Frank and his wife Jan drove to Colorado to pick Emily up and bring her for a two week visit here. She has been exercising, swimming, enjoying the sun and their company. "It has been a great vacation for her, a pleasure for all of us," he said. "But I dread taking her back. She has no idea what she is going to do."
Another neighbor recently told me that her son and his wife recently separated and she is sad to see his pain, concerned about the two grandchildren caught between warring parents and wondering what, if anything, she might do to help. "I don't want to make anything worse by butting in," she told me. "But I feel so bad for all concerned."
Yet another friend told me yesterday that her son is having financial problems -- again. His money issues have been ongoing throughout his adult life. He is now nearing 50 with a family and a car that needs a new transmission. So he called Mom, who is living on Social Security and a small savings account, to say "Hi" and to hint, rather broadly, that he would like her to buy him a new car.
Whether it's money or relationships or trying to find a direction in life, it's always hard to watch an adult child struggle. What do you do when an adult child is going through rough times? How do you nurture without rescuing? Encourage without diminishing their own problem-solving skills? Help without hindering growth?
1. Listen. Sometimes your adult child, more than anything, needs to vent. As you listen to this venting, you may hear clues to your child's own problem-solving ideas or desires and will be able to make appropriate suggestions. And as he or she vents, your son or daughter may find the beginnings of his or her own solutions.
2. Encourage a young adult to fight his or her own battles with your support. Don't be a "helicopter parent" for your college student or young adult son or daughter. I've seen many parents call college professors to discuss a grade or their child's difficulties with a class. By stepping in and taking over, you are taking away a valuable chance for your child to grow in competence. It is much more useful to listen and discuss your child's difficulties -- whether with a college class, a boss or co-worker or a troubled friendship or love relationship -- and to share some ideas or strategies for dealing with these difficulties. Then step back and let your adult child handle the situation. Learning to face challenges and conflict, do the hard things in life (from asking for help to apologizing) and work through worries and anxieties are all important steps toward full, functional adulthood.
3. Give loving support but stay out of marital troubles. It may be more helpful to say something like "I'm so concerned for you and love you so much. I hope however you work this out, it will be for the best." Taking sides could come back to haunt you when or if the young couple decides to reconcile. Instead, encourage careful thought before acting. Encourage marriage counseling. Encourage communication. Share your thoughts about all marriages having ups and downs, times of closeness and times of distance and caution your child not to panic at the first signs of trouble, but to see difficulties as a sign that some change needs to happen.
4. If child is in danger from an abusive spouse or boyfriend, offer love and safety: If your adult child is being physically or emotionally abused, letting her know that she has your support may be vital to her finding a way to leave. Do some research into local organizations for victims of spousal abuse and their support services and shelters. Talk with your child about the signs of an abuser and the cycle of abuse which can range, in a regular pattern, from violent lashing out to tearful contrition and attempts to woo her back emotionally. Give her a brochure outlining the signs of abuse so the information isn't simply coming from you. Many times, victims are in denial or have been so damaged emotionally that they see no way out. Gently encourage your daughter to remove her children from the abusive home, especially if the abuser is a stepfather or boyfriend (which puts the children at increased danger). Sometimes a young adult will respond to threats to her children before threats to herself. It's important to know, too, that if a violent abuser is in picture, your adult child may not be safe at your home. She may need to be in a special shelter where she can't be easily found. Let her know that there are options and that she has your loving support, that she doesn't have to stay in a dangerous situation.
5. If your adult child has a substance abuse problem, offer love and support for sobriety, but stop rescuing him or her. A drug or drinking problem can, sadly, defy logic and the best of efforts to help. Let your child know that he or she is dearly loved and that you emotionally support his or her sobriety. But bailing him out of trouble again and again may delay recovery. As difficult as "rock bottom" may seem, often it has to happen before the goal of recovery can be realized. It may mean withdrawing all financial support or not allowing your child to move back home (and steal from you to support a habit). It may mean letting him stay in jail after the latest DUI. It is agonizing to stand back and watch addiction spiral out of control, but especially if rehab has been a revolving door, sobriety lost and found countless times, there may be little you can do except to set firm rules, stop decreasing the uncomfortable consequences of maintaining a habit, and express your unwavering love and your hope that your son or daughter can and will get clean and sober.
6. If your child has ongoing financial problems, don't automatically run to the rescue. Financial discussions, trouble-shooting and help in planning can be better than constantly funneling money in your adult child's direction.
One friend, who is far from rich, confided recently that she and her husband forgave $50,000 worth of "loans" to their middle-aged son and that soon thereafter, he was back asking for more money, including ongoing help with monthly bills. He is 48 years old and has never been unemployed. He simply aspires to live a lifestyle beyond what is available to him on his salary. Finally, when he became angry at his mother's refusal to pay his escalating cell phone bills, she told him that her checkbook was closed.
Another friend, whose middle-aged son was hinting that he'd like her to buy him a new car, said "No" firmly and with love. "You know I love you unconditionally and forever," she said. "But I can't keep bailing you out. I'm on a limited income. My savings aren't infinite and they're for me right now. What I can do is help you think this through: to pay $2500 for a new transmission or to get a new car. Either way, it's going to be a major expense. So where can you cut back to make this affordable? Maybe you need to re-think that big vacation you were going to take this summer. Let's start with that....what can you live without to make this car expense do-able?"
