When Your Kids Become Adults

I finished a difficult counseling session that left me feeling completely drained.  Seconds later, my phone rings.  “Oh please, not now” I thought to myself.  The caller ID reads “Jordan”.  No, not MJ.  Even better.  It’s my youngest of three, who coincidentally is 23 years old. “Hey dad, I’m in the area.  Interested in getting a bite to eat?” Perfect timing.  Normally at 5pm I’d be going into my next session, but on this particular day I had two cancellations which gave me plenty of time to have dinner with my son and head back to the office for my evening appointments. Dinner with Jordan was great.  We talked about his new job, plans to further his education, and career aspirations.  On the lighter side, we discussed sports and current TV series we like.  By the end of dinner, my “dad tank” was full!  Later that evening I texted Jordan to thank him for dinner and to convey how proud I am of him. It is a good feeling as a parent to see your kids transform into adults.  How does this happen? I have no clue. Just kidding! Actually, there is a process I address at length in my book coming out later this year entitled, “Bringing Respect Back: Communicating Without Conflict”.  This process involves a parent-child dance with only three steps!  Two for parents.  One for the adult-child. The two steps for parents is simple: step instep back. The one step for the child: step up. The steps are simple to remember.  They are not as easy to execute!  However, with practice this dance helps children advance through the stages of development and prepares them for transition into adulthood.  No way I can fully cover the dance in an article, so be on the lookout for the book.  Click here. Listening to my son Jordan talk as an adult about his life and plans, led me to think about our father-son journey.  Suffice it to say, it wasn’t always a smooth ride.  The reasons are a private matter.  The good news is we survived the turbulence and enjoy a relationship as adult men. I’m often asked by parents what they are supposed to do when their kids become adults. What is my role now?  To what level do I still act as a parent?  Should I be telling them what to do?  The answer to these questions has to do in part with your style of parenting.  But if you follow the two-step dance, it will guide your decisions.  Let me explain.

Stepping Back as a Parent

Stepping back is the most important step you need to do as your kids transition into adulthood.  If you don’t, it will be harder for them to step up and take on the responsibilities of adulthood.  Stepping up means they will have to problem solve and make decisions on their own.  If you are always telling them what to do at this juncture, they will not develop the confidence and competence they need to function as adults. Do you fear they will make mistakes?  That’s okay.  They will.  You did.  So did I.  Making mistakes is a part of growing up.  We learn from them.  They force us to problem-solve and make better choices.  This is how we mature. One of the hardest things for parents is to step back and watch their son or daughter make a wrong decision.  Many feel responsible.  Some blame themselves and struggle with guilt.  Fearing the worst, these parents step in and take over.  This reaction sends the wrong message to their budding adult.  It says, “I don’t have confidence in you to make good decisions.  You need my help.”

The Emperor Moth

Transformation Butterfly It reminds me of the story of the Emperor Moth…  One day a man visited his friend who had a moth collection.  While his friend was busy in another room, he noticed an Emperor Moth struggling to emerge out of his cocoon.  In desperation, the man picked up scissors and carefully clipped the cocoon, spilling the moth on to the table.  When his friend returned he told him how he rescued the moth from its struggle.  However, his friend informed him that what he did forever disabled the Emperor Moth.  He said, “The struggle out of the cocoon is necessary in the transition.  It is the struggle that allows fluid to move throughout the wings, which enables the moth to fly.” The transition into adulthood is meant to be a struggle.  Young adults need to learn that along with the rights of adulthood, come responsibilities.  Young adults crave the rights of adulthood.  Some avoid the responsibilities.  In order to become an adult they have to take on the responsibilities.  Stepping back is necessary in order for them to step up.

Stepping In as a Parent

So when does a parent “step in”?  I recommend a “3C Model”: Crisis, Consultation, Congratulate


When our adult children face a crisis of some sort, it is important for parents to step in and offer support.  However, the level of support should not create an over-dependency on the parents.  Remember, some struggle is important for maturation.  Adult children need to learn how to develop and use problem-solving skills.  If you take over then the crisis becomes your problem to solve, not theirs.  Not good.


Consultation is a second way to step in.  There are times in which adult children are seeking advice on how to solve a problem or make a decision on an important matter, say for example, buying a car.  Consultation is not telling your son or daughter what to do.  Rather, it is a dialog in which you first seek to understand what their thoughts and ideas are about a particular issue they want to address.  Afterwards, you offer some advice that may be of benefit.  Consultation conveys the message, “I recognize you are an adult and I have confidence in your ability to figure things out and manage this responsibility.” This interaction acknowledges the shift in roles and responsibilities.  Your relationship is becoming adult-adult.


Congratulate is a third way to step in.  Pay attention to the little and big things they do to function as an adult.  Commend them on these successes.  Convey a message of confidence in their ability to succeed.  Look them in the eye and tell them you are proud of them.  Parents’ words carry a lot of weight.  Avoid criticism.  Pay compliments. During dinner with Jordan I adopted a position of curiosity and took an interest in his thoughts and ideas about his future.  I asked questions about his new job, what he hopes to gain from the experience, and about his career path.  He shared his passion, why he enjoys the field, and what direction he envisions for his career. This information helped me see the world through his eyes.  Next, I validated him by commending his passion, potential, and sense of purpose.  I “stepped in” to instill two important things in my son: confidence and competence.  In sharing with him what I see in him, I wanted to let Jordan know that I believe in him and support his journey.  I also validated his competence by affirming his qualities, skills and potential.  Finally, I offered a few ideas to consider.  It was a synergistic conversation which I expect will fuel his motivation to succeed. So how are you doing with the two-step dance?  Stepping in more than stepping back?  If you wait for your kids to “step up” before you “step back” you will be “stepping in” all the time.  From a young adult perspective, there is no need to “step up” when a parent is taking care of the problem.  Maybe it’s time to start stepping back some more.  You may be surprised by what happens when they really start to step up.