Parenting a Struggling Young Adult

November 21, 2019

Those of us who have wrestled with how to best help our “struggling young adult” children may feel that there are two oxymorons in the title of this blog. First, the concept of our children as “young adults” seems far from reality at times. And second, depending on the nature of the struggles, we may feel as if we are barely functioning effectively as parents. While there is no one guaranteed correct approach, over many years of continuous learning, professional and personal, there are a few key points which it has helped me to remember myself and to share with my clients. Several come from relatively new developments in brain science that impact how we think about this age group.

An important thing to take into consideration is the concept of “young adulthood.” Laurence Steinberg, PhD, a renowned psychologist and professor at Temple University, has written an excellent book, The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence which brings together cutting edge research on brain neuroscience with the practical considerations of what this means to working with adolescents and young adults. Dr. Steinberg says that scientists who study childhood development in the United States across different socio-economic populations and compare it to childhood development in previous time periods have noticed that “the bottom line is that for boys as well as girls adolescence lasts longer than it ever has - three times as long as it did 150 years ago and more than twice as long as it did in the 1950s.”  This means that we have some adjusting to do in our thinking and in how we structure the services we provide to support this population. “Parents, schools, and society have not yet adjusted to a world in which seven-year-olds are starting to show signs of sexual maturation and twenty-seven year olds are still dependent on their parents for financial assistance.” It also explains why, as parents, we often feel as if our young adults are behaving as if they were teenagers. In many ways they still are!

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are many advantages to the fact that “adolescence” is extended. The plasticity of the brain allows these young people to absorb more new information for longer, for example by staying in school until they are older and pursuing advanced degrees. In previous centuries they would have typically been out earning a living, or worse, off fighting in a war. Plasticity in the brain during this extended period of development from approximately age 13 to 26 allows them to repair damage more readily for longer as well. Unfortunately, it also makes the brain more vulnerable to damage during this period which can be readily inflicted by the lifestyles that many young people today pursue in their late teens and early 20s. Risky behavior in this extended adolescence makes their brains more susceptible to the short and long term potential impact of that behavior. A few examples of the risky behaviors that this age group frequently engages in which places their brains at risk are their use of dangerous substances such as “molly” and synthetic marijuana which have varied ingredients almost always unknown to the user, or substances that might be laced with things like fentanyl which can be deadly. “Illegal versions of fentanyl were largely responsible for tripling the death rate from synthetic opioids in just 2 2015”. Even today’s cannabis-derived substances, frequently dismissed by parents who say “well I used to smoke pot”, present risks that far exceed what the pot of the 1970s and 1980s presented. Smoking “regular” marijuana today brings a significantly higher amount of THC directly to the user than it did to users in the 1970s or even 1980s. According to a government study the levels were as low as 4% in 1975 and averaged over 12% in 2014.  Many professionals cite levels anecdotally as high as 20-40% today in weed smoked regularly. THC, the ingredient in marijuana which causes the “high” experience is a hallucinogen and can bring on symptoms of psychosis, paranoia and other disturbing manifestations. These may be temporary or lasting, but seeking appropriate help from mental health and medical professionals who are trained to deal with these symptoms and this age group is critical to both short and long term consequences. How THC will impact each individual varies significantly and is impossible to predict, but today a clinical professional with up-to-date knowledge can use a variety of treatment approaches to mitigate immediate and, hopefully, long term effects as much as possible.

In general, it has been known for a long time some psychological disorders commonly appear or present during the early 20s, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia . It seems that the combination of the brain’s vulnerability during this extended period of development, coupled with other factors such as predisposition due to genetics, risky behaviors, even previous trauma, all may play a factor in whether these disorders do or do not make their appearance. Fortunately, there have also been extensive new efforts to develop treatment approaches to working with this age group to treat these appropriately as soon as possible.

There are several key components to successfully navigating parenting young adults.

