What to say—and not to say—to your young adult

Adapted from the new book 18 Plus: Parenting Your Emerging Adult, now available in the FYI bookstore

“Forget the logistics and take the opportunity to bless them. They want your blessing, not your to-do list.” – College President 

Words are a big deal. They have the power to tell us who we are and shape our life direction. 

Think about this in your own life. Good or bad, what words have shaped you?

As your emerging adult walks into a season of the unknown, more than ever he or she needs someone to tell them not what to do—but who they are.

Weigh what you say

When parents feel out of control, they default to asking their children about logistics. A parent nervous about an upcoming overnight camping trip ends up asking questions about details (“Did you pack sunscreen?”) or logistics (“Are you leaving early enough given traffic?”). 

This is also true during major 18+ transitions. One college president noticed year after year that parents dropping off their college freshmen usually spent inordinate time bombarding their kids with logistical questions. Nervous parents looked to to-do lists to calm their anxiety. 

At one of our (Steve’s) daughter’s college freshman send-offs, the college president invited parents to make the most of the moment by affirming their children, telling them that they believe in them and love them. I’ll admit it—there were hugs, more tears than I anticipated, and awkwardness, but we could feel the love in the room. And I realized that this is what my daughter would take with her into college, not her to-do list. 

Ultimately, how you talk with your emerging adult lets them know how you feel about them and what you believe about them. Words of affirmation will let them know you believe they can handle adulthood. Words of logistical concern and questions can unintentionally communicate the opposite.  

That doesn’t mean we should never give them logistical advice! After all, at some point they’ll need to know they can’t do three weeks of laundry in one load. But we can decide not to let those be the words that show up most often. We can weigh our words to make sure the ones that get repeated are the ones we want running through their minds.

This advice isn’t just for parents of freshmen. Emerging adults at all stages of the journey need their parents’ words—not their logistical advice, but their heartfelt words of love, support, and encouragement. 

Learn a new language

Use age-matching vocabulary.

Even though you know your child is older, you might still default to speaking to them as if they were sixteen (or ten!). For example, you may be used to saying to your high-school-aged child, “Where are you going and will you be home by midnight?” For emerging adults, try to rephrase the question to honor their autonomy and still show your interest: “For the sake of coordinating all our schedules, what are your plans and when do you anticipate being home?” Remind them that this is the way adults talk with each other to navigate life together. You’re not just being nosey. 

“When I was your age …”

Starting just about any conversation with “When I was your age” is a dialogue dead end with emerging adults. 

We often say this in an attempt to relate to them. After all, our memories of our 20s are more recent than our teenage years and likely more familiar. Still, adults’ experiences of their 20s have little in common with the worlds inhabited by today’s emerging adults. Your attempt to compare or equate current emerging adults’ lives with your own will likely alienate rather than connect.  

Instead, look for opportunities to ask your emerging adult about their own experiences through phrases like: 

  • “Tell me what it’s like to be in college right now …”
  • “What are you most excited/scared about as you graduate and look for a job?”
  •  “What do you appreciate about your friends, and who do you think you’ll stay closest with?”
  • “How do you think your life may be different than when I was your age? How might it be the same?”

“When are you going to …?”

Parents in this phase are often obsessed with results, perpetually asking emerging adults when they’re going to 

move out, or

get a job, or

get married. 

What is more helpful for your emerging adult (and for you!) is to talk with them about their plans to achieve the goals they desire. More fruitful conversations may start with questions like: 

  • “When do you envision living on your own, and what can we do to support your goal?”
  •  “Getting a job must be hard. What can we do to help you prepare for and process your career pursuits?” 
  • “I’m/We’re going out for dinner tonight. Would you and your friend like to join us? We’d love to get to know you two, together.”

What other phrases do you try to use—or avoid—with your 18-plus child?

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