parenting a young adult: your changing role

Young adulthood is a period of complex growth and change; young adults are building knowledge, skills and confidence by exploring their world.

This stage of growth and greater independence might leave you wondering when to step in to offer support, and when to step back. Understanding how development continues in young adulthood can help you provide support in a way that encourages growth and learning.

Development in young adulthood

In Australia, young people are legally considered adults when they turn 18, but biological, physical, cognitive and emotional development continues well into our 20s and early 30s. Development in young adulthood might be more gradual and less visible than in earlier years, but there’s still a lot happening.

Young adults’ brains are continuing to develop the skills they need to:

  • Reflect before acting
  • Make independent decisions, even in situations where the solutions aren’t clear
  • Filter out irrelevant information
  • Make decisions with longer-term consequences in mind
  • Effectively problem solve and compromise
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Consider the influence that information, events or people might have on their thoughts and feelings.

Social changes, like longer periods of tertiary study, delays in leaving home and later marriage and parenthood can also mean that many young adults don’t feel they’ve reached adulthood until closer to their 30s.

A window of opportunity to support young adults’ mental health and wellbeing

The ongoing development of cognitive, social and emotional skills makes young adulthood a critical window of opportunity for parents to support mental health and well-being.

Appropriate levels of support and care can help ensure that young adults thrive and develop the skills they need for life. This is true even for young adults who may have experienced challenges in adolescence, with research showing that many experience ‘turning points’ that alter their life course for the better.

Working out when support may be needed is one of the many learning curves that comes with parenting a young adult. If your young person has mental health concerns, it can be particularly challenging to work out your role in best supporting them when they grow into young adulthood and a new stage of independence.

Ways to support your young adult

Remember that you know your young person well – no list of ‘dos and don’ts’ will be able to tell you exactly what your young person needs, or what they ‘should’ be able to manage independently. Your cultural practices and norms will also shape what is best for you and your young person. Let your relationship with your young person guide you.

It might help to ask yourself questions like:

What else is going on for my young adult right now?

  • Situations or tasks that are normally manageable can become overwhelming in the face of challenges or transitions.

  • Illness, break ups, exams, religious or cultural responsibilities, or other stressors might mean that your young person temporarily needs more support.

  • Young adults’ brains are wired to focus on the here and now, which can make seeing the bigger picture more difficult.

Does my young adult want or need support?

  • When children are young, we often try to anticipate their needs. When they are older, asking your young adult what they need can help you to offer support in ways that respect their growing independence.

  • It may be challenging to accept that your young person doesn’t always see you as the ‘right’ person to support them. Try to manage your own feelings around this and let them know that building a support network outside of family is important.

  • It can be helpful to let your young person know that you believe in their ability to manage situations. You might say something like “I know you can handle this”

  • Young adults’ journeys towards independence are not always straightforward – you might find they need or want your support one day, but not the next. Be prepared to go with the flow and adjust your approach if necessary.

  • Stepping back and allowing your young person to do things ‘their way’ may mean they may make mistakes – and that’s okay. Let them know that it’s normal to not always get it ‘right’.

How do I offer support without it being ‘too much’?

Just like in younger years, diverse experiences contribute to the development of resilience and the confidence that comes with overcoming challenges. If you do step in to help, do your best to offer support in ways that leave room for independence. You might:

  • try asking questions that help you and your young adult identify exactly what they need help with – for example, if your young adult is feeling overwhelmed by managing appointments, you might ask “what part are you feeling stuck with?” or “would it help if I gave you a hand getting started?”, rather than offering to take responsibility for the whole process

  • help your young adult break the task down into steps, or suggest a step you could help with – for example “sometimes I write myself a script before important phone calls – would it help if we did that together?” or “would it help to start a note in your phone with all the steps, so you know what needs to happen next.”

  • Let your young person know that you’ll always be there if things don't work out – for example “I’ll be around tonight if you want to chat about how it turned out!” or “It’s okay if things don’t go to plan. We can always find another solution together.”

Reflecting on your changing role as a parent

Reflecting on how it feels to be transitioning into a new phase of parenthood allows you space to process your emotions and bring awareness to your interactions with your young adult. You might ask yourself questions like:

  • How do I feel about stepping back and allowing my young adult to make big decisions?
  • Are there times when my own feelings or needs have stopped me from stepping back?
  • Are there times when I’ve done something for my young adult that they needed the opportunity to do themselves?
  • How can I give them space to practice new skills?

Your changing role might be a source of mixed emotions – it might feel exciting to have more time and energy to focus on your own interests and relationships, or you might feel apprehensive about your young adult making big decisions without you.

On top of this, each culture approaches parenting, independence, and young adulthood differently. This means that your expectations about parenting your young adult might differ from those around you. Navigating this can be a challenge for both you and your young person, so be kind to yourself and take time to talk to others who understand.

Stepping back doesn’t mean letting go altogether. This new phase brings opportunities for independence for your young person AND a strong and mutual connection that is great for your relationship.

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

Last reviewed 9 May 2023

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Hochberg Z, Konner M. Emerging adulthood, a pre-adult life-history stage. Frontiers in Endocrinology. 2020 Jan 14;10:1–12. 

O'Connor M, Sanson AV, Toumbourou JW, Hawkins MT, Letcher P, Williams P, Olsson C. Positive development and resilience in emerging adulthood. In: Arnett, JJ, editor. The Oxford handbook of emerging adulthood. 1st edition. Oxford University Press; 2015. p. 601–614 

Wood D, Crapnell T, Lau L, Bennett A, Lotstein D, Ferris M, Kuo A. Emerging adulthood as a critical stage in the life course. In: Halfon N, Forrest C, Lerner R, Faustman E, editors. Handbook of life course health development. USA: Springer Cham; 2018. p. 123–143.  

Vassallo S, Smart D, Price-Robertson R. The roles that parents play in the lives of their young adult children. AU: Australian Institute for Family Studies; 2009. 7 p. 

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