building a healthy relationship with your young adult

As your child enters young adulthood, you get to watch them grow into the amazing adults they will become. Your young person is navigating transitions, building their independence, and developing a sense of who they are.

As you walk alongside them through these changes, you might experience mixed emotions. You might notice your relationship changing, and that you’re getting to know each other in new ways. Approaching this time of change with a sense of curiosity can help you build a strong adult-to-adult connection with your young person.

A growing sense of self

Most young adults gradually transition from holding the same values, beliefs and cultural practices as parents and families to a growing sense of self. You might notice your young person developing different:

  • Priorities – decision-making will likely be guided by their own priorities and may not line up with what you consider to be most important

  • Knowledge – as young adults explore their world, they’re likely to bring home new information and ideas

  • Beliefs and values – growing up in a changing world might mean these are different to what you hold, or you expect of them

The role parents play in this transition changes over time. For example, school leavers may need parents to be a “sounding board” that allows them to explore new ideas, opinions and beliefs and test how parents respond. But as their world widens and their sense of self grows, your young person may become increasingly comfortable with holding opinions or beliefs that differ from those they grew up with.

 

 

Being our ‘selves’ in relationships

For both you and your young person, a healthy adult to adult connection is ideally based on a strong sense of self in relationship to family, friends, and culture. Having a strong sense of self can help us tolerate differences and navigate challenges in relationships. For young adults, this might look like:

  • staying true to their own values and beliefs in relationships

  • cultivating their own interests, hobbies, and views

  • developing habits or strategies for coming back to their ‘centre’

  • challenging others’ beliefs and opinions

  • accepting difference in others

  • being increasingly able to ‘tolerate’ criticism or failure

  • remaining connected to significant people despite differences

For parents, bringing a strong sense of self to your relationship with your young person might look like sharing more about your own experiences, thoughts and feelings with them. For example, you might find opportunities to connect over pressures you face at work or in sharing learnings from past mistakes.

 

Healthy relationships between parents and young adults

A mutual, adult to adult relationship with your young person can feel different at first, but creating room for each other’s ideas and experiences can help build a new connection based on respect and curiosity. The following tips may help you build a more adult to adult connection.

 

Be curious

An open, curious approach can help build a sense of trust and respect between you and your young person. You might:

  • Show genuine interest in your young person’s life by engaging in conversations about things that matter to them. Accept that your young person will make their own decisions – and that these might not always work out, or that they change their mind (and back again!)

  • Pull back from giving advice – instead, listen and ask questions about your young person’s world

  • Accept that you won’t know about or understand everything about your young adult’s life. This may involve trusting your young person’s interpretation of events or decisions.

  • Ask them for their opinion or advice – this can create opportunities to learn from one another and demonstrate that you value their knowledge and insight.

 

Be flexible

Young adults can sometimes feel “stuck” between the teenage years and adulthood. You might notice that there are moments when your young person needs to lean on you for extra support.  Remember:

  • It’s normal for young adults to find the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood overwhelming at times

  • Needing higher levels of support for a while doesn’t mean they’ve ‘failed’, or that you’ve done anything wrong

Providing support in these moments can help your young person thrive. Read more about supporting a young person through major transitions.

 

Make time to connect

Making time to talk about your young adult’s interests or do things you both enjoy together is an important part of building your adult-adult connection. You might:

  • Schedule a weekly walk together

  • Grab a coffee at a local café

  • Visit them at their new home – and be open to role reversal by allowing your young person to host and take responsibility for cooking, washing up and serving drinks 

Create space for difference

Creating space in your relationship for personal differences can help you build a strong and respectful adult-to-adult connection. You might:

  • Listen without attempting to convince your young person otherwise – instead, be curious about their ideas. For example, you might say something like “Can you tell me more about that?” or “I’m keen to understand that better…”.

  • Reframe your differences. Navigating strong opinions in relationships can be a challenge, but when your young person shares their ideas, they are likely demonstrating skills and traits that you have worked hard to encourage in them, like confidence, determination, and self-assuredness. Thinking about your differences in a new light can create space for you to appreciate your young person as an individual.

  • Model the skills needed to navigate differences – for example, respecting each other’s needs and leaving difficult conversations until a better time, or checking in first. You might say something like “Are you okay to chat about this?” or “I wonder if talking about this while we’re both tired is the best idea?”.

 

Discussions about differences in ideas might not always go smoothly. If things get too heated, it’s important to take a breather and reconnect later. This lets your young person know that disagreements don’t shake the foundations of your relationship. You might:

  • Put things aside and reconnect over shared interested/activities (or cultivate new ones)

  • Apologise, if needed. You might say something like “I’m sorry I raised my voice while we were talking about [topic]. I know you were just trying to share your thoughts. I’d really like to understand better – can we get coffee later this week and chat about it?”.

  • Come back to common ground by asking “What is it that we agree on?” – perhaps you hold different political views, but both want similar outcomes. When you identify common ground, you can reframe the conversation. You might say something like “Okay, so we agree about [common ground]. I want to understand more about how you think we can get there…”.

  • Let your young person know this is all new for you, too. It’s OK to let them know that you’re trying your best, and that you might sometimes make mistakes as you navigate this new stage of parenthood.

Reflecting on your relationship

Taking time to reflect on how you feel about your relationship with your child and their transition to adulthood is important for your own wellbeing – and your young adult’s wellbeing too!

It’s normal to experience mixed emotions as your young person grows. For example, you might feel:

  • Confronted when your child shares beliefs that are very different from your own

  • Surprised by your young person’s priorities or decisions

  • On the ‘outer’ when your young person no longer needs your help or advice

Being aware of your emotions and behaviours helps to create space for your relationship with your adult child to mature. This takes time and practice, so try to approach this time of change with a sense of humour and self-compassion.

This may be a time when you find new activities and hobbies, or rediscover old ones that you put on hold in the parenting years. Enjoy this new phase and accept there will be things about your child that you don’t know anymore. It’s OK for them to have their own adult lives now.

 

 

Getting support

Remember, professional support is available for both you and your young person through your nearest headspace centre or eheadspace for online and phone support.

 

Other helpful services

  • Parent helplines are available in every Australian State and Territory of Australia. Visit Family Relationships Australia or call 1800 050 321 or 

  • Beyond Blue or call 1300 224 636

  • Carer Gateway

 

 

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversees and approves clinical resources made available on this website. 

Last reviewed 9 May 2023.

This content was developed in association with the Parenting Research Centre.

Aloia L. Parent-child relationship satisfaction: the influence of family communication orientations and relational maintenance behaviours. The Family Journal: Counselling and Therapy for Couples and Families [Internet]. 2020;28(1):83–89. 

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Family relationships [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2022 Nov. 28]. 

Brown J. Growing yourself up: how to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. 2nd edition. AU: Exisle Publishing; 2017. 296 p.

Fingerman K, Yahirun J. Emerging adulthood in the context of family. In: Arnett, JJ, editor. The Oxford handbook of emerging adulthood. 1st edition. Oxford University Press; 2015. p. 163–176.

Frameworks Institute (US). Reframing adolescence and adolescent development [Internet]. US: Frameworks Institute; 2020. 

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