Each new stage of parenthood comes with different joys and stressors. The problems that weigh heavily on a parent when raising a toddler or a teen are much different than the ones they face once their kids are grown up.
We asked therapists what issues parents of adult children most often bring up during their sessions. Below, they reveal the top concerns they hear again and again and offer advice on how to work through them.
1. “I’m concerned about what they’re posting on social media.”
A parent may know it’s unreasonable to expect an adult child to share all the details of their lives with mom or dad. Still, parents worry that their child may be secretly struggling with something while they’re kept in the dark, said Atlanta clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla.These worries are often based on — or exacerbated by — what parents see on their kids’ social media profiles.
“Parents often try to ‘read between the lines’ and worry about if their kids are drinking too much, socializing too little or prioritizing the ‘wrong things’ all based on what they see their kids posting,” Delawalla said.
“I often advise these parents to think about what they see on social media as the ‘headline’ of a news article: It gives you some information about the content of the article but is rarely the full story.”
Here's what parents say about their adult kids in therapy.
The next step is to have an actual conversation with your kid to gather more information about the potential problem.
“The harder part, of course, is trusting that their kids will give them all of the necessary information,” Delawalla said. “And if they choose not to share a specific aspect of their lives with their parents, that they feel equipped to handle it without the parents’ help.”
2. “What if my kid never finds a partner?”
Some parents of adult children worry when their kid is single passed a certain age. Perhaps their son or daughter wants to be in a relationship but has no serious prospects. Or maybe their kid is quite happily single. In either case, the lack of a long-term partner can be distressing to parents when it feels like everyone else is settling down.
Winifred M. Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California, often hears comments like these from her clients with adult children: “She’s 33, and the clock is ticking,” “He keeps meeting people who are afraid of commitment,” and “Maybe we weren’t the best role models for marriage. What if it’s our fault?”
“At best, as parents of adult children, we’re in the audience watching a play in which our children have the leading role,” Reilly, author of “It Takes One to Tango,” told HuffPost. “None of us enjoys the helpless feeling of being unable to control things or make things better. Especially when our children are struggling. It’s harder still when we take their difficulties personally.”
None of us enjoys the helpless feeling of being unable to control things or make things better.Winifred M. Reilly, marriage and family therapist
Reilly’s advice? Take a breath and leave it alone. Repeated questions about the status of their love life will only bug them or make them feel worse than they already do.
3. “Is our relationship too close? Or too distant?”
Navigating the closeness (or lack thereof) of the parent/adult child relationship is a common theme among the clients of Pasadena, California, clinical psychologist Ryan Howes.
“If their child is taking their individuality very seriously and not calling or visiting as much as they would like, the parent is wondering how they can foster more contact,” Howes told HuffPost. “And they may be questioning what they did wrong to make their child want to avoid them.”
He continued: “If their child is failing to launch, is still living at home, or seems dependent on them to make rudimentary decisions, they wonder how they can inspire their children to become their own person and are perhaps questioning what they did wrong to make their child so dependent.”
In either situation, the parent is looking for answers on what the “right” amount of independence or contact is for this stage of life and how to persuade their child to get on board.
Howes explained that there is no universal right or wrong amount of contact — only what works best for a given family’s dynamic.
“Now that their child is an adult, their job is no longer to tell their children what to do, but to have a conversation about it, adult-to-adult,” he said. “They need to start by clarifying what they want and hope for regarding the frequency and depth of contact with their adult children, and then ask their children what they want and hope for, and try to come to an agreement.”
4. “My child is too strict — or too permissive — with their kids.”
For some grandparents, the urge to butt in and voice their opinions on their kid’s parenting style can be hard to tamp down.
“Yep, it is really hard not to say something!” Reilly said. “And that’s exactly what you need to do. This issue is both a parenting and an in-law issue, which makes it extra-high voltage. Parents of young children have to find their way. And they usually find that way by trial and error. Sometimes parents don’t even agree about what’s OK and what’s not for the kids. The last thing you want to do is be taking sides.”
