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PARENTS: The Key Is To Help, But Not Helicopter

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There is nothing harder than watching your child leave home to embark on the path to adulthood for the first time. Anxiety about how they will cope and if they will succeed is normal. You are doing your best. And everything you do is from a place of love.

As a parent, you can see a potential problem coming from a mile away. But sometimes it’s better to step aside to let your child attempt to deal with the problem on their own, even if they are likely to fail. As counter intuitive as it may seem, young adults have to learn to fail in order to succeed.

We have all heard of the term “helicopter parent”– one that tries so hard to help their young adult succeed that their love turns into a fetter, and their help to harm. Sometimes it is better in the long run to let your child scrape a knee or get a “C” so that they can learn to cope with the experience. Ultimately, healthy adults should be able to cope with emotions like sadness, stress, anger, frustration, loss, and hurt. The only way a person can learn to handle those feelings is to experience them first hand. You can’t prevent your child from being hurt, but you can help them develop tools to overcome the pain.

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Overbearing parenting can be detrimental to a young adult’s overall success, according to several recent studies. College students who report having “over-controlling” parents have higher levels of stress and anxiety and less satisfaction with life overall. Highly structured childhoods are linked to less problem solving ability as adults. Conversely, kids whose time was less structured throughout adolescence are more likely to meet their goals as young adults. Ultimately, helicopter parents tend to encourage an over-focus on academic skills, while serving as a crutch for their children by doing nearly everything else for them like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

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None of this is to say ‘don’t care.’ Of course young adults need help and support. You are still their parent and their biggest support system. Here are some tips for helping, but not helicoptering.

  1. Give your young adult space to grow. Individuation– the process of developing one’s own sense of identity outside the family– is an important part of growing up and becoming a healthy, high-functioning adult. While it might be difficult to step back from your child’s life, remember that they need space to find themselves. Clinging to how it used to be robs both of you the chance to have a fulfilling, equal “adult” relationship together.
  2. Don’t rescue them. Failure is the recipe for success. Rather than stepping in to prevent a perceived failure, let a young adult make a mistake and then help them debrief afterwards. Ask questions like, “What went wrong?” or “What can you do differently next time?” Young adults need to face sadness, frustration, and hurt head on. Supporting them through those experiences rather than preventing the experience gives your child the best chance for a successful future.
  3. Accept their differences. As a young adult individuates, they will begin to differentiate certain aspects of their identity from yours. Sometimes these choices will be hard to deal with. For example, your young adult may decide that they no longer want to attend church with the family because it is not in line with who they are. While you may not agree with every aspect of their newly exercised freedom, acceptance is key. When a young adult feels accepted for who they are, it gives them the courage to engage with the world in a more productive way.
  4. Take nothing personally. As stated above, during the process of individuation, young adults may drift away from certain principles that you might personally hold dear. Try not to be offended. Your young adult is not choosing a certain activity to spite you. Most of the time they are simply trying to align their lives to their identity and core principles.
  5. Call, but not every day. It is important that your young adult knows that you are there for them. But calling multiple times a day may hurt more than it helps. Young adults must learn to deal with their own problems. Also, if they begin to feel that you are trying to control their lives, it can actually increase their levels of stress and anxiety.
  6. Don’t put your worry on your child. We know that watching a child become an adult is scary. As a parent, it is easy to see all of the things that could go wrong. But your stress does not help your child’s transition.They are dealing with a lot as is. If there is one thing that you should still try to protect them from, it is from experiencing your stress as well as theirs.
  1. Help. Help brainstorm ways of coping with their issues, rather than telling them what to do. Ask questions that help your adult reach their own conclusions. Be prepared for their answer to be different than the one you came up with. Often there is more than one right way. If they are wrong, they will soon learn through experience.
  2. Set Boundaries. Just because your child is now an “adult” that is free to choose their own life path, does not mean that they can use or abuse your hospitality. When a young adult is in your home or spending your money, it is ok to expect them to adhere to various ground rules. These rules might include curfews, restrictions on drinking or drugs, or expecting that they participate in housework. You are not helping your young adult by enabling their negative behaviors. But remember, if you are going to set a boundary, make sure you enforce it. Set up real consequences. Consistency and communication are key.
  3. LOVE. Love your young adult through their triumphs and struggles, their best moments and their worst. This type of unconditional support allows them to feel secure.
  4. Learn. While transitioning to adulthood has similarities across generations, it is not the same. Young adults today are different than you were when you were their age. Today’s young adults face unique circumstances, leading to unique challenges. Learn about today’s young adult generation in order to better accept and support your family members.

The rest of this White Paper will lay out major challenges faced by today’s young adult generation, some of which were not as prominent in generations past.

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