As the year comes to a close, and families gather together around holiday meals, it’s natural to find yourself wondering, “Is Emily ever going to find a job?” Or “How much longer is Christopher going to live at home?” Or, “How much more therapy am I going to have to pay for?!”
While we’ve long been hearing about the difficulties suffered by the Millennial generation, Gen Z’s are now struggling even more than their historically fragile Gen Y counterparts. This is according to the 2018 Stress in America poll (released annually since 2007) from the American Psychological Association (APA).
During what should be a happy go lucky developmental period, twenty seven percent of 15-21 year olds report only ‘fair’ to ‘poor’ mental health. Mass shootings (75%) and rising suicide rates (62%) top the significant stressors contributing to the fragile mental health of our young people.
But how might parental worries, and related actions, impact how well emerging adults transcend the difficulties of mastering adulthood?
The Paradox of Loving (and Worrying) Too Much
Of course you want the best for your emerging adult child as he or she embarks upon the world of grown up roles and responsibilities. You want them to be happy! But might this simple and natural desire be somehow contributing to the difficulties their experiencing?
Could there be a paradox in our best intentions to help our almost adult children find happiness? In my experience as a clinical psychologist, specializing in Gen Ys and Zs, I’ve seen three classic errors, where parents’ best intentions, create barriers to their child’s ultimate emotional development.
1. Not Allowing Space for Discomfort
Having children is like having your heart walking around, outside your body! It’s easy to become consumed with worry about all the ways they might get hurt, suffer, or struggle. Our love for them compels us to do anything and everything we can to protect them from difficulties and ensure their happiness.
But here’s the deal. Our emotions, all of them, serve an essential function in our drive and motivation, as well as our mood. Our emotions tell us what we care deeply about: And thus inform us of what to pursue in life.
When we over protect our children from the messages of their emotions, we risk blunting them from their own internal compass.
From the time our children are very young, about two years old, it is the role of the loving caretaker to teach them that emotions are okay. They can tolerate their emotions. Without this space to have and allow emotions, children cannot learn, from their own experience, that they can handle it! When parents’ worry too much, they often fail to allow a child to have and grow from this experience.
Recommendation: Next time your child is up against something that makes them sad, or anxious, or uncertain, give them a space to have those feelings. If you want to help, rather than solving the problem causing the emotion, help them to label the emotion word. Then offer them some simple words of compassion for how difficult adulting can be.
2. Assuming From Your Own World View
Every generation suffers through the gap between the beliefs of one generation and the next. Yet, somehow, each generation hears itself bemoan the proverbial “Kids these days!” complaints.
This happens largely due to the way our minds and thinking processes are hardwired. All those beliefs you hold about how things ‘should be’, and assumptions about ‘the way things are’ are based on what you’ve experienced. Right?
Well, your almost adult child is living in a very very different time: with very different rules. Just as you have difficulty understanding their worldview, they get frustrated with yours.
Trying to convince your adult children of your own beliefs and perspective is likely to push them further away, leaving you less able to be of support.
Recommendation: Next time you notice the panic rising up that your almost adult child is about to make a mistake. Or you worry they don’t understand. PAUSE! Ask them to help you understand better. Repeat back what you heard. Then balance this validation of their perspective with the alternative view you hold. You might explore how differently two people can experience the same facts. The best thing you can do is model the ability to take another’s perspective: even when it is completely different from you’re your own.
3. Failing to Hold Your Child Accountable for Their Behavior.
While memes and idealists everywhere will tell you that “true love should be unconditional.” Reality, and the laws of nature work slightly differently. Now, before you recoil in horror, allow me to clarify.
If you are one of those parents that feels loving feelings for your child all the time, then congratulations! That is a rare and amazing thing! I commend you! But most of the time, all that loving behavior (giving, doing, failing to set limits and punishments) is not due to an overflow of unconditional love.
Far too often, parents fail to effectively shape and teach desired behavior, due to their own fears and worries about alienation of the adult child’s affections. As kids are moving from teens to twenties, they are home less and less, and we worry about pushing them further away!
But if you want to help your child to build the behaviors they need to successfully navigate the bumpy roads of adulting, consistently adorning them with loving actions is unlikely to be effective.
Recommendation: Behavioral habits are very simple. People do more of what feels good, and less of what feels bad. To be an effective parent, you must follow through with rewards and punishments. If it causes you discomfort to do so, return to recommendation 1, and practice this type of compassionate allowing for yourself.