by Katherine Martinko
Visit the parenting section of any bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of titles on how to raise babies, toddlers, pre-teens, and adolescents. But past the age of 18, it is more difficult to find comprehensive, trustworthy advice.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, as well as a developmental psychologist, father, grandfather, and author, hopes to offer parents a much-needed resource in his book, You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times.
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a leading global authority in the area of adolescence. His career spans more than 40 years researching relationships between parents and children. Dr. Lawrence Steinberg is a developmental psychologist, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, a father and a grandfather. His latest book is being described and as an innovative comprehensive guide for parents of children in their 20s and 30s. The book is called you and your adult child, how to grow together in challenging times. Dr. Steinberg joins us today from Philadelphia, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me as a guest,
Dr. Steinberg, what makes parenting adult children today so unique?
I think there are three things that make it different than it was the case of generation ago. The first is that young adulthood has changed dramatically, in that it is taking young people longer to make the transition into the conventional roles of adulthood, like full time work, marriage, establishing their own residence, becoming financially self sufficient, and maybe even becoming parents themselves. So if you if you look at the span of time it takes to go from college graduation to starting a family. Now, I know not everybody does, both of those things, but the majority of people in at least in the United States do. It takes the average young adult today about 13 years to make that passage, it took their parents generation about eight years to do the same journey. So five years may not sound like a lot, but it’s 50% more. So it’s 50% longer the transition into adulthood now than it was a generation ago. That changes things in lots of ways that we’ll discuss. A second factor is that times have changed. And it’s a very difficult world out there for people in their 20s and 30s. Because of the economy, because of the labor force, not to mention what we’ve been through recently with the pandemic, and the disruption of life that that caused. So it is a more stressful time for young people today. And that affects the parent child relationship, as we’ll discuss later. And then the third is that the current generation of parents of adult children has been very, very involved in their kids lives from the get go. I mean, they search for preschools like it was a matter of life and death. They went to all the Back to School programs and their kids soccer games. And they were involved even into the application phase of college, where not only do they read their teenagers college applications, but sometimes they even wrote that essay for them. And I think that means that parents today wonder if the same level of involvement is appropriate, now that their children are grown. And I think they find it hard to not be involved because they’re so accustomed to that. So those three things together have really changed the nature of the parent child relationship, or parents with adult children.
Those are three huge buckets. And there are so many pitfalls that, you know, are inevitable for parents to fall into as a result of those of those criteria that you just described. So what are some of the common or the most common pitfalls that parents fall into when trying to parent a twenty something?
Well, I think the first is that they are naturally inclined to judge their child’s progress, if you will. According to the timetable that date the parents followed when they were young adults. So they may look at a young person who’s 30. And think, when I was 30. I was married, and maybe I had a child, I was well into my career and climbing up the ladder, I had my own home, I didn’t need money from my parents anymore. Well, those are less likely to be the case today for the average 30 year old. So I think that that leads parents to worry, perhaps unnecessarily, not always, but perhaps unnecessarily that their child is just something that matter. It’s really the matter with your kid, if no matter what the way they raised their child. Things are going much more slowly than they had anticipated. I can’t tell you the number of parents that have asked me if it’s problematic that their 31 or 32 year old child isn’t married and doesn’t have any prospects. And I tried to reassure them that that’s very common today. Because the age of marriage has become so much later. I said And Pitfall, I think is not recognizing how important autonomy is to people this age. I know that as a developmental psychologist, we tend to think of two periods where autonomy is a challenge for parents to handle when their children or toddlers, you know, we talk about the terrible twos and the oppositional lism of people that age, and when they’re toddlers grow up into adolescence. And parents and early adolescence in particular often struggle over the adolescence natural need to want to be more atomics. And as I was writing you and your adult child, it struck me that there’s a third stage when autonomy is a big issue in families. And that’s this stage, particularly around age third, where I think the young person wants to demonstrate to their parents and to themselves, that they are competent, capable adults, who don’t need mom and dad to help them anymore. Now, that becomes a pitfall, when parents don’t realize that the reason that their adult child is not so keen on getting advice from them, is not about them. It’s about the child wanting to be autonomous. And so if you’re, you have an adult child, and he or she bristles when you make suggestions, it’s not because they’re rejecting you, which is I think how a lot of parents feel, it’s because they’re making a statement that they don’t need your advice or, and don’t want your criticism at this age. So that’s a second, important pitfall that parents need to watch out for. The third, and it’s related to that is, is to think that your child should be just as in just as in touch with you, as as frequently as they were when they were younger. Now, I teach at the university, my students tell me that during finals and midterms, they have to turn their phones off, even if it means not hearing from your friends, because their parents are texting them so often that it becomes kind of a nuisance for them. And so I think when parents may expect to keep that level of exchange and involvement going as their children move into adulthood, and then if they don’t get it, they may wonder why Why am I not hearing from my adult child every day the way that I did when she was in college, let’s say. And I think there are some understandable reasons for this, the autonomy issue that I mentioned earlier. But I think also, it’s a very busy time for people in terms of their career, their romantic life, finding a home if they can afford a home, so they’re busy. And, secondarily, it’s a time when people place a lot of emphasis on their social relationships with their friends. So they may be in touch with their peers very, very frequently. And that may interfere with being in touch with their parents as much as they had been before.
