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The 4 Steps to Helping Your Adult Child Help Themselves

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The 4 Steps to Helping Your Adult Child Help Themselves

Tess Brigham

Question: “At what age are kids completely self-sufficient and no longer need a parent’s help?”

Answer:  “That’s a great question…let me think…oh hold on a sec, my 26 year old daughter is calling me again.”

If you found this joke funny then I’m going to guess you have a 20-Something in your life; maybe they’re even texting you right now.

This is a very exciting time in your adult child’s life and, while you’re happy your kid is out of the house and taking the world by storm, they’re still calling you, every day, sometimes multiple times a day, seeking your help and support on a wide range of issues. You thought your job as full-time parent was over, only to discover you have a new parenting position. You’re now running an on-call 24/7 “help for whatever my kid is struggling with right now” hotline.

When your kid was growing up he or she needed a secure base as they explored unchartered territory and when they were little that was you. While your heart is in the right place, your “baby” is all grown up and it’s not helpful long-term for children to use their parents as their first and only means of solving their problems.

By helping your kid every time they get stuck you’re inadvertently giving them two messages, 1) “I’m available to solve all your problems” and 2) “I don’t think you can solve them on your own.”

Now, I know that was never your intention but now it’s time to gently tell your son or daughter, “I love you kid but you gotta figure this out on your own,” without making them feel as if you don’t care.

Easier said than done, so here are the 4 steps to teaching your adult child to solve their own problems (and only call you for the big stuff):

One: Admit There’s a Problem.

The very first thing you need to do is have a conversation with your kid and explain while you’ll always love and adore them you can no longer be on-call to solve all their problems. This conversation may be tough but it’s critical for both you and your adult child. There’s never an “ideal time” to have this conversation but don’t wait for the next crisis call to have this talk. If you do it when they’re in the midst of a crisis, they won’t be able to hear what you’re saying and could easily misinterpret your intentions. So, pick a neutral time when all is well to start this conversation. During the conversation, be transparent and honest and admit you made the mistake of not talking to them sooner. Let them know it’s in their best interest to learn how to solve their own problems and to learn how to manage uncomfortable feelings on their own. Make sure to tell them you wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place if you didn’t think they could take care of themselves. Tell them you know they’re a smart, confident, resourceful person and by you solving their problems and comforting them every time something goes wrong, you’re not doing your job as a parent. Reassure them this doesn’t mean they can never call you again or you’re no longer available to talk but you’re asking them to not automatically call you when they’re struggling.

Two: Ask Questions, Lots of Them.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, one I’m sure you know already, you’re kid is going to keep calling you. They may spend a few minutes trying to problem-solve but your phone will still be ringing. When they do call, this is your opportunity to help them help themselves. It may feel odd at first but during these conversations challenge yourself to only ask questions. That’s right, you’re just going to ask questions. No statements, no suggestions, no advice and certainly no criticism. Just questions. The goal is to keep putting the responsibility of solving the problem back on your child. If your child isn’t able to come up with any solutions, don’t give in, just ask, “Who else can you talk to about this?”

Three: Be Consistent.

Sticking to your boundaries is going to be the hardest, but most important, step of this process. You must continue to bite your tongue and ask those questions. Change never happens overnight and you’re going to be tested many times and you may even slip here and there. If you do, don’t beat yourself up; just remember how important it is for your adult child to be their own problem-solver.

Four: Build a New Relationship.

While these conversations can be tough, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The light is this new relationship you’re building with your child. Since they’re no longer calling you in crisis all the time, when you do get on the phone you can get to know them as the person they are today. Maybe you could even pick their brains for some good advice.

When my sister turned 40 she gave our mother a refrigerator magnet that said, “The first 40 years are the hardest.”

It doesn’t matter how old your child is or how far away they move, you’re always a parent. Knowing this is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to be the best parent for your child every step of the way.