How do you become an adult? By making the important life decisions that determine how you’re going to live.
“The central developmental task of adolescents and emerging adults is to discover who they are,” says Dr. Michael Losoff, a staff psychologist at Yellowbrick. “A self-defining decision is one that establishes your own identity and leads to independence from parents and family.”
Examples of self-defining life decisions include:
- Where (and if) to go to college
- Choosing a major
- Applying for jobs/internships
- Deciding where to live and who to live with
- Moving to a new city or state
It’s natural for parents to want be involved in such life decisions, especially when they’re concerned about a son or daughter’s mental health. It can be scary as a parent to see your son struggle with depression and not have the initiative to apply for a summer job or to watch your daughter experience anxiety about what to do after college. And it can be even scarier when your son or daughter wants to make a big life decision — like bum around Europe for a year or switch from pre-med to pottery — that you think doesn’t make sense.
But over-managing your son or daughter’s life can deprive them of the opportunity to grow.
That’s why experts say the key is knowing how—and when—to help.
“In the same way we can’t get our balance on a bicycle until our mom or dad lets go of the bike, we can’t learn to identify our own values and desires unless we have genuine opportunities to make our own decisions,” says Yellowbrick psychologist Dr. David Daskovsky. “Just as it’s a parent’s job to judge when it’s safe to let go of the bike, it’s really helpful for parents to find places where their child can exercise their autonomous decision-making abilities.”
Parents can provide valuable information, such as what they can afford to pay for college or how much they’re willing to help with moving expenses. But as long as no one’s safety is at risk, they also need to accept their child’s choice, even if they don’t agree.
“At some point, parents need to step back,” Losoff says. “You might have worries, but your job is to be there to support your child, whatever they choose.”
Losoff points out, though, that parents of young adults who are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction may need to step in more than parents of young adults who are more on track developmentally.
“When that is the case, parents might become more active in expressing concern and directing the emerging adult toward professional services, or in more serious situations, seeking out services on behalf of both their child and themselves. When that is not the case, parents can feel more comfortable allowing their child to find his or her own way,” he says.
Yellowbrick psychologists offer this advice to parents whose children are facing these important life decisions:
- Let your son or daughter try something, even if you don’t think it’s a good fit. He or she will learn something from a choice that doesn’t work out.
- Recognize that the pressure to make a decision might cause your son or daughter to act defiant or angry. These life decision-making points are often stressful and bound to stir up strong feelings for both young adults and parents.
- Be sensitive to other major life changes, such as the death of a family member or questions of sexual identity. A young adult who is struggling with such issues will find college and job applications that much more challenging.
“Making these decisions involves knowing our own mind and also taking into account the opinions and feelings of others,” Daskovsky says. Parents should feel free to share their thoughts and opinions, without expecting to get the final say.
“The decision itself is less important than the process of deciding and carrying it out,” Losoff says. Working through that process is what teaches young adults how to face all the other life decisions to come.