So how did you go about Then taking your vast expertise in this area? All of the ideas that you just shared with us that are complicating or making this uniquely challenging for parents of adults and young adults today? How did you take all that information along with the research and distill it into, you know, Bible chunks and buckets that are in your book, you and your adult child?
Well, let me talk a little bit about the backstory here. Because I think your audience will be interested in this. I wish I could say that the book was my idea. It wasn’t. The idea for the book came from AARP, which is an organization that supports and advocates for adults who are 50 and older, and AARP began hearing from his members, that they needed help with their adult children, and that there weren’t resources out there. And there were a lot of challenges like the ones we’ve been discussing, and they didn’t know how to handle them. So ARP has a long standing relationship with the publisher, Simon and Schuster. And they have approached Simon and Schuster and said, we have an idea for a book. And fortunately for me, the person they called a Simon and Schuster happened to be my editor there who edited my last book. And he reached out to me and said, Are you interested in taking this project on? And so from the beginning, I knew that what I had to do was to make the book friendly to readers so that it wasn’t just an academic discussion of what we know about young adulthood or family life or parenting, but that had a lot of practical Advice in it, because that’s why the AARP members were looking for help. And so I began by making a list of the realms of life that I thought were going to be the most, the most challenging for parents of adult children. And they turn out to be education, because parents don’t know whether they should be involved in your kids college education, finances, because so many young people are financially dependent on their parents for a lot longer than either of them expected to be and how do you deal with that? Romance? Because this isn’t the time when people are going to be meeting potential spouses potential partners. And parents may wonder, is it appropriate to pass judgment on that now that my child is, you know, in in his mid 30s, let’s say, you know, they probably would have done it when their child was in his early 20s. But now he’s older. And they wonder, What if I don’t like the person that my child is planning on spending and lifeless work, because this is when individuals are starting their careers, and parents may see that their child isn’t flourishing as much as they would hope and wonder if there’s anything they can do. And then finally, parenting that is their child’s parents. So once they become grandparents, they have a lot of questions about how they are, how they should be involved. What if they don’t like the way that their child is parenting their grandchild? Should they say something about that? And they also want to know, how can I establish a good relationship with my grandchild. And there have been things that have been said and written about that, but not in the context of today’s families and today’s parents. And so, I drew on my basic knowledge of parent child relationships, because as you said, when you introduced me, I’ve been studying that for if you can graduate school for almost 50 years now. And I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of interviews with both parents and children. And I teach, and I teach young adults, and we end up talking about their relationships with their parents. So I’ve learned a lot from my students. And I hear from parents all the time with questions about their young adult child. So I tried to make a, I had a couple of goals. One was to estimate, as I said, a friendly book that was, would be accessible to people in the general public. But the second goal, and I hope, I’ve accomplished it, I think. And I’d love to hear from your audience if they if they like it, or if even if they don’t like it, I tried to be compassionate toward both generations, to help each generation see what the other generation is experiencing. I’ll tell you a little anecdote that I think is informative. When I was recording the audiobook version of you and your adult child, I was working with two adult children, both in their late 20s, the the young woman who was the producer of the audiobook, and the young men who was the audio engineer, and neither of them had read the book, but their job was to listen very closely to what I’d said, as I read. And to correct me if I fumbled a word, or if there was a background noise that they wanted to edit out. And they would ask me to, can you do that sentence over? Can you do that paragraph over? I think that’s the normal process of getting books recorded. But this was their first exposure to the material, my narration. And after the first day, the young woman took me aside and said, My parents have to read this book, because they don’t understand me. And this will help them understand me. And it’s three days later, and the young woman was in New York at the time. So we were on a zoom while we were doing this, and the young man was in Southern California, which is where I was happy to be spending part of the summer when we did the recording. So he didn’t know that she’d come to me and said that to me about the book, he came to me and said, I’ve got to get a copy of this book for my parents because they don’t get it. They don’t understand. So I’m hoping that bye bye. being compassionate toward both generations and understanding their perspective and their point of view. I can improve family was for all the households and there were millions and millions of them in which there are adult children and their parents.
