Thoughts on How To Talk With Your Young Adult Children

There are plenty of parents who believe that good parenting is basically telling your kids what to do and having them listen and do exactly what you suggest while thanking you for your splendid advice.

Except that’s not at all what parenting is about, though it is true that when your children are young, you have a reasonable amount of power and control over their day-to-day lives. Bedtimes, playdates, what books they read or TV shows they watch, even how many hours they can play on their devices each day are all under your control.

Until they get older. As they approach what I call the Age of Adulting, a funny thing happens: They stop being interested in having you manage their lives even as they simultaneously become more interested in your advice and perspective.

The key difference? Who has the power and control. Plenty of parenting challenges seem to be about power and control with younger children, and I have memories of arguments about bedtimes and lights out way before they become teenagers, but it’s as they get older that these aspects become increasingly important.

Your Children Are Ships: You’re The Shipyard

When children hit their teen years, they need a commensurate increase in their independence. It’s age-appropriate and the vast majority of teens manage the additional freedom just fine. Your best strategy at that point is to listen and express care: You’re advising, not controlling [see my article How to Talk with Your Teen.].

brother and sister standing on dock, mountains in background
At a certain age, your children leave the dock and motor on ahead in their lives.

Hence my shipyard metaphor; you’re building the ship when they’re a pre-teen, but once your children hit their teens, you basically push them down the launch ramp and they head out into the sea of life. Your job at that point is to be supportive and hope they remain afloat as they encounter various life challenges. Drugs, sex, peer pressure, digital distractions, immersive video, and computer games, all can sidetrack them. Did you build a resilient ship? You’re both going to find out.

What happens when they grow past their teen years? Young adult children require a different approach to parenting. I know, I have a 21yo son and a 24yo daughter, and definitely do not parent them the same way I interact with my 17yo teen daughter.

Young Adults Are Airplane Pilots

Time for another metaphor, and this is one I’ve shared with my children too: As young adults, they are now in the pilot’s seat of their lives. I’m not their navigator or co-pilot, outcomes are not my responsibility anymore. That’s what adulting is all about.

Fortunately for them, I can remain a really helpful air traffic controller who can anticipate turbulence they may be about to encounter and advise them on the potential consequences of choices they face.

Think of it as shared power: I’m still the parent, they still trust and (somewhat) rely on my advice and perspective, but we both know they have the freedom to make other decisions. They’ll also have to live with the consequences of their choices. This is true whether I’m financially involved (paying for college, as a common example) or not. At 21, my son really could just get in his car and drive off into the sunset. My daughter, who’s 24, lives with her long-time boyfriend, and the two of them could easily relocate to another city without any warning if they desired.

Strategy: Help Them Gain Agency

The young adults who break from their parents are often the same whose parents haven’t acknowledged this shift in power and agency. In a word, you can’t really parent a young adult, and trying to do so can have dramatic, negative consequences.

students cheering at du sports event colorado
My son and older daughter enjoying college life: They’re definitely
in control of their life decisions.

By switching to being “ground control” for their early flights into the wild blue yonder, you also have the ability to expand their vision of what’s possible for their future too.

After all, we parents have already spent decades adulting, working in various types of jobs, living in different cities, overcoming life challenges, and having relationships bloom, wither, and fade away. When I share those experiences with my young adult children they get a chance to understand the trade-offs, the pros, and the cons of a potential decision. That additional perspective can help them make a wiser choice.

In other words, if you want to remain a critical part of your children’s lives as they grow into their adulthood, keep handing power, agency, and control to them. Your job is to support their decisions, not to control them. That will give them the confidence to grow and expand their own horizons as they feel best and ultimately help create confident and competent adults. Job well done, parent!

Need some tools to learn how to share power and help your adulting children imagine greater possibilities? There are some great articles and inspiration at the Forward Together site. Check out the resources at parents.ForwardTogetherCO.com. Also, please do explore my own parenting blog here at GoFatherhood; I’ve been writing about my parenting journey since my kids first came into this world and joined our family.

Disclosure: This post was created as part of a paid partnership with Forward Together. Learn more about the project here.

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