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Case Studies for Parents of Adults

As children grow, a parent’s role evolves—from caregiver to choreographer to coach. When children hit young adulthood and finish their college years, parents function primarily as consultants. But this promotion is no cushy retirement. It’s a challenging gig: even the most well-adjusted young adult can run into roadblocks, and parents have less control over kids’ decisions than before.

Cartoon image of family sitting at a table where the parents are reading newspapers and their son is looking at his phone

Want to hone your parental consulting skills? We’ll use the ultimate b-school teaching tool, the case study, to explore how you can offer advice for the most perplexing young-adulthood dilemmas and help your grown-up kids grow into leaders in their careers, families, and communities.

Case Study 1: Making Room for Mistakes

The dilemma:

Your twenty-three-year-old son, Curtis, attended community college for a few years and received his associate’s degree but couldn’t decide on a major or career that interested him. Your family values education, and you hoped he would transfer to a state college, but he decided to take a break from school. He spent a few months traveling, then got a job at a local grocery store where a friend of his worked. He’s worked there contentedly for the past year or so.

This summer, his friend invited him to help make a web video series. Curtis gushed to you about how much he enjoyed working on it—plus he’s thrilled that the series gained a significant amount of views and subscribers. Curtis and his friend just started a crowdfunding campaign to create a second series. Now he’d like to quit his job to devote more time to producing videos and seeking out sponsors, and he hopes to translate his online success into a sweet Hollywood screenwriting deal. You don’t want to crush Curtis’s dreams, but you’re concerned that his expectations are unrealistic.

Cartoon boy in front of the Hollywood sign with movie objects around him

The response:

The consultant role gets especially hard when you feel that your child is taking a wrong turn or destined for disappointment. How do you balance your desire to prevent harm with the need to grant your child space to pursue his dreams—and learn from mistakes?

Ask first. In this situation, your first instinct is to call it like you see it. But with young adults, it’s important to first ask if they’re open to advice. “Unsolicited advice can come off as critical rather than supportive,” says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, owner of Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, and author of The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide for Women. “When it’s unwelcome, your advice-sharing is going to negatively impact the relationship, and the relationship is more important than being right.” Hanks suggests this script: “I’ve been thinking about you and your career plans. I wonder if you’re open to feedback or ideas.”

Reality check. Hanks suggests saying, “I believe you’re capable, but you still need to eat and have a place to live while you’re making your dreams come true. What are your plans for that?” You may discover that Curtis is expecting you to serve as a backup checking account or lodging. If he hasn’t thought through practical matters, offer to help brainstorm strategies, such as keeping his current job part-time or waiting until he’s saved up money to cover a few months’ expenses. You don’t need to tell him to shrink his dreams, but emphasize he is more likely to succeed if he breaks it down into smaller, specific steps.

Stay on your side. Sometimes parents feel that guilt trips are their only tool for persuasion. But for a healthy relationship, Hanks says, you need to “stay on your side of the court.” You’re not allowed to jump to the other side and hit for the other person; you must volley the ball from your own side, with phrases like “This is how I feel” or “This is how it looks from my perspective.” Rather than resorting to passive-aggressive comments, Hanks says, own any concerns and express them as your concerns. The unhealthy response to Curtis might be “Oh, is that really what you want to do with your life?” or “You really shouldn’t do something like this until you finish school.” A better response is to use “I” statements: “I’m really glad you’ve found something you love doing, but there’s a part of me that’s a little nervous because I want you to be financially secure. I think that getting a degree first or staying on with your current job for a while would be a wiser choice. I just wanted to let you know how I felt, and you can take it or leave it.”

Case Study 2: Enforcing House Rules

The dilemma:

Cartoon video game controller, pizza and a sock

You have a new—er, old—resident in your house: your twenty-five-year-old son, Seth. He moved back home when he was no longer able to live off the part-time job he held in his college town. He isn’t sure what kind of career he wants to pursue and is taking time to explore his interests.

Seth isn’t a troublemaker, but his nocturnal schedule is driving you crazy. Sometimes he stays out late with friends and doesn’t come home until one in the morning, or he has a friend over to play video games even further into the wee hours. Then he sleeps in late and eats leftovers, conveniently missing any meal prep or cleanup. He mows the lawn and takes out the trash when asked, and you enjoy his company. But you’re beginning to resent plucking dirty laundry off the bathroom floor—and fear this arrangement has no end in sight.