Supporting them financially, materially and in other ways while they flounder and drift aimlessly is not what love looks like.Kurt Smith, therapist specializing in counseling men
Reilly’s rule of thumb: If your kid asks for parenting advice, offer your two cents. Otherwise, be loving and supportive and keep your opinions to yourself.
5. “I feel like my kid has no direction in life.”
Parents come to Northern California therapist Kurt Smith, who specializes in counseling men, for help when their 20- or 30-something-year-old child doesn’t have consistent employment (even though they’re physically and mentally capable of holding down a job). He walks them through how to set healthy boundaries and helps them acknowledge the role they may have played in the child not being more motivated or independent.
“Supporting them financially, materially, and in other ways, while they flounder and drift aimlessly is not what love looks like,” Smith said. “Instead, it looks like being uncomfortable, child and parents, for however long it takes for the adult child to find their identity and turn that into a direction for their life.”
Also, these adult kids may live with their parents long-term until they’ve found steady employment and some financial stability (or perhaps longer). While this may be a fine — or even preferred — arrangement for some families, it can be a common pain point for others.
“Some recent parents I helped had their 47-year-old son living with them for more than 10 years. He moved back home after his divorce, lost his job, never got another one, and never left,” Smith said. “The biggest issue in these situations is helping the parents redefine what loving an adult child looks like, since most mistake love as still caring for them like they did when the child was an actual child.”
Eventually, these clients could set — and firmly hold — new, healthy expectations for their son. He was able to secure a job and move out on his own.
“He’s been out for a while now and just bought a house,” Smith said. “His parents are thrilled and so proud. He was capable of this the whole time — his parents just needed to get out of the way.”
6. “I worry my kid is making the wrong life decisions.”
Parents often have doubts about their kids’ big life decisions: whether it’s about how they manage their money, what career they pursue, or who they choose to date, Delawalla said.
In these cases, the goal in therapy is to help parents understand that the person best-equipped to make these decisions is the person whose life they impact the most, she said.
“Parents are one step removed from such decisions, and while they may have a different perspective, it is healthier for them to allow their children to have freedom of choice,” Delawalla said. “We discuss how to offer their opinion without imposing their will and not withdrawing their support, whether intentionally or unintentionally if their children’s decisions don’t align with their own.”
7. “I think my kid needs help. When should I intervene?”
This one encompasses several of the abovementioned issues: financial, career, relationship or other stressors can all fall under this umbrella. A parent sees that their child is struggling. Their instinct is to swoop in immediately and bail them out of trouble. While it’s understandable that they want to fix things for their child, this behavior may not be in anyone’s best interest in the long run.
Parents may have the resources, knowledge or experience to remedy the situation. They want to intervene but don’t know when or how to go about it. (And those who don’t have the means to fix things for their kid may feel guilty about it, Howes said).
When dealing with this issue, Howes said he defers to a school philosophy from his kids’ kindergarten days: “We don’t do anything for the kids they can do for themselves.”
“If they can tie their shoes, then the teachers won’t tie them for them,” he said. “If they can clean up after lunch, the teachers won’t clean up after them. This is a solid philosophy. Doing those tasks for them teaches them that 1) the world will take care of the things they don’t want to do, and 2) they aren’t competent, so someone better at the task should take over.”
This applies to young adults, too, Howes said.
“If they are able to figure out a budget, recover from heartbreak, and learn to take care of themselves, then they should have the opportunity to do that, which builds self-confidence and a sense of independence,” he said.
If they are able to figure out a budget, recover from heartbreak, and learn to take care of themselves, then they should have the opportunity to do that.Ryan Howes, psychologist
Swiftly jumping in to save the day sends the message that the adult child cannot handle the situation on their own and needs Mom or Dad to come to their rescue.
“Of course, there are exceptions” to this, Howes said. “If the adult child truly lacks the ability or resources to manage their own life, then parents and other family members may need to step in. But that is not as frequent as some parents think.”
In therapy, Howes asks the parents to consider why they’re intervening: Is it because their child needs them to? Or is it because they don’t like the uncomfortable feeling of knowing their kid is in a tough spot?
“If it’s about their discomfort,” he said, “then we have some important work to do.”