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How Much Space Should I Give My Young Adult?

Sophie Louise CC

Ask IPS: Advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology

Question: My daughter has just started her first year of college. I want to give her space, but also to be supportive if she needs me. What’s the best way for a parent to strike that balance with a young adult?

William McKenna, M.S.; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities:

Transition within our lives can be difficult, and when those transitions involve our children it can become even more demanding. Let me first assure you that your dilemma is completely normal and that every family goes through this period of uncertainty. Indeed, psychology has developed a method of predicting certain times that a family will experience significant change to its unity that will cause tension. This method is known as the family life cycle. You and your family are currently within the cycle where one of the issues (not surprisingly) is transitioning to adult-to-adult relationships between grown children and their parents. This time is not only a transition for you, but for your child as well.

It seems to me that one of the best ways for you to strike that balance with your daughter is to become aware of your interactions and notice changes in communication. Recognizing and identifying with what your daughter is experiencing and what she needs will help you respond appropriately. At the same time, knowing what your reaction to the change is is also important, so that you can gauge the level of transition you are experiencing. Do the best you can to allow her to make some small mistakes so that she can learn that the road of life is not always smoothly paved, but always be ready to listen to her on the phone when she calls home homesick, sad, crying, or absolutely elated about the new friends that she is making. Most importantly, you need to convey to her that you will always be there to love her whenever she needs you. If she knows that she can turn to you in a time of need, then no matter what happens, your relationship with her will always be a solid one. Also, expressing how you are feeling about the transition can be helpful for your daughter in experiencing shared adult experiences.

Finally, I fall back on something my father told me as I was leaving for undergrad at Belmont Abbey College. He looked at me and said, “You’ve been a good boy, and I know you’ll be a good man. We want you to know that we are proud of you and will always be in your corner.” The heart of his message was that I could tackle life on my own, but that I could always turn to them if I needed them. Messages like that really stick with your children, especially since that message was said to me now a number of years ago. May God bless your family and please be assured of my prayers for you all.


William McKenna, M.S. is a Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services.

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