Now along those lines, your book has been described as an innovative guide to parenting adult children, what makes it innovative.
I think what makes it innovative is that you aimed at the broad audience of families with adult children and not just those who are struggling, or have bad relationships. When I was first approached to do the book, like most authors, I went online to see what else is out there. Maybe AARP had it wrong. And maybe there was something that was already written. So there was no point in writing a new book, let’s say. And I was amazed to see that so many of the books aimed at parents of adult children were about estrangement. And they were written by, by people who were estranged from their child, or they were written for people that were estranged from their child. And I began to read articles about the prevalence of estrangement. And those books, clearly overstated how common it is, by a by a large measure. And then I realized that there really isn’t anything out there for the average champion, not ones where their parents and children are estranged. So I thought about, you know, the kinds of books that we have for parents of babies, or school aged children, or teenagers, I wrote a book many years ago for parents of teenagers called human, your adolescent, which took the same approach, which was to say, I’m not going to address problems that arise, but that’s not going to be the focus of the book, the focus of the book is how to build a good relationship with your child. And that was my focus in writing you and your adult child, how can you strengthen the bonds? No, I do address the issue of estrangement for the small percentage of parents and their young adults living longer and strange. But that’s not my main focus, my main focuses are sort of the everyday challenges and issues that parents and their adult children deal with and need help.
Dr. Steinberg, is there a particular piece of research or science that you believe is paramount for parents of adult children to really understand, so that they can bridge the gap in the relationship that they have with their adult child?
I think that, interestingly, the science that’s most important is probably more sociology than it is psychology. And that’s the lengthening of the passage from adolescence into adulthood. And we have very good research on this, because the census departments of most developed countries track these things. So it’s easy to find out what the average age of marriage is, and how that’s changed over time, or what the average age at which people graduated colleges and how that has changed. And so I dug deep into the research that’s been done on the nature of the passage from adolescence into adulthood, because I think that, in some ways, the most pressing challenges that parents face today are traceable to the lengthening of this passage, because that’s done a couple of important things. One is it’s put people on a timetable that doesn’t compare well to the timetable that the parents followed, as I said earlier, and that says, if that’s the point of comparison, it’s going to lead parents to the wrong conclusions about how their child is due. But the second is that it has pushed to a later age, some issues that parents would normally confront when their child was a late adolescent, or in their early 20s. And so for example, if you’re a parent and your 20 year old comes to you and says, Can you loan me $100? I think a lot of parents would say what for? And they would speak up if they thought it was a poor choice of where to spend money. Well, what if it’s your 30 year old? Parents might feel do I have the right? I mean, I can loan or give my child this money, but to have the right really to ask what’s it for? I mean, after all, my child is 30. They’re probably not spending it unwisely. And so, and I mentioned before this issue of meeting your child’s romantic partner, it’s very different to meet someone when your child is at an age where they’re very unlikely to end up marrying this person. So I looked up research on that as well. We have a lot of narratives about, you know, getting together with your high school sweetheart. Well, that almost never happens. Only about 10% of people today are married to the person that they went out with in high school. It’s even the case that people aren’t getting married to the individuals they met when they were in college. That’s only about a quarter of all marriages today. Well so when you when you when you Meet your child’s romantic interest when they’re in their early 20s, it’s probably correct to say I don’t need to worry so much about this, because it’s very unlikely this relationship is going to last forever. That’s not the case when you meet your child’s romantic partner when they’re in their early 30s. Because there’s a very good chance that they’ll end up with this person. And so that changes the whole, that changes the whole perspective that a parent might bring to this issue of passing judgment or not passing judgment on the person that their child is dating or romantically involved in. So I think that understanding the sociology to demography of young adults today is critical for parents. I also talk separately about neuroscience. Because some of my research is on brain development during the teenage years and during the 20s. And one important finding that I discussed is that the brain we now know is continuing to mature in very important ways during the decade of the 20s. And parents may not realize this, as a consequence of the fact that the brain is still immature in some ways. In the early 20s, let’s say during the college years, people engage in a lot of risky and reckless behavior now. And it may surprise parents of somebody who’s 22 or 23 years old, that they’re doing things that seem dangerous or crazy. And I explain how brain development helps us understand why risk taking is so prevalent at this age, and what parents can do to help protect your child from getting involved in dangerous activities.