The response:

When adult children return home, the parenting relationship is murkier than when they were younger. Where does their independence end and your authority begin? You want to help out, but you don’t want to be taken advantage of.

Set the record straight. It is increasingly common for young adults in the United States to remain or return home. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2010 and 2015 the number of young adults living with parents rose from 24 to 26 percent—despite an improving job market. In your case, Seth seems to view his living arrangement as an upgraded version of his teen years, with all the comforts of home, minus the rules and responsibilities. But here’s the real deal: living at home is a privilege, not an entitlement; it’s a stepping stone on the path to independence.

Communicate expectations. Discuss specific expectations for Seth’s responsibilities (and ideally, get it on paper). Possible discussion points:

  • How long does he expect to stay? Set a move-out date or, at the very least, a date to reevaluate.
  • Do you expect him to pay rent? If so, how much?
  • How much should he contribute to utilities, groceries, and other household expenses?
  • What housework will he be responsible for (e.g., laundry, dinner prep, dishwashing)?
  • Can he use the family car? If so, how often? Does he need to pay for gas?
  • Do you expect him to spend a certain number of hours each day applying for jobs?
  • In cases where there are grandchildren, how will the household divide responsibilities for their care?
  • What house rules, especially in regard to curfew, guests, or activities you don’t want in the home (like drinking), do you expect your adult child to follow? What or how many infractions are grounds for eviction?

Maintain boundaries. This is about more than knocking before you enter a bedroom. You need emotional boundaries too—and time away from your kid could help pave the way to his independence. “It’s really important for parents to have peer friends,” Hanks says. “It’s okay to do things with your adult child, but your child should not be your only or best friend. I’ve heard so many young-adult clients say, ‘I can’t find my own apartment or get married or move for this job opportunity because my mom or dad would be so lonely.’ That’s too much pressure on your child.”

Stand your ground. What if your young-adult resident is a troublemaker—or lawbreaker? “A common pitfall for parents is not allowing a young adult to face consequences for their choices, in the name of love,” Hanks says. “But I define love as doing what’s in their best interest, not what seems ‘nice’ or reduces conflict. I’ve told parents, ‘Don’t bail your kid out of jail or pay their overdue cell phone bill. They need to learn.’ The most loving response is sometimes the hardest.”

Case Study 3: Understanding Singlehood

The dilemma:

Your thirty-two-year-old daughter, Laura, earned an MBA (at the Marriott School, naturally) and works in finance in the heart of a big city. She is a doting aunt to your three grandkids. She ran in her second marathon this fall. She is also single.

A hand with objects around it

You were disappointed when she told you she wouldn’t be able to make it home for Thanksgiving this year because of work, and it hurt when your other daughter passed along what Laura told her: she is tired of being assigned to the “kids’ table” with younger cousins and weary of constant reminders from you and other family members about her marital status.

Everything you’ve said about her singleness has felt well-intentioned: You’ve told her that she’s a great catch. You’ve reassured her of the LDS belief that, at the very least, she’ll be able to find Mr. Right in the next life. You’ve offered dating advice, asked her about men she’s interested in, and encouraged her to continue attending LDS singles events (though she would prefer to take a break, complaining that women always outnumber men two-to-one). You have told Laura that you’re proud of her career accomplishments and are grateful for her financial stability and success, but you also emphasize the importance of raising a family. You just want her to be happy. You’re hurt that Laura didn’t express her concerns to you directly, but you don’t want this rift to further damage your relationship with her.

The response:

How do you mend the relationship when you realize your well-intentioned efforts to support your adult child have fallen short?

Understand what went wrong. “Just because you made decisions with your child’s best interests in mind, doesn’t mean that they were experienced the way you intended,” writes Joshua Coleman, PhD, psychologist and author of When Parents Hurt. In this case, however well intended, what Laura needed was not more reminders of her singleness. Frequently focusing on her marriage prospects, her dating appeal, or the importance of marriage in LDS doctrine sends the message that her worth is dependent on her marital status. At worst, emphasizing the potential for marriage in the afterlife can imply that her current life lacks real value.

