Parenting Your Adult Kids: Helicopter or Helpful?

The kids are grown and out of the house. Or, in some cases, they’ve left but returned home for financial or other reasons.

Either way, parenting adult children can be tricky business when it comes to striking the balance between being a helpful parent and a so-called “helicopter” parent.

“When you have little kids, you know that you have to nurture them, you have to take care of them, you have to protect them, and that’s not going to change as they grow up,” said Dr. Tatiana Melendez-Rhodes, assistant professor and clinical coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Central Connecticut State University.

“What changes is how you show affection, how you show concern, how you care about them.”

As they mature and confront the challenges that accompany romantic relationships, careers and parenting their own children, it can be difficult to know when to step in and when to step back, allowing your children to resolve issues on their own.

“It’s very common for parents to give them advice,” said Melendez-Rhodes. “If something is not working, we try and fix it.”

That’s especially in recent years as parents have become increasingly involved in their children’s lives — a shift from previous generations when many fathers were less hands-on, and mothers, though often home, were busy meeting the demands of the household.

“Mothers and fathers, in this particular point in history, are spending more time with their children than they ever have before,” according to Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who specializes in gender and family.

And not just physical time, but quality time.

“There’s empirical research that we didn’t have back then that really shows that this quality time with kids is really beneficial,” Munsch said.

From coaching sports teams and helping with homework, to influencing life decisions and sparing our children from perceived mistakes, a generation of well-meaning parents are invested in almost every area of their kid’s lives.

Depending on the circumstances, however, that involvement, along with protecting kids from experiencing failure, can sometimes hamper their ability to problem-solve.

And, as they move into adulthood, it can prevent them from working through issues on their own and becoming self-reliant.

“At whatever age, if you get anxious about a decision you have to make and run to your parents, or even your friends, and automatically take whatever their advice is, you’ve avoided the responsibility of making the decision,” said Dr. Gwen Kesten, a clinical psychologist based in Glastonbury who specializes in adult behavioral health and relationship concerns.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with getting input and advice, but as you get older, it’s all about getting input and advice and then taking various fragments of that and mixing it together with your values, your needs and coming up with something that’s your own.”

It’s an evolving process, according to Kesten, who said that from a young age, it’s good to allow kids to begin making choices, even simple ones like putting their own outfits together, regardless of whether they match.

“There’s something good about them having the ability and that feeling of success that they picked it out.”

Once they become adults, we want to continue encouraging them to grow as people and use their own judgment to address life’s more complex challenges, and one way to foster that is to employ active listening skills.

“It’s very important that parents learn how to listen,” said Melendez-Rhodes. “In daily life, it’s really hard. You just want to have an answer, and you want to protect them, you don’t want them to get hurt, so you immediately come up with ideas.”

Melendez-Rhodes suggests that a better approach is to listen to what your children have to say first, and then acknowledge their feelings, as well as asking how you can support them.

“Giving your child the opportunity to let you know what they need from you.”

It can sometimes be as simple as just lending an ear, instead of offering a solution, she said.

According to Kesten, it’s also important for parents to convey the message that there’s no single, “right” way to resolve issues, or find success, but rather many different paths to achieving happiness.

And while it’s gotten a bad rap, being very involved in your child’s life, or “helicoptering,” has its benefits, said Munsch, who explained that until recently children were considered adults at 18, with many getting married and establishing careers in their early to mid-twenties.

But financial constraints, the pursuit of higher education and competitive job markets have pushed the unofficial age of adulthood further out, with parents supporting their kids longer than they used to.

“It takes longer for kids to get settled and to become adults,” Munsch said. “So we’ve got this ‘emerging adulthood’ period that we didn’t have in the past.

“And it’s not because kids are lazier, and it’s not because helicopter parents are enabling them, it’s because of larger structural forces, like the economy, that are forcing kids to delay adulthood in a lot of ways.”

According to Munsch, studies show that kids who receive extra support from their parents often have a leg up when it comes to things like careers and relationships.

“I think helicopter parents are getting a bad reputation,” she said, “[but] the research is pretty clear that your kids are going to benefit from that in ways that other kids aren’t.”

Though the jury’s still out on exactly where to draw the line, Melendez-Rhodes suggests that parents focus on communicating with their children instead of trying to fix everything or shield them from life’s pitfalls.

“Knowing they have a person who supports them, who will listen, who will let them be vulnerable in front of them without feeling criticized or feeling like a failure is why families are so important in our lives.”

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