Along those lines, I’d like to dig into some practical tips that you may be able to share on some of the topics that you’ve alluded to, with respect to parents, and how they can try to avoid the trap of comparing what their lives were like at 20 and 32. What their kids lives at 20 and 30 are, what kind of tips can you share for parents to avoid that?
Well, you know, the first is to understand that the timetables are very, very different because of factors that have nothing to do with your child as an individual, because of the way that society has changed. But I suggest a little rule of thumb, if you want to compare your child’s circumstances, with the circumstances that you were in when you were their age, you shouldn’t really subtract five years from your own age. In other words, if you want to ask yourself, how is my 30 year old doing, you should think back to where you were when you were 25, not when you were 30. Because it takes five years longer to get to the same place. And I liked this tip because it’s easy. It’s easy to remember, and it’s easy to enact. So that’s one.
On the subject of autonomy, and post secondary education, college university, how can a parent prevent over protecting over involvement, while trying to cultivate a autonomy, hopefully, in their adult child.
While I give some pretty severe advice on this topic, and I say this both as the author of the book and as a college professor, he’s taught people this age for many, many years. With the exception of financial assistance, whatever you can provide, and you’re comfortable with, and a visit to campus a couple of times a semester, maybe stay out of it. You ask questions, you want to discuss what your child is learning. We want to discuss what they’re reading, you want to discuss what they think of their classes, but you shouldn’t be involved in any decision making at all, you shouldn’t be editing their college papers, you shouldn’t be suggesting courses that they take, or the sequence of courses they should take. One reason is that it’s become extremely complicated. And it’s hard even for somebody who teaches at a university to keep up with the changing requirements. And so if you’re a parent, and you may be thinking back to your own college education and giving advice based on that, and it’s probably not relevant to today’s colleges and universities. So, you know, and I think that this is hard. I think this is hard for a number of reasons. The first is that, as I said before, today’s parents of adult children have been involved in their kids education. I’m very, very deeply involved. I mean, just speaking personality. My parents didn’t even know where I applied to come How much the you know, they they agreed to pay for it. But they said, This is your decision and just let us know where to send the check that you know, just think about parents saying that today you never hear a parent saying something like that. Today, I tell a story in the book about a phone call that I got when I was the Director of Graduate Studies in our Department of Psychology at Temple University. And I answered the phone, and a woman said that she has some questions about our clinical psychology program. And I said, Sure, happy to answer them for you. Tell me a little bit about what you’re interested in? And she said, it will. It’s not me, I’m calling for my daughter. And I said, Well, I’d love to discuss this with your daughter, have her give me a call? And um, you know, answer whatever questions she has. And the mother said, No, I’m taking care of this for her. And I said, you know, honestly, if your daughter doesn’t have the time to do this, or the interest in doing it, I’m not sure she’s ready to go to graduate school. And so I think that when parents get too involved, they, they interfere with your child’s development of self reliance, and the development of confidence. You know, college is not just about what you learn in your classes, and whether what you learn is going to be translatable into a job. College is about personal growth. And psychological maturation is a really important time in people’s lives. And if you are micromanaging your child’s college education, you may not realize it, but in a way, you’re depriving them of experiences that they need to have in order to be successful in life later on.
On the topic of young adults, and adult children, living at home longer, or moving back home and staying for a longer period, how can a parent best support and survive that type of dynamic?
