There Is No Road Map for the Longest Phase of Parenthood

When a kid becomes an adult, a new, confusing stage of the parent-child relationship begins, yet there’s little guidance to help families navigate it.

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Getty; The Atlantic

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Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which was published in 1946 and sold nearly 50 million copies in the author’s lifetime, sparked the formation of the currently enormous industry advising parents of little ones. There’s now no shortage of guidance for raising children through early developmental milestones, from toilet training and getting your kid to sleep through the night to steering them through the turbulence of adolescence. Yet, once children reach adulthood, the instruction abruptly stops—even though, for many families, that period is the longest, and in some ways the most anxious and uncertain, stage of parenthood.

It also might be the most overlooked. “There’s a perception that parents need help with little kids because that’s the time when everything is decided,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist and senior research scholar at Clark University, who co-wrote Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years, one of the few advice books I could find for parents of young adults. But Arnett contends that many people actually build the foundation for their adult life during a phase he calls “emerging adulthood,” which occurs from 18 to 29 years old. During this period, parents and children also set new norms in their relationship that continue as the children grow into older adults running their own households and who ultimately may end up caring for their parents, according to Karen Fingerman, a human-development and family-sciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin. And although many factors—such as income and education level—influence how this transition plays out, navigating this changing parent-child dynamic seems to be universally confusing.

Legally, parents aren’t obliged to support their children once they turn 18. But the moral responsibility of helping one’s kids doesn’t just go away when they leave the nest, and many parents find themselves still enmeshed in their adult children’s lives, both emotionally and financially. “It’s a difficult kind of anxiety to cope with,” because your instinct is to protect them, but once they’re adults, you lose that control, Arnett told me.

Finding the right balance can be tricky. If parents offer too much help, their kids might start to resent the infringement on their independence, but if they offer too little, they might have to watch their children struggle. For example, when Laura Zhang Choi’s daughter decided to not go to college yet, or ever, Choi knew she had to accept that decision—even though she was terrified that it was a mistake. Choi, who lives in Stewartsville, New Jersey, has always worked to make sure that her daughter, who is transgender, feels safe and supported. But while helping her daughter process her identity and whether she should attend college, along with many other elements of the transition to adulthood, Choi has had “no blueprint to follow, and grasped at straws … All the things I thought I knew about parenting, I had to reevaluate.” There’s little out there to guide parents through these dilemmas. But even if there were a Dr. Spock for adult kids, the solutions wouldn’t be as simple as sleep training or time-outs for bad behavior. “No one script is going to work for everybody,” Arnett told me. He’s seen this personally as the father of twins, one of whom craves advice on a daily basis while the other can go months without seeking it.

Helping young adults through this period seems to only be getting harder, as the societal forces that encourage dependence mount, while those that lead to independence get pushed back. Educational costs have soared, and college students are grappling with unprecedented debt. According to a Pew Research Center report, among 18-to-29-year-olds who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree, 49 percent hadn’t paid off their loans yet. As a result, some are delaying milestones such as buying a first home or getting a first job, instead continuing to rely on their parents, according to Deborah Carr, a sociology professor and the director of the Center for Innovation in Social Science at Boston University. And this dependence is not just financial. Adults are also marrying later than in earlier generations, meaning that, for many, “parents remain more important for longer as your main emotional touchstone,” Arnett told me.

Of course, many parents today really do want to stay close with their kids as they grow up—an intimacy that can be complicated for some families. Parents and adult children are “essentially establishing a new relationship with unclear rules and uncertain boundaries,” which “can be a challenge for both generations,” Carr explained to me. According to one 2012 poll conducted by Arnett and a team of researchers at Clark, more than half of young adults said they text, call, email, or see their parents in person every day or nearly every day. For parents, being in constant contact can be hard because “you’re on duty for longer,” Arnett said. But young adults struggle with this too. Thirty percent of poll respondents agreed “that their parents are more involved in their life than they really want them to be.”

Financial assistance is another way that many parents try to help as their children grow into adulthood—but that involvement can also be uneasy. According to a 2020 AARP survey, half of middle-aged adults who have children over 25 are still giving them money for everyday needs. Mitchell Kraus, a certified financial planner in Santa Monica, California, says that over the roughly three decades he’s worked in financial planning, he’s seen more and more parents keeping kids on their cellphone and health-insurance plans or even assisting with the down payment on a house. Parents “realize how much harder it is to get started now than it was decades before, when they were starting off,” and try to give their kids every advantage, he told me. Although Kraus doesn’t oppose providing some help, he warned that there are no easy rules to follow and that there’s a fine line between offering support and creating dependence. “Even the best banks make mistakes when loaning money, so with emotions involved, it is even tougher,” Kraus said. Money is actually the top source of conflict in relationships between parents and their adult kids, according to a 2013 Clark poll of parents.

Still, when handled maturely, parents and adult kids can get over even the thorniest financial disagreements. Jackson Pierce, a 28-year-old, confronted this issue when he asked his parents if they would consider cosigning a loan for his graduate program in classical acting and they refused. They supported his career path—even if they worried about its economic security—but they wanted him to understand that he was responsible for his choices about money. “We said, ‘You’re an adult … and you’ve made this decision and you have to live by this decision,’” his mother, Tracey, told me. Pierce accepted this and moved on. “I knew that the answer might be ‘no,’ and I was more than prepared for it,” he told me. Tracey admitted to feeling a “twinge of guilt” at turning him down, but more than anything, she was relieved by how calmly they resolved the issue.

As adults move into their 30s, they usually begin to need less from their parents and conflicts such as these might grow less frequent. But challenges are likely to reemerge as parents age and start to need support from their kids. Fingerman, the UT Austin professor, says the process typically starts with adult children handling smaller tasks, such as caring for a parent who’s had surgery. That escalates to stepping in more often, for example, if health issues intensify or one parent dies. This transition can be stressful for kids, and though they might find some guidance on the physical aspects of caring for parents, almost no advice deals with emotional issues, Fingerman told me. Parents may struggle to accept the aid they need, too. In cases such as those, Fingerman emphasized that adult children should treat their parent like a peer, rather than a child, and should approach discussions collaboratively. But just as parents of young adults cannot control their children’s choices, adult children need to accept that their parents also get to make decisions they don’t agree with, she said.

Even with these hurdles to overcome, maintaining a close relationship pays off for both adult kids and their parents. In her research, Fingerman has found that grown children who receive intensive parental support fare better than those who receive less aid. Parents benefit, too, because adult children who got a lot of help are also more likely to provide a higher level of care when their older parents need it. Indeed, the happiness one derives from family grows with age, according to a June 2022 AARP study.

In the end, despite the lack of guidance, many older adults and their parents are able to find healthy ways to stay close and build relationships that work for them. In the best cases, these bonds transcend any simplistic dynamic of a caregiver and a person being cared for, instead embodying a profound reciprocity.