Over a decade ago, when I first became a therapist, I never expected that five years later, my practice would consist of nearly 90% millennials, with the rest of my patients being parents of millennials.
Millennials face many challenges today, but the same can be said of their parents. Years of working with parents have shown that the one constant was folks telling me how stressed, frustrated and concerned they felt about their grown children needing too much financial help from them.
To illustrate, one mother explained how much she loves her 30-year-old son. She and her husband paid for his college living expenses, but now felt the pressure to help pay for his graduate school tuition. While they aren't wealthy, they also don't want him to worry about future debt.
A couple in their mid-50s lamented the fact that their daughter, who is 28 and has a full-time job, was planning to quit her job because it didn't align with her passion. "She's moving back home this summer," the mother said, "but doesn't act like an adult or want to help pay for anything at all. How will she be able to handle future challenges on her own?"
Feeling as though he'd failed as a parent, a single father told me he's still paying for his 32-year-old son's car insurance, rent, grocery expenses and cell phone bills. He worried that if things didn't change, he'd have to dip into his retirement savings.
More millennials are relying on parents for financial support
A 2018 report from Country Financial found that more than 50% of all Americans ages 21 to 37 receive some sort of financial assistance from a parent or guardian.
But millennials aren't entirely to blame. A report in The New York Times found that, in 1940, a child born in the average American household had a 90% chance of making more money than his or her parents. That has changed. A child born in 1980 has only a 50% chance of earning more than his or her parents.
Many factors account for this. The biggest of them is that things ― housing, food, college ― cost more today. Also, many millennials who graduated into the Great Recession had a much harder time launching their career and securing a job with decent pay.
Money is only part of the problem
These financial struggles have led to young people delaying "adulthood."
This trend of millennials relying on their parents for financial help is shaping their attitudes toward money and the general responsibilities of adulthood.
As a result, parents are starting to feel a mix of frustration and fear ― not just for their adult children's future, but for theirs as well. (According to a recent Bankrate survey, 50% of American parents said they are sacrificing their own retirement savings in order to help their children.)
But more often than not, it's not about money. Based on what I've observed as a therapist, unlike baby boomers, Gen X parents invest way more time, energy and resources in their kids.
Parents who struggle with their adult kids being too dependent on them need to start teaching their children the coping skills that will help them get through the realities and challenges of adulthood.
Here's my advice to parents:
1. Stop making it easy
The "Varsity Blues" scandal from earlier this year put a huge spotlight on excessive parenting behaviors. Whether or not we choose to admit it, we're all somewhat guilty of snow-plowing, lawn-mowing and bulldozing obstacles out of our children's way.
My husband and I have an 11-year-old son who suffers from anxiety. Despite having extensive knowledge about anxiety as a therapist, I still have the instinctual need to swoop in and rescue him. This is the same mindset I see in my parent patients.
But this behavior is what makes children increasingly dependent on their parents as they grow older. The solution? Shift your mindset and decide to stop making things easier for them.
If your millennial child is living at home, for example, consider why they're there and how long you're willing to allow them to stay with you. Many parents allow their children to return home because they want to help. Some may enjoy the company, and that's OK, too.
But it's important to create what I call a "home contract," in which you set a deadline for when they need to move out, and what you do expect and don't expect from them so long as they're there. If they're employed, encourage them to save a certain amount of their monthly paycheck for future expenses.
2. Make choices for yourself, even if it makes your child unhappy
From the moment your child is born, your life changes. It may not happen overnight, but as the years progress, many parents get used to putting themselves last.
Parents of millennial children need to start changing their priorities and make choices for themselves. Maybe you have a 30-year-old son who wants to move back home ― but for whatever reason, you don't want him to.
Instead of welcoming him with open arms, understand that it's OK to say no. You could start your response with, "That might feel like the easiest solution, but let's talk about other ways we can help you."
Then, work with him to figure out how he can secure a place of his own, even if it means providing him with a little bit of financial support. While that may sound harsh, research has shown that young adults who are given financial help, rather than living rent-free at home, tend to have more successful careers.
3. Stop giving answers, start asking questions
Parents of millennials often tell me their children call them almost daily seeking their help ― not just about financial issues, but with everyday or career challenges. They want their parents to tell them exactly what they need to do.
The first step to empowering your child to solve their own problems is to stop providing all the answers. Instead, start asking questions. This can be tough, especially if you know the answers. But if you don't take a step back, your adult child may never stop relying on you for answers.
So the next time your kid comes to you and says, "Tell me what to do," ask them, "Well, what do you think you should do?" Flipping the script empowers them because it shows you respect them and genuinely care about what they have to say.
I'm not suggesting you shouldn't help them with anything at all. If they truly end up needing money for rent, lending support isn't a crime. But challenge them to get creative in coming up with a repayment plan.
Ask them about what kinds of jobs align with their skills. Perhaps they can earn extra cash as an Uber driver or signing up for TaskRabbit. Given how tight money is for them, ask what they're willing to give up temporarily, such as their gym membership or weekend nights out.
4. Allow them to fail
Technically, there's no such thing as failure, provided that you learn from your mistakes. I often tell my patients that failure is simply one's perception of a situation.
By not allowing your child to fail, or by telling them what you believe is "right" and "wrong," you prevent them from learning how to get through life's most important challenges (e.g., reaching financial independence).
In 2016, two psychologists studied how parents' view of failure influenced their children's beliefs as adults. Based on their findings, they suggested that instead of trying to stop or prevent children from failing, parents should allow them to fail, and then encourage them to figure out why they failed in the first place and what they can do differently next time.
If you want your child to learn how to manage their money so they stop relying on you, the best place to start is helping them learn from their past money mistakes. If you swoop in and pay their rent or get them out of debt, they'll not only see it as the only solution to their problems, they'll see it as the best solution.
5. Stop blaming yourself
Parenting is many things, but "easy" is not one of them. Just as I have to remind myself not to beat myself up for making parenting mistakes, I remind my parent patients as well.
No matter what your situation is right now with your millennial child, shaming yourself (or them) won't solve any problems or make things better. Embrace the discomfort of setting limits, put your own wants and needs first and recognize that failure is a good thing ― for you and your child.
Tess Brigham is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and certified life coach. She has more than 10 years of experience in the field and primarily works with millennials and parents of millennials.
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