12 Ways To Help Your Young Adult When Life Knocks Them Down

I can remember thinking that age 18 was the summit of my parenting.

If I parented my kids well (or well enough) to age 18, the job would be pretty much done.

I know. I was wrong.

The young adult years offer a new parenting opportunity — a new chance to feel awed by your child’s beauty and maturity and helpless in the face of their pain.

It’s a strange stage of parenting. The hands-on parenting years aren’t that far in the past. But the future is NOW. You know the balance needs to tilt toward independence and hands-off parenting. But how much? And what does that look like? And ugh, it’s so hard.

When my oldest daughter was a college freshman at a large state school, she was unhappy. She tried to make it work, but college freshman life kicked her down over time. She tried out for the club soccer team — didn’t make it. She applied for an outdoor club camping trip — it was full. She looked forward to the small journalism seminar — hated the professor.

I was there for the teary phone calls, the listening, and the empathy. It was more complex and more challenging when time and time again hoped for things did not happen.

young woman standing in an archway
When my oldest daughter went to college, she faced many disappointments. (TBKilman)

I just wanted to scoop her up in my motherly arms and make it better. And I did that sometimes, in age-appropriate ways. But I struggled with how often to scoop her up, how often to back off, and how to be this new kind of mom — the mom of a grown-up human being.

Sometimes things will all fall into place for your young adult child. Yay! When that happens, do not gloat, do not boast. Just appreciate the moment of happy news and restful sleep.

Sometimes, things do not fall into place. When that happens, here are some tips to help you get through:

How to help your young adult when they’re struggling

1. This is normal.

In most cases, what your young adult is going through is typical of other young adults’ experiences. Remind yourself of this. If you are somehow living in a bubble where everyone’s kids are being accepted, getting the internship, belonging to the club, etc., congratulate those people (quickly) and find the parents who are also worried about their young adult (because it is most of us!) In his book, Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance, Dr. Brad Sachs states, “No amount of education, care or effort is going to inoculate you or your young adult against disappointment and disillusionment, challenge and complexity.”

2. Don’t freak out.

If you panic, your young adult is more likely to panic, which pushes the brain into fight or flight mode, and takes the careful decision-making part of the brain off-line!

3. Don’t catastrophize.

Catastrophizing is a game your brain can play; you take what is happening now and project terrible outcomes in the future. I do not know what the future holds for your young adult child. Still, whatever job they did not get, miserable social experience, risky behavior, or mental health challenge is happening, there is a good chance they will get through it. It is NOT helpful to predict dire outcomes.

4. Let your spouse or grandma take the call every once in a while.

When you need a break from being his ‘GO TO’ person for every sad or frustrating moment.

5. Ask Questions.

“How can I help?” “What do you want to see happen next?” This can be a chance to engage them in problem-solving instead of feeling like you need to know the solution to their problems. Remember that in the midst of upset, disappointment, or sadness, your young adult may not be able to articulate what they need. So, if they don’t have an answer, let it go and don’t take it personally.

6. Remind yourself: their future is not in your hands.

You do not have that much control now that your child is a young adult. Lori Gottlieb, the author of the Dear Therapist column in the Atlantic, offers this wisdom to a parent concerned about her son’s future:

Throughout their lives, in hundreds of ways, our children are teaching us about control — how illusory it is, how futile our attempts to maintain it are, and how liberating letting go can be, for everyone involved. The good news is, you don’t have to choose your son’s path for him—because the reality is, you don’t get to.

7. Don’t take it personally if they curse at you.

In your high school psychology class, you probably learned about displacement: Someone has a bad day at work, comes home, and kicks the dog. Your young adult cannot ‘kick” their professor, or their boss, or their amorphous worries about life, so they “kick” you. Set your limits (“I’m heading to my bedroom if you keep that up” OR “I know you’re sad, but I’m getting off the phone if you call me names”) but understand it is not (or not usually) about you.

8. But, consider it could be about you.

If your young adult is angry at you for something you did, take a second to think about it. Are you constantly comparing them to their sister? Are you talking over them and not listening much? Make a sincere effort to understand and, if appropriate, acknowledge and apologize. “I realize I was comparing you to Katie, and I’m sorry.” This helps you can move on instead of getting bogged down by defensiveness.

9. Offer the support that seems reasonable and that you can reasonably offer.

Remember the well-used airplane oxygen analogy — you can’t help your young adult if you are too exhausted, conflicted, and drained. Your unhappiness does not fix their unhappiness. Get the support, exercise, therapy — whatever you need.

10. If the issue with your young adult child is related to mental illness or substance use.

Look for information and support. Don’t give up on them, but recognize that there are limits to what you can do.

For mental health issues, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a good parent resource; they are all over the US and offer support groups, information, and advocacy. You can often find local parent support groups through NAMI or an internet search. It may seem uncomfortable to reach out to other parents you do not know, but there is nothing like having another parent say, “yes, my son did that too; I know how you feel,” or “when my daughter was heavily using, this is what helped.”

11. Realize you cannot FIX everything.

You CAN provide emotional and material support (as you decide is appropriate). You CAN make a difference. Instead of feeling defeated, you can feel grateful that you can help your young adult child, even in small ways. In education, they have a term, scaffolding, which means supporting kids just enough to get them to where they can learn or do the next thing on their own. Your thoughtfully chosen parental help can ‘scaffold’ your young adult as they achieve self-sufficiency.

12. Young adulthood can be a challenging time of life. Most young adults will be fine.

Their OK may not be what you imagined or hoped for them or what they imagined or hoped for themselves. But most young adults turn into older adults with satisfying, meaningful lives. In his book, Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years, Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D., calls it the “zigzagging road to adulthood” and encourages parents to step back while staying connected, just as you start doing the first time you drop them off at kindergarten.

Ups and downs are the very definition of the emerging adult stage and coping with them will shape the resilient, self-sufficient people they will become. And beyond the many mishaps are the projects that do work out, the lasting relationships that are worth waiting for, and the confidence that comes from standing on their own feet.

You Might Also Want to Read: 

I Need To Stop Explaining My Daughter’s College Choice

About Laura Cleary

Laura Cleary, LMSW is a community social worker, parent coach, freelance writer and mom of three young adults. You can reach her at info@parentingthebigkids.com and find out about her parent coaching at Parenting the Big Kids

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