Apologize. Reach out to Laura to apologize and avoid being defensive. You could re-extend an invite to Thanksgiving—sans kids’ table—but don’t expect or pressure her to come. Of course, it may take time to mend the fences. “Don’t give up too soon,” Coleman urges. “You may need to reach out for a long time before you see an improvement in the relationship.” In the meantime, along with nixing the marriage guilt trips, look at other ways you can be more considerate or supportive. For example, don’t assume that her schedule is more flexible or less important than that of your children with spouses and kids. Occasionally visit her rather than always expecting her to come to your home or a married sibling’s home.

Affirm her value. “All a single adult really wants is for her parents and those around her to accept her as a whole person—married or not,” says Naomi Watkins, founder of Aspiring Mormon Women, a nonprofit that supports the professional and educational goals of LDS women. Express interest in your daughter’s pursuits in all areas of life, and be an uplifting emotional support when she needs it. Kristen M. Oaks, author of A Single Voice, was single until her fifties, when she married Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. She admonishes young adults, “Be the best you can be. I also advise you, from experience, to worry less about marriage than about becoming a disciple of Christ.”

Case Study 4: Surviving Office Conflicts

The dilemma:

Your twenty-four-year-old son, Mitchell, has worked as a designer at an ad agency for a few years, and you love showing off his work to friends and strangers alike. Last month, he was promoted to the position of art director.

His new role is a dream come true for Mitchell—except for one thing. One of his team members, a slightly older staffer named Bill, was supposed to send Mitchell some project documents but “forgot,” so Mitchell showed up to a major client meeting unprepared. After the meeting, Bill apologized, and they chatted about some of their ideas. Later, at a team meeting, Bill championed one of the ideas Mitchell had mentioned—but presented it as his own. Mitchell was too stunned to say anything.

You talk on the phone fairly frequently, and Mitchell explained that he likes his new job but doesn’t think he can handle much more of this undermining coworker and has no idea how to confront him.

The response:

Two cartoon men with angry faces looking at each other

When Mitchell was in elementary school, you could report bullying to his teacher—but now that he’s an adult, you can’t call his boss to complain. It can make you feel helpless when you’re reminded you can’t protect your kids from everything.

Listen and ask. It’s great that Mitchell feels comfortable sharing his struggles with you. You may quickly assume you know how he’s feeling because you have been in similar situations, but make sure you listen to his full story before jumping in with advice. Then, Hanks suggests, ask, “Are you open to ideas? I’ve had my share of difficult coworkers, so maybe we could talk about how to defuse the situation.”

Teach about workplace dynamics. Since Mitchell is early in his career, this may be his first time dealing with a workplace conflict. You could point out that office politics and team tension are natural; it’s simply what happens when stakes are high and people have different opinions and personalities. But when it gets personal, it’s damaging. Mitchell could approach Bill directly (a good resource is Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, et al.). Mitchell could also bring the issue to HR, but remind him that he should come prepared with proposed solutions—treating it as a venting session signals immaturity. If the situation becomes extreme, you could suggest that Mitchell visit for guidelines.

Brainstorm strategies. To deal with brazen idea-poaching, Mitchell could say in a meeting, “Bill, thanks for recognizing my idea.” He could also send his manager an email saying, “I’m so glad Bill picked up on this idea I discussed with him earlier. Let me know how I can help.” It’s likely that Bill feels threatened by Mitchell, a quickly advancing, younger colleague. A 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology offers one short-term strategy for subordinates: express gratitude. Sending the antagonizer a thank-you note or offering a compliment decreases aggressive behavior.

Case Study 5: Coping with a Faith Crisis

The dilemma:

Your daughter, Caroline, recently graduated from college. She has always been actively involved in the LDS Church; however, at your most recent family get-together, she revealed that she hasn’t attended church for a few months.

Cartoon house in a city

The feelings your daughter describes sound similar to a story relayed by Rosemary M. Wixom, former Primary general president, in a 2015 LDS general conference talk: “With the spirit of inquiry, this [woman] continued to ask questions. But as the questions grew harder, so did the answers. And sometimes there were no answers—or no answers that brought peace. Eventually, as she sought to find answers, more and more questions arose, and she began to question some of the very foundations of her faith.” The woman told Wixom, “I did not separate myself from the Church because of bad behavior, spiritual apathy, looking for an excuse not to live the commandments, or searching for an easy out. I felt I needed the answer to the question ‘What do I really believe?’”

