The Bumpy Road to Independence

Parents find themselves in a quandary when their adult children continue to ask for financial support. Stories like this are familiar: “My 25-year old borrows money from us. I see how hard it is to pay rent, transportation, and food, never mind medical, and we don’t mind helping. She rarely pays us back. We don’t hear much from her until the next time she needs us.”

Young adults often find the road to financial independence rocky. And, letting go is rarely a picnic for parents! Families support children toward the ultimate goal of independence in different ways at various life stages. Graduations and birthdays suggest milestones, but real life is less exact. Growing independence can seem gradual one minute and sudden the next.

Individual needs, personalities, family styles, and history all play a part in making this emancipation journey more or less smooth, and it is best to avoid comparing your family’s progress to some ideal. The American bootstrap myth that personal success is solely a matter of hard and independent work is just that, a myth. A 2005 Pew Research Center study found two out of three boomers gave financial help to their adult children last year. Other studies reveal that the average age for leaving home in America is 24, and of that group, almost half return at least once.

The economy is tough, and for young people just starting out, it is difficult to make enough money to achieve comfortable independence. When parents can afford to offer material help, in many instances, it can make a positive difference. The parent needs to decide if a gift or a loan is being offered. Gifts are supposed to be freely given but often have strings attached. For example, the parent may say, “I’ll pay your tuition, if you succeed in school”, or “I’ll buy you a car if you use it to get and stay employed.” Being clear about expectations helps everyone.

Family loans are interesting. A loan implies reimbursement, but terms can be muddy. Who initiated the deal? If unsolicited helping is motivated by parental anxiety, the covert message may be, “you need me.” Young adults may then develop a habit of calling parents before using their own resources because it is easy. Often, the young adult initiating a loan request is best. This places the responsibility for suggesting repayment terms on the one who is borrowing.

Blown-off loans invite contentious, avoidant relationships with a range of underlying dynamics such as dependency, guilt, resentment, and entitlement. Parents should not look away when promises are broken. The young adult buying the new iPhone, rather than repaying borrowed money, may act as though parental expectations impinge on them. Regardless, parents need to deal with it straight on.

Mental health issues like depression and drug use can cause developmental delays at this stage of life. Family issues can also be at the root of quagmires. These include parents who try to make up for feelings of guilt by over-giving; parents who give their kids mixed messages about expectations; parents who need their kids to like them; and grandparents who enjoy playing Santa to a grandchild despite parental disapproval. The list is long.

Don’t feel overwhelmed. All families have issues and most children eventually make their own way. The bottom line is that young adults want to succeed, and that’s just what their parents want for them. If family relationships are getting more conflicted, and the young adult seems stuck, step back. Guidance and education may help reduce anxiety and clarify the way to begin rewarding healthy independence. A compassionate, professional counselor can support healthy personal boundaries for all family members.

As your children take on the role of responsible adults, it is a great sign. They might be working full-time and taking the steps to maintain a budget and pay their debts, or improving their future prospects by going to school and passing classes. Relationships are relatively relaxed and respectful in the family when accountability and personal responsibility are in place.

Although it can be hard to see offspring struggle, wise parents reflect carefully before indulging their generous impulses. Despite appearances, valuable life lessons are being learned that will lead to self-confidence. Appropriate boundaries will allow adult children to focus on finding their own place in the world.

Carolyn Bartlett, LCSW

Previously Published November 2007 in Health Central News