this is a very new challenge, at least in the United States, were living with your parents is now the most common living arrangement for people in their 20s. It hasn’t been that it was never that at all, during the entire 20th 21st centuries, even during the Great Depression, fewer than than 50%, which is what the percentage is today, moved back in with their parents. So this, this can be an issue because nobody has rules that nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows what the guidelines are, what the rules are, for things like household chores, and what your adult child’s responsibilities should be. For things like whether your child should be paying you rent, for their room and board for things like coming face to face with intimate aspects of your child’s life that you didn’t expect to see face to face. So if you have a child who is still single when dating, and let’s say that your child is dating, you know, dates, many days, many different people and brings them home. You know, parents, I think, know that your adult child may be sexually active, but they don’t
worked out those things in when you’re back home. And I think communication, as always, the case is key to have calm discussions that when problems arise, I suggest a technique that’s actually borrowed from the business world, both collaborative problem solving, where if you and your adult child are coming to heads over something, you should pick a time to sit down and discuss the situation and brainstorm how to solve the problem. So that your adult child and and you are both contributing ideas for potential ways to solve. And once you’ve agreed on that, put it into place. And then check back with each other in a couple of weeks to say how is this working for you. And it could be little things like whether your adult child keeps their room clean. Or it could be big things like whether your child is spending their time looking for a job so that they can save enough money to move out and into their own place. But either way, I think what we know from business models is problem solving that when both parties are contributing to devising a solution. They’re each more likely to buy into it and to implement it enthusiastically. And so I think if you’re if your child is living at home with you now and you’re struggling over something, I think you should have that kind of conversation. And I’m confident that it really will help.
Dr. Steinberg, so much of what you have outlined here is a real source of struggle and of conflict in many households across North America and the world at large. What can you say that could give parents hope? Because it is a lot, we’re talking about uncharted waters in terms of parenting across the board. So what can you say, in particular, with this age group of 20 Somethings and early 30s that can give these parents hope?
that this is a transitional period. And you had you have seen this movie before, as your child was growing up, because there are these important transitions that occur around age three, at around age six, at around age 12, or 13. And again, probably when children go off to college, and this is another transitional period. And what what I think you, as a parent realize, now looking back, was that during these transitional periods, there are a lot of bumps in the road. And you’re going to do your best to get through this transition. As, as best as you and your adult child can, you’re going to do that by keeping the lines of communication open, by understanding what it means to be a young adult in today’s world and adjusting your parenting accordingly. And by getting together and collaborating, when you have an issue that seems to be particularly problematic for your family, because it’s a transitional period, you will find that a new equilibrium will be restored probably sometime during the early 30s. And so this will be a temporary period of of disequilibrium or disruption in the family that will be resolved as you and your adult child learn how to navigate and to negotiate a new relationship that you didn’t, you didn’t expect to be in this situation because no one could have predicted we’d be where we are today. And, you know, unpredictability is an uncomfortable feeling for all of us. And it’s a difficult feeling for families to deal with. But as things become more routine, and as you learn more about each other’s issues, there’s a lot of learning that your adult child has to do about you to work both ways that you will find that things settle down into a much more comfortable situation for everybody.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Temple University, and author of you and your adult child. We really appreciate your time and your insight today. Thank you.
Thank you. I hope it’s helpful.
In an interview with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, Dr. Steinberg explained that the job of parenting adult children has changed significantly over the past generation. First, the transition from college graduation to starting a family (should the child choose to do that) now takes 13 years, on average. It took their parents’ generation eight years. Steinberg says, “Five years may not sound like a lot, but it’s 50% more. That changes things in a lot of ways.”
Second, times have changed. Turmoil in the economy and job market, not to mention the pandemic, has made life challenging for young adults in many ways. They are more reliant on parents than they were in the past, and many still live at home.
Third, the current generation of parents has been hyper-involved in their kids’ lives and struggle to know when and how to pull back, which can get in the way of the child developing autonomy.
When asked how parents can best approach their relationships with children in their twenties and thirties, Steinberg emphasizes understanding the different timetables for maturation. His rule of thumb: “If you want to compare your child’s circumstances with the circumstances that you were in when you were their age, you should really subtract five years from your own age. In other words, if you want to ask yourself, ‘How is my 30-year-old doing?’, you should think back to when you were 25, not 30.”
Another piece of advice that he describes as severe is to stay out of adult children’s post-secondary education. Ask questions and offer financial assistance if you can, but keep visits, inquiries, and direct support to a minimum. Over-involvement can interfere with an adult child’s development of self-reliance and confidence.
“College is not just about what you learn in your classes, and whether what you learn is going to be translatable into a job. College is about personal growth. And psychological maturation is a really important time in people’s lives. If you are micromanaging your child’s college education, [then] you’re depriving them of experiences that they need to have in order to be successful in life later on.”
Steinberg says that, when he embarked on researching You and Your Adult Child, he was surprised by how many books focused on estrangement between parents and their adult children.
His book is meant for the average family who wishes to “strengthen the bonds” between parents and adult children, with a focus on everyday challenges and issues.
Steinberg spoke to Where Parents Talk from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.