Caroline says she needs to take a break from attending church to sort out her feelings and beliefs. You feel afraid for her spiritual welfare, and you would be heartbroken if she chose to leave your family’s faith.

The response:

When your faith is such an important part of your life, it’s hard not to take a child’s faith crisis personally. You know your child has agency but wish she would choose the path you believe is best.

Don’t make it about you. It’s common for parents to react, “How can you do this to me?” But it’s not about you, says Hanks: “It’s about your adult child figuring out what she wants for her life.”

Know her heart. In President Wixom’s story, the woman struggling with her faith said, “My parents knew my heart and allowed me space. They chose to love me while I was trying to figure it out for myself.” Hanks notes that the biggest complaint from young adults who leave their family’s faith is that their family no longer considers their opinions valid. Even if you disagree with her conclusions, express confidence in your daughter’s integrity and continue to listen to her and treat her with respect.

Allow her space. It may be tempting to try to “fix” the situation by offering point-by-point rebuttals to Caroline’s concerns or pointing out ways she could live more righteously. If she is clear that she doesn’t want to be a part of the Church, don’t send conference talks and scriptures, cautions Hanks. “It’s like telling your family you’re cutting out sugar from your diet, and then they hand you your favorite candy,” she says. “That damages the relationship.”

See the good. First, consider how this experience could benefit Caroline. In his book Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis, Thomas Wirthlin McConkie proposes, “What if we understood faith crisis as part of a natural cycle of spiritual growth, a breaking open to make room for new life and new faith?” Second, consider how this experience could deepen your relationship with Caroline. “Your relationship doesn’t need to depend on shared spiritual beliefs,” Hanks says. “There are so many other ways to relate with people.”

Love her. Whether Caroline returns to church or not, it’s essential to show love and preserve the relationship—which means you shouldn’t shun her or make her feel less included. “There are no eternal families without relationships first,” Hanks says. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the LDSChurch, points out, “In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”

Mythbusting Millennial Stereotypes

The phrase “kids these days” is almost never followed with something positive. The older generation often sees more vices than virtues in the younger generation. But of course, reality is not quite that simple. Here are some stereotypes and facts about the millennial generation.

Stereotype: Millennials are doomed.

Reality: According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student debt, poverty, and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth than their parents and grandparents had at the same age. Yet more than 80 percent of millennials say they are optimistic about their financial futures.

Stereotype: Millennials just want to move back home.

Reality: Indeed, young adults remaining or returning home is increasingly common in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2010 and 2015 the number of young adults living with parents rose from 24 to 26 percent—despite an improving job market.

Stereotype: Millennials expect constant praise.

Reality: A comprehensive survey of 13,150 PwC employees from across the world showed that millennials do value praise—41 percent prefer to be rewarded or recognized for their work at least monthly, but so did 30 percent of non-millennials. Millennials in the survey said they wanted a work environment that emphasizes teamwork, transparency, and a sense of community.

Stereotype: Millennials aren’t willing to pay their dues.

Reality: Millennials place the highest value on flexibility—64 percent in the PwC survey said they would like to occasionally work from home, and 66 percent wanted to shift their work hours. The PwC report explained, “Millennials do not believe that productivity should be measured by the number of hours worked at the office, but by the output of work performed. They view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place.’” They’re not alone, though—18 percent of employees across generations would be willing to give up pay or delay promotions in exchange for fewer work hours.

Stereotype: Millennials are not as hardworking as older generations.

Reality: Research by Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that a person’s level of grit—a combination of passion and perseverance—rises with age. Does that mean cultural forces have made millennials inherently less gritty and virtuous? No, says Duckworth—it’s simply a reflection of the maturity principle. Longitudinal studies offer hopeful evidence that we do, after all, learn, grow, and become better people as we age. So the only thing “wrong” with millennials, says Duckworth, is that “they just haven’t grown up—yet.”


Article written by: Holly Munson
Illustrations by Scotty Reifsnyder

About the Author
Holly Munson is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism and lives in Philadelphia with her family.

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