College Board list and feel that you’ve worked on these very skills for your child. And yet, your child is still at home and unable to be out on their own. Of course there are lots of reasons for this—the current economy, for example. But the concern remains– how can you assist them in their quest toward independent adulthood. And how can you make sure that your child’s stay (however long) does not negatively impact household goings-on.

Christina Newberry, author of The Hands-On Guide to Surviving Adult Children Living at Home, suggests that there are tricky emotional challenges when a household is full of adults. How is your adult child affecting your minor children? How is your input affecting their ability to pull it together? Newberry says there are three particular emotional “landmines” to watch out for:

1. Anger and Resentment: The imposition of your adult child’s presence and the unanticipated cost of their return on your finances, peace of mind and your space may cause you to harbor some resentment. At the same time, your inability to treat them as adults or your insistence on being overly-involved in their lives may be creating anger on their part. Communication is the key to keeping things civil and above-board so that tensions don’t undermine the peace and stability of your household. Newberry suggests devising a contract between you so that your expectations and rules are clearly understood by all.

2. Undermining your adult child’s ability to be a good parent– If your adult child returns home with his or her own family, a whole new universe of potential problems comes along, too. Often when kids return home, they revert back to their childhood in many ways. Their expectations may not have evolved and they may have trouble seeing you as another adult person, beyond your parenting role. Suddenly, you become parent to everyone, grandchildren included. And you become the full-time babysitter, disciplinarian, etc. Newberry says: “You can help your adult children living at home to be good parents without damaging their credibility or undermining their authority, but you have to walk a fine line to make it work. When adult children come home with families of their own, the ground rules and expectations must be crystal clear.”

3. Damaging your relationship with your spouse– And what about your own marital relationship? You and your spouse have already spent many childhood years sorting out how you would be a united front for your children. But now that your child is grown, you may not be in agreement. This could very well cause stress in your marriage. Suddenly, you may have: new financial stressors (see this article about how your grown child’s return home can destroy your retirement plan ); new time constraints as your attention (once again) shifts to catering to your child instead of your spouse; and a new lack of privacy. Newberry suggests that marital discord during these periods in not at all uncommon. So you must communicate with your spouse and come to agreement about the ways that you two will cope. A well- developed united front is once again the order of the day.

It’s most important that everyone involved acknowledge that you are all adults. Your child should not be allowed to be a part-time adult. And you should not be cast as the perpetual financial parent. You must give your child the time and space to pull things together, but also the expectation that they will pull it together… and parameters to help them along.

This is exactly what the Good Doctor told me—to give my stopped-out son space with parameters (like parameters for contributing to the household); and support with rules (like rules about contributing to his own finances). By the end of my gynecological visit, the Good Doctor has, by now, spent more time with me, advising me about my child, than she had when I was in labor birthing him! She assured me again that all of the lessons that my husband and I tried to instill in him about the value of work for work’s sake; the importance of finishing what you start; and the necessity of personal accountability—they are lessons that have in fact been successfully planted. She said that they are in there…somewhere deep. She gave me a pat on my back and a friendly hand shake. And as she slipped through the door she said,

“And if that boy does not shape up, you tell him that I said that I brought him into this world…and I can take him out!

[The prologue to this story is that this particular child did, in fact, return to school. He launched a successful art career before returning and is burning an exciting trail for himself through Princeton. So far, the Good Doctor is right.]

I was syndicated on BlogHer.com


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