It’s hard to watch your child struggle—especially when it’s easy for you to step in and make it all better with an infusion of cash or a well-timed phone call to a college dean or your well-connected business colleague.
But if you repeatedly protect your child from possible failure, you may be failing in your duty to help him/her develop the skills he needs to become a successful, independent, self-confident adult.
That is especially difficult if you already have practiced “SWAT team parenting” for years, constantly swooping in to solve problems and remove obstacles throughout childhood and the teen years.
Good news: It’s not too late. You still can train your adult child to confront challenges and setbacks in healthy ways…
The Danger of Helping Too Much
The assistance you gave your child when he/she was young could backfire depending on how much aid you provided. Once the training wheels are removed and children try to move forward on their own, they often find that they don’t have the skills they need to succeed, then end up dropping out of college or living at home as a single adult.
According to CollegeAtlas.org, 30% of all college freshmen drop out after the first year. They do this for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is being overwhelmed by their new independence. Additionally, the percentage of children ages 18 to 34 living at home has increased from 26% to 34% from 2005 to 2015, according to the US Census Bureau. Sometimes this is an acceptable short-term solution to cost-of-living concerns, but often it is based on a more worrisome need for continued supervision and support.
Parents end up carrying the emotional and financial burden of these grown children and remaining constantly “on call” and on the lookout for the child’s next crisis. That makes it difficult for parents to enjoy their own next stages of life, including the freedom of empty nesting. Many parents even end up sacrificing their retirement savings to help adult children.
What To Do
Start by letting your child know that you’re struggling with the issue of intervening too often and that you are working to change this about yourself to allow the autonomy that he needs. It’s best to have this conversation before the child encounters a new problem. That way, he won’t be surprised when you don’t rush in to help. You can say something such as, “I’m worried that I haven’t been giving you the independence you need. In the future, I’m going to step back more.”
Then, when your child has an issue, pause before you offer assistance. Think back to when you were younger and had to work through a challenge on your own and the satisfaction you felt when you did. Give your child that gift of accomplishment.
At times it may be difficult to keep from stepping in—especially if your child gets upset, pushes back and/or begs you to make it all better once again. You probably won’t always be able to head off emotional or angry confrontations, but the more you manage to change your own behavior, the more room there will be for the child to change his.
Here are five ways to help both you and your child grow…
Ask questions. Don’t jump in with the answers. Instead, provide the thinking tools that will serve as stepping stones to your child’s success.
Example: Your son forgets to pay his rent on time, and you’re worried that the landlord will assess a late fee.
Mistake: You call the landlord and negotiate more time for your son.
Better: You ask your son, “What are you going to say to your landlord? What steps can you take to fix this situation?” Focus on his ideas for solving the problem. Then let him implement a solution.
Result: Your child will understand the consequences of missed deadlines and learn how to confidently advocate for himself…navigate the system…talk with authority figures…and solve
problems—even if he ultimately has to pay that late fee.
Don’t rush in with advice. Offering too much advice, especially when the child has not asked for it, can be just as bad as offering too much assistance. It can overwhelm your child and cloud his thinking. Take a step back and give your child the opportunity to look for his own solution first. When your child does ask for advice, don’t go overboard. Too often, parents take an extra leap forward and go beyond the question asked—instead, let the child ask follow-up questions if he needs more guidance. Consider your role as more of a coach than a fixer.
Example: Your daughter complains to you that she is working overtime hours for which she is not getting paid.
Mistake: You tell her exactly what to say to the boss and when to contact the human resources department.
Better: Offer to role-play a difficult conversation so that she can test out what she would like to say.
Result: Your daughter gains the confidence and specific language she needs to speak up for herself.
Be empathetic, not controlling or angry. When your child is facing a crisis, your instinct may be to take charge and shield him from pain…or it may be the opposite—to get angry and criticize your child for creating the crisis and not solving it on his own.
Example: Your son is panicking because he missed the deadline for registering for the GRE exam.
Mistake: His crisis becomes your crisis, and soon you are upset and frightened, too, demanding to know how he got into this mess. That approach will only make him feel that he is under attack and invites him to create excuses.
Better: Stay calm in the face of your child’s crisis, allowing him the space he needs to express his feelings. You can say, “I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed.” Or, “That sounds tough. How do you think it would be best to deal with this?” Let the adult child know that you’re there to listen.
Important: When a child feels scared and ashamed, he may take it out on someone he loves and trusts the most—and that may be you.
Result: If you can stay calm when he is panicking, he eventually will be able to move past the raw emotions toward action.
Make sure your child carries at least part of every burden. It’s OK if you want to solve some problems for an adult child, as long as he is a part of the solution, too.
Example: Your daughter wants you to hang bookshelves in her apartment.
Mistake: You come over while she is out with her friends and spend two hours building and installing the shelves by yourself.
Better: Send her a link to a how-to video on the subject. Then head over to help, as long as she is there to assist. Have her use the stud finder to locate studs. Show her how to use a level to place the brackets. Have her drill the holes.
Result: Your daughter learns new skills that make her a more independent apartment dweller.
Give credit when the child acts independently. Praise the effort, not the results. That will help encourage your child to keep working hard to make things right.
Example: Your son gets a part-time job to help fund his master’s program, but ultimately, he has to quit his job because the demands of balancing both it and school become too great.
Mistake: You offer to write a check to cover the job loss.
Better: Step in with encouragement. “I can’t believe how quickly you found that first job and how smart you were to realize that it was getting in the way of your success at school. I’m sure that you’ll find a less demanding job soon that offers you the right balance with the funding you need.”
Result: Accentuating past achievements helps adult children feel like winners.
Note: There may be times when it feels good to pitch in financially to help an adult child. It’s OK to be generous. Use this guideline to be sure you’re not overstepping the bounds: Offer financial support if the adult child has been, in general, showing work reflecting self-effort and a desire for independence.