Relating to adult children — 09 July 2006
How much assistance should parents give to adult children

All parents are invested in enabling their children to have as good a life as possible. They devote themselves to loving, caring for, guiding and supporting their children from infancy on. Yet, as the children mature many parents wonder how much help should they continue to provide to their adult children.

This is a relatively new concern for parents. In generations past, the common wisdom advised parents to emancipate their children at age 18. Once the youngsters completed high school they were expected to become autonomous and independent. Legally, even today, parents’ financial obligation to their children terminates at the completion of the youngsters’ high school education.

Yet, recent changes in the economy, values, attitudes as well as children’s expectations have greatly extended the young adults’ financial reliance upon their parents. Not only do many parents support their children through college, first careers, traveling or purchase of first homes, some also enable them to continue residing at the family home well into their twenties or thirties. Even after the adult children marry and have children many still rely on their parents’ ongoing economic help.

It is no wonder that some parents are bewildered by what is and is not appropriate for them to continue to do for their children. Some ask, “When does active parenting end?” or, “ Are we helping or hindering our children by continuing to help them financially?”

The ongoing charity to their adult children causes financial and emotional burdens to many parents. Some parents develop resentful feelings about depriving themselves of the benefit of their well-earned money in order to accommodate their adult children’s needs. Others disapprove of how their children use the money gifted to them, which may cause emotional rifts between the generations.

In some families the ongoing monetary needs of the young adults creates marital disharmony, when the parents disagree about whether or not they should continue to financially help their children. Some even develop dysfunctional patterns such as one parent giving the children money without the knowledge or blessing of his or her partner.

Even in families where the financial help given to adult children is not an emotional or monetary hardship, the wisdom of perpetuating dependency in the children is questioned. How beneficial is it for adults to rely on trust funds rather than learn to provide for themselves? What values are taught to adult children who are provided for indefinitely? Is there merit in learning self-sufficiency? Does working enable people to gain more than income? Is providing their children with a carefree and fun life a good option for parents who can afford it?

These are only a few of the many questions that parents struggle with determining the best way to love and truly help their children. Unfortunately, there are no prescribed answers to these concerns. A few guidelines may be helpful:

• Parents need to develop clarity about their roles and obligations to their children based on values and principles they share. For example: Some parents may believe that their primary role is in guiding their children toward self-sufficiency, strong work ethics, and independence. Others may determine that loving their children means aiding them in living a continuously carefree and unstressed life. These basic beliefs can then serve as guidelines for conduct. For example, parents who feel that teaching their children self-sufficiency is an essential part of their role, may decide to support the child through college, vocational training or help with expenses while the young adult advances in the first job, yet decline to finance the young adult’s “year off” travels.
• The parental role definition must be a unified position based on their agreement or compromise. Unshared role definition often causes harm to the couple and their children.
• Parents need to decide what kind of help they are willing to offer rather than react to demands by entitled children.
• Whatever emotional, financial or practical assistance parents choose to offer must be resentment free, otherwise it is unhelpful to both parties.
• Being a good parent does not entail sacrifice to the point of suffering, self-deprivation or financial ruin.
• While financial support given to adult children is optional, loving, supporting, encouraging, appreciating and approving of the young adults are parts of the lifelong role of all parents.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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