The Bumpy Road to Independence
By Carolyn Bartlett, LCSW


“Help! Our 28 year-old son borrows money from us!  I see how hard it is for him to make it without the money but then he never pays us back.  In fact, we don’t even see him again until he needs something”

Young adults often find the road to independence rocky and, letting go is rarely a picnic for parents. Families support children toward the ultimate goal of independence in different ways at various life stages. Graduations and birthdays suggest milestones, but real life is less exact. Growing independence can seem gradual one minute and sudden the next.

Individual needs, personalities, family styles and history all play a part in making this emancipation journey more or less smooth and it is best to avoid comparing your family’s progress to some ideal. The American bootstrap myth that personal success is solely a matter of hard and independent work is just that, a myth.  The Pew Research analysis of 2012 census data shows16% of adults between 25 and 31 are living in their parents’ homes. Roughly half (48%) of adult’s ages 40 – 59 have provided some financial support to a grown child. There are a lot of reasons for this.

It’s a tough economy.  Young people just starting out face historical challenges to achieve a comfortable independence.  Rent, car payments, gas, student loan payments and something to eat, never mind health insurance can overwhelm the best intentions. When parents can offer help, in many instances, it can make a positive difference.

It can also be a slippery slope.

Family roles need to shift as new expectations are negotiated along the road to emancipation. When parents or grandparents offer financial assistance it is important to be clear.  Is this a loan or a gift? We think of gifts as freely given, but there are usually strings. Parents may appropriately expect the young adult to demonstrate maturity by working full time and taking the steps to maintain a budget and pay their debts or be improving their future prospects by going to school and passing classes. If they are living at home while they gather resources, they are hopefully giving back to the family in some way.

When accountability and personal responsibility are in place family relationships tend to be relatively relaxed and respectful. Nevertheless, the transition to adult independence almost always has a few rough spots.  Old family issues that are not yet resolved are likely to show up in the form of money and families sometimes get stuck.

How do you know if your family is stuck? Contentious, avoidant relationships are a clue. The roots of trouble include fuzzy boundaries; parents who try to make up for feelings of past guilt by over-giving; parents who need their kids to stick around for reasons unrelated to their child’s needs; grandparents who enjoy playing Santa to a grandchild despite parental disapproval; and young adults who get in the habit of calling parents before using their own resources because it is easy.

Before making a loan or a gift it is helpful to know what motivations and expectations are involved.  Having the uncomfortable conversations first to clarify needs and expectations prevents the disappointment of loans that were confused as gifts or simply become a source of resentment.

When adult children really don’t seem to be growing up it is a concern.  Mental health issues like depression or substance abuse may be at the root of serious developmental delays. In this case a professional evaluation and possible treatment of any underlying difficulty prevents unnecessary suffering.

Family therapy can help everyone clarify feelings and needs. If this is not an option, any member of the family can get some support and healthy direction from individual counselling.  Groups provide a confidential resource to talk with others who are also trying to find the right balance of helping and letting go.

Any of these resources may provide the needed insight, information, and good humour for the transition through this life stage that is right for you. It usually works out eventually.

Young adults want to succeed, and that’s just what their parents want for them.