A fellow parent recently asked me for some help: “My son is now 21 and in college and working but he’s still so lost about his future. And I don’t know how to help or if I should help. Any advice?”
My wife and I have 12 children and have broken their ages into the following phases:
- 1 to 2 years;
- 3 to 12 years;
- 13 to 18 years;
- 19 to about 25 years;
- married with their own children.
There may be more as we have our children grow older. The situation described clearly falls into the 19 to about 25 years old category. Here is the approach I recommend you take and some generalities for this age group. (Note: These are generalities and there are exceptions to any generality listed.)
Characteristics of the age
- They want to be adults and make decisions that adults can make, on their own;
- They feel that they are invincible and everything will always go their way;
- They want to feel the accomplishment that they have seen in you as their parents;
- They are forever optimistic;
- They do not want to do it (whatever the “it” is) the way you did it;
- They only remember the last few years (16 to 18 years old). They do not remember their younger years. And when you ask about their younger years, they have significant incorrect memory of what really happened. Their memory is clouded by having a young mind and not seeing the whole picture.
Impacts of these characteristics
They do not want you suggesting to them ideas, how they should act, what they should do, or recommend any actions. They see it as you trying to control them, or treating them as little kids (see item 1). They want to be the adult and any hint or suggestion is telling them they do not know how to be adult. They do not necessarily understand that you are trying to help, and not trying to control them. That is not what they perceive. They perceive that you are telling them once again as a little child what they can and cannot do. They are very insecure in their new status as adults, and any hint appears to challenge their trying to be adults. So this leads to the following recommendations:
- Keep in contact with them daily or weekly or whatever frequency you can without them complaining that you are “keeping track of them”
- Find discussion topics—or what I call the weather report topics. Talk about anything that is other than “what are you doing now.” Tell them what you are doing. Share with them what your other children are doing.
- Always tell them you love them and are there for them. This is a fine line because you do not want them to think you want them to “need” you because in their mind, they do not need you. However, secretly, they love you calling them.
- What this will lead to is a habit of talking to them and give them opportunity to ask you questions.
- As soon as they ask you a question, then you can pounce. You can share your knowledge with them, your recommendations, your ideas. Always lead by saying “this is how I did it,” or “you can choose for yourself,” or “This is not me telling you what to do,” or “Here is another idea you might be able to use.”
- Some things to not do—don’t tell them how successful one of their siblings did the effort (unless it is in the context of the above). Don’t try to make them to want to ask you with such leading questions as – “Don’t you want to hear what your mother and father did?” “How come you don’t ask us, we can tell you the best way to proceed?” Don’t ask them to come over every week. Don’t offer subtle hints about how you think they should live their life, it will only backfire.
They believe that they will not die, their business or job or career will be great. This means that if you give them “risks” or “things that could go wrong” is not good. They want to hear how their ideas will lead to success.
- Don’t lie to them, but if you see something is not going to work out, then telling them is not going to help. For example, if you child is going to marry someone and you know that they are going to have trouble with in the future, you telling them will not help. They are “in Love” and your input will be very unwelcome, unless they ask for it. You hinting that they should ask you is also bad, it will only drive them away because the will perceive it as manipulating them. Their fix for manipulation is to stop taking to you.
- If there is the “right time,” you can discuss ways they can make their ideas better. Give suggestions that will help them be more successful with their chosen direction. An example is my oldest son was the best mathematics student his teachers had ever seen. The school was not small, as it had over 6,000 students in the school, and out of all those years, the teacher said he was the best mathematician he had ever seen. My son hated math, even though he was good at it. He wanted to become a lawyer and went to law school. He is pretty good at it. I learned that if I talked about how he could be successful in law, he was very responsive. If I said, “You really should be a mathematician since you are so good at it,” he would not talk to me for a month. He wanted to be a lawyer. When I talked about what kind of lawyer he wanted to be, or how his career should proceed, he was very attentive and we had some great discussions. Today, he has his own law firm and several lawyers working for him. He is very successful.
Since they want to be better than you were, they will work to not make the same mistakes you made. But this is a dichotomy for them. They do not want you to help them, but yet they want to avoid your mistakes without you telling them. So they will often make up the mistakes you made and avoid them, even though they have the wrong mistakes. Hence, sometimes you have to let them make their own mistakes and let them learn from those mistakes. Fortunately they will move out of the 19- to 25-year age by the time the consequences of their mistakes hit, and you can once again talk to them without them thinking you are controlling them. When letting them make their own mistakes that you see coming, don’t abandon them. Often parents will feel that their children no longer love them, because they will not listen. So far from the truth. Keep the communication (weather reports) going, and when they are ready, they will ask for your help and suggestions.
Which comes to the last suggestion. They have just started their lives at 20. They don’t know what it is like to be on their own. If they yell at you, recognize it for what it is—they are trying to break free and be their own adult. They do not hate you. If you retaliate by not talking any more, or by any other type of retaliation, your attitude will drive a wedge between you and your children for years to come. However, if you look at their actions as nothing to do with love for you, but actions to become their own adult, then you can ignore the bad behavior and be an example of good behavior. That is the recommendation. Be the example you want them to be.