Got a high school or college kid who zones out with video games or TV instead of tackling his schoolwork or pursuing a career?
You might be unwittingly contributing to the problem, says Adam Price, a psychologist with offices in New York and New Jersey whose practice is tailored to young adults.
“We can de-motivate our kids when we rescue them from consequences,” says Price, the father of two college-student children, ages 19 and 21. “We learn when we make choices and face consequences. When parents soften the blow, we’re not helping our kids learn.”
Examples include typing their student’s homework, or calling their child in sick at school on a Monday because he played in a big game over the weekend.
Failing to enforce parental decisions doesn’t help, either. Parents might tell their young adult, if you fail any classes, you won’t play soccer. The kid fails a class but parents let her play, rationalizing their failure by telling themselves the sport is better for their child. Plus, maybe parents don’t want to sacrifice their own time.
“Parents have told me, ‘I grounded my son Friday night, but we had to go out, and then he snuck out.’ No. The parent has to stay home!” Price says.
Here are more suggestions on what parents can (and can’t) do, from Price and research psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, co-author of “Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years” (Workman):
Set reasonable limits and hold kids accountable. For high-schoolers, that means expecting B’s. If the student wants A’s, that’s his choice, not the parent’s. If your high-schooler isn’t earning B’s, Price says, cut down his digital and social life until grades improve.
Manage your expectations. Understand your child’s limits. With college-age kids, if consequences continually aren’t working, look at their history. Your child may have a learning disability, be suffering from substance abuse, or simply has average academic abilities. With high-schoolers, Price notes, keep in mind neurocognitive development. “Adolescent brains are going through reorganization,” Price says, referring to the prefrontal cortex that manages foresight and judgment. “Some kids just aren’t there yet. No matter how much we push or prod, the teen brain needs time to grow.”
Open lines of communication. Engage in productive dialogue so they know you’re on their side. With high school and college-age kids, “be an asker, not a talker,” Price says. “Listen for answers, long before you give opinions. The more they say, and the less you lecture, the better. You don’t have to agree for them to know you hear them.”
Be patient. Young adults today take longer than their parents did to find their life partner and settle into a career, says Arnett, of Clark University in Worcester, Mass. For his book, he surveyed emerging adults, ages 18 to 29, across the U.S.
“Give your children time to find out what they want to do,” Arnett says. “It’s not something you can give them. If you substitute something you want, it won’t work because they won’t be motivated.”
Money matters. The idea that this age group wants to sponge off parents as long as possible isn’t based in reality, says Arnett, who researched a broad cross-section of emerging adults for the book, not just the troubled or college-educated. Arnett’s research shows 74 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds prefer to live independently of their parents even if it means living on a tight budget. Among 18- to 21-year-olds, 28 percent receive regular support toward living expenses. Among 26- to 29-year-olds, 6 percent receive support toward expenses.
Also, consider the reasons they need money. A young adult who needs financial support due to substance abuse is managed differently than a young adult who needs support because he’s doing an unpaid internship, or going to school full-time.
Accept your limit. Even if your emerging adult isn’t making progress, there may not be much you can do. “Accept that your power as a parent is limited,” Arnett says. “You don’t have the authority you did when they were 3 or 13. At ages 19 or 23 or 28, it’s a mistake to try to take over their decisions.
“You can decide whether to support them financially, and whether to let them live in your household while they figure things out.”