  1. Recognize that success in and of itself is difficult to define and will look different for each of us. It definitely does not look the same for each child and is not the stereotype of what we have been led to believe by our parents and culture. In the end, if you are able to maintain a reasonable relationship with your child and if he or she emerges healthy, reasonably content, and feels empowered to move forward to the next stage of adulthood with your support, that is a huge measure of success.
  2. Establish a connection with your child, one of the most important factors in how well your child will succeed and one of the most difficult things to do. It means you have to withhold judgment, not expect your child to be what you want him or her to be. This will allow your child to develop the resilience to withstand the challenges of daily life rather than get knocked down because of an inability to measure up. In his book The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle & the Road Home, psychologist Brad Reedy talks about how important this connection is. “The greatest gift, and sometimes the greatest challenge for us, is to stay connected to our children.” He also points out that “How we think about our children is how they will think about themselves.” This places the onus on us as parents to understand that, as important adults in their lives, we shape how they will perceive their own abilities to succeed which may, in turn, become their own self-fulfilling prophecies.
  3. Promote Two-way Communication with your child, which will be critical to your child’s success, ability to learn and the success of your relationship. Two-way communication means learning to be quiet and listen and NOT say what you think should happen. These are among the hardest things for us as parents to learn do - I know from personal experience! If our child asks for input, a few thoughts based on what we have learned through our experiences with clear examples using the “less is more” approach will go a long way. The best illustration of how to make this work is a therapist I know who uses the phrase “Help me understand…”  when discussing an idea with a child client that sounds unrealistic to the parents initially. As the child describes the situation, the most important aspect becomes the articulation out loud of the thought process behind it and allowing that to occur with no one expressing any judgment. The child client then had the opportunity to discuss the thought process and adjust it organically him or herself, allowing the whole family to learn and communicate, while the child retained ownership of making the change in behavior.
  4. Learn that “lying” is not as black and white as we thought it was. There are two core issues associated with what might be interpreted as lying.

a. The first is when one deliberately sets out to obfuscate the truth by twisting it, omitting key information, etc. Rosalind Wiseman, educator, speaker and renowned author of preeminent books on both girl culture (Queen Bees and Wannabees) and boy culture (Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends and the New Rules of Boy World) devotes a whole chapter to the obfuscation phenomenon called “Lying and Reconnaissance”  in her book on boys. “We are living in a world where the entire concept of honesty and truth is under assault. We’ve come to expect that people in leadership positions within our financial and political institutions will bend the truth. The distinction between spinning, twisting the truth, and outright lying has been blurred.”  The implications of this have not escaped our children and reverberate throughout their behaviors.

b. The other type of behavior which may be seen as lying is really attributable to the fact that as we each observe an event and take in the associated information, we interpret that information differently, frequently coming to completely different conclusions. This is universally true among people of all ages and has a lot to do with our personalities and life experiences. As a result, hard as it is to believe, what I believe to be the 100% truth may not be what you truly believe to be the truth even though we theoretically saw and heard the same thing. It is quite likely that what we actually remember is not identical and what we interpret is definitely not the same. Who is to say which of us is wrong?! It is not often that “truth” is truly black and white. My engineer/software developer husband and I (less of a binary thinker!) have this happen frequently and are therefore aware of our need to talk through what we think happened.

  1. Realize that none of us is perfect, and imperfection does not make us a failure. In my experience, especially in my encounters with young adults who struggle with substance abuse, they are frequently convinced that they are failures and struggle with strong feelings of shame. This may be despite repeated efforts on the part of those who love them to try to give them “factual” examples of why this is not true (see the explanation of perceptions of “truth” in #4 above). The best any of us can do is to learn from our mistakes, do the best we can, and try to do better each time. Being a parent is an iterative learning process like everything else. We can help our children see that if they make mistakes, we can forgive them and support them in their efforts to do better next time, but they have to make the effort. They lack the perspective to see that at 20+, they still have time in their lives to do better. Hopefully we, with age and wisdom, can help them to see that.
  2. As a parent, if your family includes a struggling young adult, it is important to tap into qualified resources. Many young adults are faced with what appears to be a looming time frame, when they feel they are expected to go out into the world and function as adults. This creates a paralyzing fear and degree of anxiety. If you are a parent faced with a child struggling with “failure to launch” it can be scary to see him or her seem to regress and fall apart. It can also be frustrating because we are most likely ready for them to launch and move ahead with their own lives. Realistically, we are not likely to be the most effective resources to help our children at this point. As parents, we have too much history and too many personal “hot buttons” which an independent 3rd party trained to work with this specific age group would not. That person can guide your young adult child towards making decisions and understanding consequences without fear of pushing the “parent-child” hot buttons. Meanwhile you, as a parent, can learn to let your child make those decisions, and fail, if necessary, which can often be the best way to learn. Learning to establish healthy boundaries, including when it is or isn’t ok to step in and say something, is one of the best and hardest things we all can learn for ourselves and our children. A trained professional can help coach you towards a solid connection with your child and teach you good communication skills if you do not already have them.

There are more and more clinicians trained to help, but it is critical to make sure that you and your young adult are working with providers who specialize in the appropriate age group. Mental health and substance abuse treatment for adolescents, young adults, and “regular” adults are each vastly different because the target groups require different approaches. Using the wrong approach can have a dramatic adverse impact on the short and long-term outcomes

This is a long road, with many steps forward and back. I wish you the very best of luck on your journey. This world isn’t easy for any of us, least of all our children, but I believe that they are worth our efforts to provide them with healthy emotional support in any way we can.

Take care of yourselves ~


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