Ryan and Wendy Heath are raising a family in Sandy. They live with their three teenagers in a quiet neighborhood. Their oldest, 17-year-old Emily, is a junior in high school and already making plans for college. Her parents are preparing to support her financially through this transition. But if she decides to skip college and head out on her own, she knows her parents will withhold financial support as a result.
Giving their children choices is important to the Heaths. They want their teens to know they have both choices and consequences to those choices, but hope the kids feel free to be open about their emotions. This is a deviation from the way Wendy Heath was raised, which involved more rules and fewer opportunities for dialogue. That method wasn't ideal for her, because her opinions often clashed with theirs.
"I certainly knew what their ideal was but there was never any discussion," Wendy Heath said. "That was just how it had to be."
The Heaths follow a parenting style associated with positive outcomes in children and emerging adults. Known as authoritative parenting, this style involves clear rules and expectations for their children. The punishments for rule infringement are logical and fair, not harsh. Parents try to maintain an open environment where children can ask questions and have open dialogue with their elders.
A growing body of research has found that children raised in that environment have more positive outcomes than their peers whose parents are either more controlling or more permissive. These children show fewer signs of depression and anxiety than those whose parents are controlling or permissive.
Families nationwide are turning to authoritative parenting as research continues to show the benefits of the method.
The Heaths said they have seen positive outcomes in their relationship with Emily and their other children due to authoritative parenting. They plan to continue with this style as Emily sets out on her own, knowing their job is not over once she turns 18.
The Heaths will also become part of the demographic of American parents who provide financial support to their adult children — a group which has grown to 59 percent of parents, according to a May 2011 study done by Harris Interactive, commissioned by the National Endowment for Financial Education and Forbes.com.
Parents have to do more to care for their young adults today, said Larry Nelson, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University who studies emerging adulthood and factors related to children's social development, for several reasons. The average age of marriage is rising, more education is needed to be successful, higher education is increasingly expensive and the economy is uncertain, to name a few.
A recent study shows the importance of positive relationships between parents and their adult children. Emerging adulthood is a time when young adults need support, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of "Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties."
Parental support is needed in part because emerging adults are often launching lives on their own, without their support group of friends from earlier years.
Caroline Barry, associate professor of psychology at Loyola University, said parents may struggle with the realization that they will not have the same level of control over their children's actions as they had in the teenage years.
"They still need to parent, but it should look and act differently than parenting in high school age," Barry said.
The idea of parents micromanaging their lives does not sit well with most emerging adults, she said. Although emerging adults still want support from their parents, they prefer it "in less of a hands-on way."
The majority of people in the United States who are between the ages of 18 and 29 and in college do not consider themselves adults. Neither do their parents, according to a recent article by BYU's Nelson and other researchers.
In this study, the research team set out to discover the types of parenting styles evident when children become adults and what effects those different styles have on emerging adults. The subjects were college students, most of whom were not living at home, giving researchers a window into the amount of influence parents still have over children who have left the nest.
The results indicated authoritative parenting — highly responsive parenting with low levels of control — was associated with the most positive outcomes, while emerging adults whose parents practiced a controlling-indulgent style — high on control and low on responsiveness — had negative outcomes.
Emerging adults with controlling-indulgent parents exhibited the highest levels of anxiety and depression and the lowest levels of self-worth and closeness between parents and children. There was a slight deviation depending on whether the mother or the father followed this style, with the highest levels of impulsivity associated with the former and lowest levels of kindness associated with the latter.
Nelson described three different types of controlling parents.
The first group is harsh and cold; these parents show little support or warmth with high expectations for success. This group of parents typically expects the adult child to figure things out on his or her own without providing much guidance for the child to do so.
The second type, psychologically controlling parents, make the relationship more about the parent than the child. They set conditions for adult children to behave in certain ways to show they love the parent.
The third group contains what are traditionally known as helicopter parents: although they are very warm, they often intervene so the child cannot fail.
"If a parent is too controlling, a young person doesn't learn the skills (needed) to learn to be independent," Nelson said.
Parents who fall into one of these three camps can still change and begin to have a more positive influence on their adult children, Nelson said. They should begin by focusing on the relationship instead of their child's behavior, even when they do not agree. Parents should check in on children instead of checking up on them, he said.
For instance, instead of asking college-age children if they're attending classes, ask how they are overall and allow the adult child to guide the conversation. While parents should provide support, financial or otherwise, Nelson warns against using it as a manipulation tactic. For instance, some parents threaten to stop financial or other support if their child fails to choose a major the parents want or if they are dating someone the parents don't like.
Again, Nelson encouraged parents to distinguish between a child's behavior and their relationship with the child. However, if a child is engaging in a negative behavior, like not working or going to school, parents may choose to limit what Nelson calls instrumental support. In this case, a parent could effectively tell their children they will pay for college if the child chooses to go back to school. This way, the adult child is the one deciding rather than the parent.
In this way, the parents are engaging in authoritative parenting. Nelson said authoritative parents:
Have appropriate expectations for their children and provide appropriate levels of support to help them succeed.
Display physical warmth to adult children and express verbal and physical affection.
Avoid using love withdrawal as a punishment. Parents will inevitably disagree with some of their adult children's choices. While it is appropriate for the parent to communicate their disapproval of adult children's choices, they realize the overriding importance of relationships and that the adult children should know they are loved.
Realize parents will influence their adult children best through a positive and loving relationship with them.
Serve as a sounding board but allow adult children to come up with and implement their own ideas.
Realize a parent's role in assisting their children along the road to eventual autonomy.
Parents should have appropriate expectations for emerging adult children, but then provide the appropriate support to help them achieve it, Nelson said. He clarified that he is not talking about permissive parenting — parents may not approve of the actions of their adult child and can communicate that, but should realize the only way to influence a child at this age is through a healthy and positive relationship.
"A child — especially at this age — will simply not respond to force and coercion," Nelson said.
Parents should aim to be sounding boards for their adult children and allow them to come up with ideas and act out their decisions. As parents engage in these positive relationships, over time they will see the quality of their relationship improve.3 comments on this story
As far as how much parents should step in, Arnett said it's a personal and family decision. Most parents love their children and want them to succeed, and those without financial means can give advice to the extent their kids want it. His advice to parents with children in these age groups is to remember emerging adulthood is a life stage or a phase, and like most phases, their adult child will eventually grow out of it. The 20s are a time of learning and of change and uncertainty, he said, but by their late 20s or early 30s, most figure it out.