7. If your child has problem finding himself career-wise, set rules and talk options: Finding one's own path can be a life-long pursuit and we can learn a great deal from work experiences, career detours, mistakes and small victories along the way.
If you are willing and able to offer your young adult child a place to live while he or she is job-hunting after graduation or after a layoff or other unpromising job start, that's terrific. But it's important that this safe haven not be without limits. What timeline seems right and fair? What rules will you set about serious job-hunting and participating in family chores? Loving support during difficult times -- and this IS a very difficult time to be just starting out in the world -- can make a big difference. But loving your child can also mean making your expectations clear: he or she must get a job. That first job may not be the job of his dreams but it is a start. He must have a plan for responsible adulthood - planning for major expenses, paying bills on time, showing up at work and in life.
Encouraging your child to get out into the world and start on this winding path to full adulthood can be a great gift.
On the other hand, sheltering him or her as your adult child waits for the perfect job opportunity can be crippling.
I once saw a family in therapy who had a son in his mid-twenties still living at home and going nowhere fast. He dabbled in, but never completed, college and dreamed of a stellar musical career. But he did little to get into the workforce and take the first steps toward making these dreams happen. Instead, he lounged in his room, dreaming his dreams, playing video games and reacting angrily when his mother, who was working three jobs to keep the household solvent, suggested that he take whatever job he could get right now in the industry or outside it, to support and build toward his dreams. The young man would snort derisively at the thought. "Why should I do gofer work or flip burgers?" he would say. "I have talent. I'm going to make it big. I don't have to work stupid starter jobs."
As I listened -- sometimes gritting my teeth -- I could hear a mixture of fear and arrogance in his words -- and I would make the observation to him and his family that continuing this endless summer of prolonged adolescence was not going to cure either condition.
And I thought, and would sometimes remind him, that many people who have gone on to enjoy success in their careers have started small -- and learned immensely from the experience.
Indeed, sometimes the starter job has built an entire career. I think about Michael Feinstein, who worked as an assistant to Ira Gershwin in his later years, and whose career as an entertainer started with his loving tributes to Gershwin music.
And my own starter job at 'TEEN Magazine, where I sorted and read mail like everyone else just beginning there, was low-paying, not an obvious journalistic plum, and an immense influence on my career for years to come. In sorting that mail, I discovered more about teenagers than I ever would have learned otherwise. In writing for this magazine that some people I knew considered impossibly frivolous, I learned much about blending substance with humor and story-telling and giving advice with a light hand. And my growing expertise at writing for this critical age group led to more than a dozen books over the years. Looking back, I'm so grateful for that modest first job that taught me so much.
If you have an adult child who is struggling to find a career direction, listening and discussing the options can be one of the best things you can do. Community colleges often have career centers offering aptitude testing -- and this may be a place to start. If your adult child has completed college, gone in a career direction that once seemed like a good idea but is now an emotional dead-end, career counseling may help. Your encouragement to consider his or her passions and how to turn these into a new career can be helpful as well.
There may be times when a passion is a high-risk career -- like one in the entertainment industry -- where a back-up job may be essential. If your child dreams of being a rock star or comedian or filmmaker, that's great. But they need to have a plan for supporting themselves while waiting for stardom to happen. Sometimes back-up and passion careers are not incongruous.
One of the best, most original comedians I've ever seen -- Don McMillan -- has an engineering degree from Stanford, worked for some years in Silicon Valley and does many of his routines using Power Point along with business and math jokes. Not only is he popular in comedy clubs and on television, but he has also built a lucrative career in doing gigs at corporate events -- and some time ago began to earn enough as a comedian to finally quit his day job as an engineer.
If your adult child has yet to develop a passion or definite direction, encourage him or her to find inspiration in any job he or she can find in this economy. We can learn a great deal from the jobs we hate as well as the jobs we love. All of these experiences can help us find the right career path. And don't under-estimate the power of your insights and advice -- even if your adult child doesn't seem receptive at the moment.
My sister Tai has always been a natural nurse --at her best when someone was ill and in distress. Our parents encouraged Tai to pursue a career in nursing. She wouldn't hear of it. It took years of working jobs she hated -- as a hotel switchboard operator, an auto body shop expeditor, numerous clerical jobs -- before she decided that our parents had been right all along, that nursing was what she was meant to do. She went back to school for a nursing degree when she was nearing forty -- while working nights as an aide in a nursing home -- and has now been an RN specializing in labor and delivery for nearly twenty years. At long last, she has work she loves -- and a wonderful feeling of making a difference.
It can be incredibly difficult, as a parent, to watch an adult child go through rough times, but in those challenges, setbacks and disappointments, growth can happen, Think back on your own tough times and what it meant to overcome these. Loving support without rescue, listening without rushing in with a solution, encouraging your adult child to find a workable plan to overcome a difficulty...all of these are ways to nurture your adult child while encouraging him or her to find his own solutions and plans for the future and, eventually, to thrive.