During the course of the year we’ve been writing this column for Next Avenue, a number of readers have sent us their most troubling questions about being good parents to their twentysomethings. Here, we share our research-based answers and encourage you to send new questions for future columns. You can note them in the comments section below, or for privacy, email us at: [email protected]
Q: How do you help your adult child through anxiety? My wife and I are dealing with this now with one of our sons, and I was surprised to learn from him how many of his twentysomething friends see therapists. Should the kids take prescription medication for this? When is anxiety normal and when is it something more serious?
A: Anxiety is common among today’s emerging adults. In the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, a national survey of 18- to 29-year-olds that Jeff Arnett directed, 56 percent agreed with the statement “I often feel anxious.” According to another national study, 12 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have had symptoms in the past 12 months that merit a diagnosis of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders take a variety of forms, such as agoraphobia (fear of being in public places), obsessive-compulsive disorder (repetitive intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors, such as washing hands) and specific phobias (for example: to heights, closed spaces or certain animals or insects).
(MORE: When Your Adult Child Has a Mental Health Issue)
To some extent, anxiety is normal during the twentysomething years. After all, emerging adults are grappling with formidable questions about who they are and how they fit into the world. Their lives are in flux as they try to make their way toward building a foundation for adulthood, and certainly many anxieties are associated with learning to live independently for the first time and facing all the stresses of adult life.
To decide whether your son’s anxiety is normal or a psychiatric problem that needs to be treated, the key question hinges on whether it is interfering with his ability to move his life forward. Normal anxiety can be a spur to get off the couch and look for a job or fill out that application for grad school; an anxiety disorder makes it difficult to make plans and act on them. If you are in doubt where your son falls on this spectrum, by all means have him see a mental health specialist, who can hear what he has to say about his anxiety and judge whether therapy, medication, both or neither are called for.
Q. My two twentysomething sons spend half their lives glued to their screens. How can I use technology to bring me closer to them?
A. Although there’s nothing like a relaxed conversation over dinner or a long hike, many parents these days realize they need to meet their kids where they live: on their devices. A recent study called “Dad Doesn’t Text” by Jennifer Schon, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Kansas, showed that adding an additional channel of communications to connect with grown kids has a modest increase in relationship quality and satisfaction.
(MORE: Ways to Keep Phone Calls Going With Grown Kids)
On average, participants reported using about three channels of communication with their parents. So if you’re using only one or two — say cell phone and email — adding a third — like texting, Skype or Facetime, where you can have real-time live chats — “might hit the sweet spot for relationship satisfaction,” Schon said.
When you interact with your kids on social media, make sure you observe the same respectful boundaries in cyberspace that you do in real life. If you follow their Facebook postings, personal blogs or Instagram feeds that can read like minute-to-minute scrapbooks, enjoy these privileged glimpses into their lives, but think twice before posting too many (if any) comments. There’s a thin line between genial support and prying.
Q: How can we know when to speak up about our twentysomething’s questionable behavior and when to turn the other cheek?
A: There are still times during your kids’ 20s when you have to voice your concerns and get involved even if they don’t want you to (and even if you aren’t happy stepping in yourself). If you’re wondering whether to say something, ask yourself if the behavior that’s bothering you is serious, dangerous or simply unpleasant.
For instance, if a family reunion is scheduled, and your son hasn’t shaved in a few days and looks rather scruffy, well, that may not be pretty, but it’s not life threatening. But if your daughter shows signs that she’s smoking pot on a daily basis, that habit can be harmful. You need to address it directly with her.
(MORE: When Will My Twentysomething Truly Grow Up?)
When a lively social life with lots of partying veers into substance abuse, when a struggle with normal identity issues about “what to do with my life” becomes clinical depression or a preoccupation with fitness turns into an eating disorder, parents need to step up, speak up and be ready with resources of outside, professional help.
Q: Two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m a single mother, and my 20-year-old daughter took a semester off from college to help take care of me. Now, unfortunately, I’ve had a recurrence, and I’m concerned about asking for her help again.
A: Your daughter has given you a loving gift of her time and attention, and you’ve undoubtedly benefited during a difficult time. But she has also grown by lending you a hand and learned that being there for others is part of the circle of life. She would most likely feel positive, not regretful about her choice. At the same time, she needs time and space to explore the possibilities for her own life like the rest of her agemates.
So tell her honestly when you need her help, but also do your best to tap into whatever support network you have — friends, other family members, neighbors — so your daughter does not feel overwhelmed with single-handed caretaking duties as such a young age.