Psychologist Laurence Steinberg On What You Need to Know to Navigate The Often Complicated—and Fragile—Relationships With Your Adult Kids
When AARP and Simon & Schuster came to Laurence Steinberg about writing a book for parents of adult kids, the developmental psychologist quickly began to see a huge need for one. Millions of parents find it challenging to raise their adult kids but cannot find any resources to help. "There was no normal guide for parents of 20- and 30-year-olds as you'd find for parents of babies or teenagers," he tells The Sunday Paper.
So Steinberg, who is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, dug in—and the result is a guide for parents whose kids are in those two crucial decades of life. The book is comprehensive and dense. Steinberg covers a range of issues, from older children moving home to navigating financial support to how to know if your child is floundering.
We spoke with Steinberg about why this book is so crucial now, not only for parents but also for adult children. He says he aimed to create something compassionate for both generations. "The parents need help. They don't know how to handle certain issues. And the young adult children feel very misunderstood."
A CONVERSATION WITH LAURENCE STEINBERG, PH.D
You write “Today, we need a guide to parenting adult children more than ever before.” Why do you believe this?
There are a couple of things that make it the right time for this book. The first is that it is hard to be in your twenties and thirties today. This is because of the economy and changes in the labor force, the student loan burden many are carrying, and the crisis of affordable housing. All of this has prolonged their transition into full adulthood. Young adults are staying economically dependent on their parents for longer and longer and that is delaying them from establishing an independent residence and therefore getting married and having children and other major transitions. The issue of financial dependence is challenging for families to work out. The young people feel that they’re emotionally and socially immature. They didn’t expect to be coming to their parents when they were 30, asking for help. I sure don’t think the parents expected that, either. So it’s a hard time to be that age. All of that has prolonged the parenting aspect of the parent-child relationship, well beyond what it had been for today’s parents of adult children when they were young adults.
A very concrete way all of that hits home is the huge increase in the number of young people who have moved back in with their parents. It’s now the most common living arrangement for people in their twenties, and it has not been that way before in this century or the previous one. This presents all kinds of issues that families hadn’t expected to confront that they have to deal with. This includes sharing household responsibilities to what kind of rules you should or should not have. It’s one thing to have your 17-year-old at home than it is to have your 29-year-old at home who may be single and dating.
These are all complicated psychological issues for parents and kids to deal with, and they’ve arisen in recent years and they haven’t existed before. This is compounded by the fact that the current generation of parents with adult children has been incredibly involved in their kids’ lives since their children were born. I joke in the book that my undergraduates tell me they have to turn their phones off during midterms and finals because they’re interrupted by their parents so often.
You make a compelling case about how science has changed our understanding of how young adults’ brains mature. What do you want parents to understand here?
There is still a lot of maturation going on during the twenties. We didn't know this—at the neurobiological level—until fairly recently. A lot of my work in my regular life involves the juvenile justice system. One issue that is being confronted across the nation right now is how we view crimes that are committed by people who are 18, 19, and 20. Science says that their brains are still not fully developed, and they're reckless and impulsive. This is partly what I do my scientific research on.
I'd like parents with kids in their early to mid-twenties to understand that they still may be making impulsive and rash decisions, and the parents should not be surprised by that, or they should at least understand there is still time for a lot of continued growth.
I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about a decade ago about the benefits of delayed adulthood. This ties in with neuroscience too. A lot of people misunderstand the causes and consequences of pushing these adult transitions later and later. I advanced the argument in the op-ed that there may be a benefit of not rushing into adulthood because [the young adults] may be spending more time in experiences that promote brain development before they settle down and get into a routine of life. I want parents to understand that the fact that their kid doesn't have their life together by 30 doesn't mean that something is a matter with them. It may be appropriate from a societal point of view and beneficial from a neurobiological point of view to take their time becoming an adult.
What are some of the main takeaways you want parents of kids in their twenties and thirties to know?
The first is about being supportive as much as you can, and probably financially supportive. Some families are in a better position to do that than others, but I think given the ways that the economy and housing and so forth have changed, it's very likely that your child is going to need your financial support—and it's not because they're lazy. If you can give it in appropriate ways, which I discuss in the book, that will go a long way.
The second, which is a theme throughout the book, is knowing you can't use the timetable that you followed to judge your child's progress. I've talked to many people lately, and many have said things like ‘My son is 31, he's not married, and he doesn't have any prospects.’ And I say ‘Here's the deal: College-educated people don't get married before the age of 30 anymore. You don't have anything to worry about.’ So it’s about not using your timetable to judge your child’s passage into adulthood.
And the third—and this is a revelation that I had while I was writing—is to understand that this is the third time in development when issues concerning autonomy from parents come to the fore. The two we typically think of are toddlerhood and early adolescence. But it seems to me that this is another time, particularly as people move toward the age of 30 when they have a strong need to demonstrate to their parents and themselves that they are capable adults who don't need to rely on their mother and father anymore. What I’d like parents to understand is that when their child bristles at your advice, or disregards it, it's not about you. And it’s probably not about the advice that you're giving. It's about their need to see themselves as grown up. So if you can, find ways to not take it personally, which can be hard to do.
In your book, you cover mental health for both the parents and the children. For parents who are going through a hard time with their adult kid, what’s your advice for staying mentally healthy?
There’s the old adage: You're only as happy as your unhappy child. As parents, we think about our children much more than our children think about us. If you see your child struggling because of the real-world challenges that people in their twenties and thirties are facing now, you can't help but feel anxious with or for them. I hear from a lot of parents who are worried about their adult children. For some parents who may be prone to mental health problems, that makes them feel anxious and perhaps depressed. If it’s something that your child is doing in your relationship that can be corrected, sit down and have a conversation about it. For instance, if you feel your kid only calls you when they need something from you. I don't mean that we want to make our kids feel guilty, but it’s fine to voice those concerns in a conversation. .
It’s not abnormal to have negative feelings about your children. It's very common, but we don't like to talk about it. Most parents, from time to time, feel bothered, annoyed, disrespected, or neglected. So if that’s the source of the problem, you should have a conversation with your child that's gentle but open and honest.
If you’re worried about the circumstances of your child's life, such as that they’d like to be married but they're not, or that they can’t get a satisfying job, or they’re crammed into a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with three other people their age, and this is causing symptoms in you, the parent, that is a good reason to seek counseling. A counselor or therapist won't be able to make your kids' problems go away, but they may be able to help you frame it in a way that isn’t so hard on your mental health.
Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., is the Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University. He is the author or coauthor of several books and his work has also appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. You can learn more at laurencesteinberg.com and order his new book here.
Question from the Editor: We'd love to open this space to talk about any challenges you've had as a parent of child in their twenties or thirties. Please use the space below to share!