If it hasn’t happened to you, then it’s probably happened to a friend—an adult child either fails to launch or gets hit so hard by life that he/she comes knocking for help. Maybe he has suffered through a divorce, flunked out of school, lost a spouse, had an unwanted child, gotten fired, developed a drug or alcohol problem, run afoul of the law or fallen victim to mental health issues. As a parent, you want more than anything to help your offspring become happy and problem-free. While no two situations are exactly alike, here are some guiding principles to help you navigate these crises.

Keep the relationship in focus. Big-person problems usually are a lot scarier than little-person problems. So when your adult child comes to you with trouble, it’s easy to respond emotionally and try to fix it. Parents in these situations often experience a whirlwind of feelings. When there’s a threat to our children’s well-being, we’re desperate to make it go away. If we feel unable to help, we often take out that frustration on our children—especially when the problem stems from the child’s own bad decisions. Mixed in is a sense of failure—Is this really how I raised my child?—and disappointment and even grief for the loss of a once-imagined future.

Take a deep breath, and look at the big picture. The most important thing—long before this problem came along and long after it passes—has been and forever will be the relationship you have with your child. Whatever help you do or don’t give, your top priority should be preserving the rapport you’ve spent a lifetime developing. With that as your guide, you’ll increase your odds of hitting on the right strategy for helping.

A big part of your role has always been to teach and model responsibility, resilience and autonomy. When a child enters adulthood, that aspect of the relationship should taper off and be replaced by trust and friendship. Ask yourself if you’ve done your part in letting your child be an adult. If not, that might have contributed to this crisis, and establishing an adult-to-adult dynamic probably will be part of the solution.

Seek some understanding. Yes, our younger generations generally have a resiliency problem. They find it difficult to act independently and figure their own way out of tough situations. That may be partly because of the way we’ve raised them. Ours is the generation of helicopter parenting and adult-­monitored recreational activities. Sometime in recent years, it became commonplace for parents to edit their kids’ university term papers and intervene when they got bad grades—even in college! So it is difficult for children who were raised that way to suddenly start fending for themselves.

Reality: Today’s young adults face economic challenges that we never faced. Between 1987 and 2017, tuition at public universities increased by 213% adjusted for inflation. Rent prices increased 12.5% faster than inflation. Median home prices increased by 60% over the last 44 years, while median incomes for people ages 25 to 34 have barely increased. In 2020, more than half of American 18-to-29-year-olds were living with their parents, the highest percentage since
the Great Depression, and the pandemic has made it worse. When your child says she can’t make ends meet, a lecture about how well you were doing at her age won’t help.

Listen to the problem without interrupting. Ask questions only to help understand. State what you’ve heard the problem to be—“It sounds like you’re saying your boyfriend has decided it’s over, and since the apartment is in his name and your bank account is empty, you have nowhere to go. If I don’t have that right, please correct me.”

You may be thinking all kinds of things—I knew that guy was a bum! I told you to save for a rainy day!—but this is not the time to say them. Remember: The most important thing is the relationship. Make your child feel heard and supported. Share your opinions later.

Make a specific plan. Once you’re sure you understand all aspects of the problem, it’s time to formulate a solution. It might be as simple as reflecting on the situation and deciding you’re unwilling or unable to help. It might require some prolonged discussion with your own spouse and/or co-parent(s). Brainstorm some possible plans. When you have some ideas to propose, set up a meeting with all interested parties and float your possible solutions. If necessary, construct a mutually agreed-upon contract specifying those solutions.

Whatever you and your child agree on, make sure everybody agrees to what’s expected of them. Example: “We’re going to cover your car payments while you’re in rehab and for two months afterward. It won’t be our responsibility after that or if you quit rehab.”

If you’re lending your child money, make sure he knows your expectations about being repaid. Saying “whenever you can pay me back” is a bad idea if your goal is to recoup your money or instill accountability. Set up a repayment plan, clarifying the first-payment date…due dates for monthly installments…interest rate…and term of the loan.

When an adult child is going to live under your roof, you might have a longer list of expectations. Negotiate those before you come to an agreement. Example: You might want to impose a midnight curfew for your peace of mind, but your child might push back by insisting that she doesn’t need one. Talk it out, and compromise as necessary.

Set a move-out date as well as deadlines for steps such as finding a job, getting transportation and so on. Talk about what will happen if those deadlines aren’t met. Will the child need to find other accommodations? Will she have to provide a reason for falling short?

Tell your child how much she will be expected to contribute toward the mortgage and other monthly bills. To prevent future friction, you even can set expectations around sharing food, space and other things. Examples: The top shelf of the refrigerator is Dad’s…Mom gets to park inside the garage. A long list might seem nit-picky or demanding, so make sure your child understands that you’re trying to ensure a successful arrangement—and ask her what expectations she has of you, which also are negotiable.

Make sure your boundaries and expectations are as clear and measurable as possible. Example: If an adult child will be moving back into the home, some parents might insist, “While you’re living in my house, you must not be disrespectful toward me.” But because “being disrespectful” is vague, enforcement will be a challenge. Instead, talk through your definition of disrespect—eye-rolling, name-calling or whatever it is that makes you feel undermined.

Stay involved. To make any plan work, you need to stay on top of how things are going. It’s your right, as someone who has been approached for help, to get periodic progress updates. If you’ve just helped your child out of financial trouble, check in to see if he is starting to save. If you’ve bailed him out of jail, find out if he is making his court dates. If you’re sheltering your child until he lands a job, find out how many interviews he has had each week.

It’s not your job to micromanage any of this. Offer to help where you can and where you want to, but don’t overburden yourself or steal your child’s opportunity for personal growth. Example: Instead of, “You haven’t gotten any interviews yet? Let me see your résumé,” try, “Let me know if you’d like a second look at your résumé. I have a friend who does that for a living.”

By staying involved in a positive and unobtrusive way, you help your child be accountable…you acquire information that you need to be an effective support…and you signal to your child that you love him and have his back.

Get help. Some problems almost always require professional help—mental illness, substance abuse, legal woes. Even for some less drastic problems, you might seek a professional. If your kid has destroyed her finances, part of your bailout plan might include credit counseling or hiring a financial planner. For a spiritual crisis, a pastor or rabbi might provide better counsel than you could.

Get help for yourself as well. Resentment can build when the empty-nester years that you’ve been looking forward to become as much of a self-sacrificial grind as the years that preceded them. Find a confidante—a friend, a counselor—and make good use of that person as a sounding board.

Help…but don’t enable. Too many young adults learn to manipulate their parents—even unconsciously—into providing for them endlessly. If you give unconditionally, not only will you never be free of that burden, your child will be deprived of the gift of autonomy. Any kind of bailout plan should include a good portion of tough love and steps for the child to take to extricate herself from the situation. Be open-minded…sympathetic…supportive—but also be on the lookout for manipulative behavior or a spirit of entitlement on the part of your child. That may be a signal that it’s time to re-evaluate your role.

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