How Parents Can Stay Close to Grown-Up Children

HOW PARENTS CAN STAY CLOSE TO GROWN-UP CHILDREN

Julie Halpert

Gayle Rosen and Andy Sugerman with their sons, from left, Alex, Eli and Sam Sugerman in Willis Creek Slot Canyon, Utah

Many parents sending kids off to college worry that their time as a family is over. But that isn’t always the case these days.

The Sugerman family’s trip to Southern Utah this past May involved a treacherous drive. There were hairpin turns; the three adult children needed to move boulders to clear a path for the car. “We were on these roads which were barely roads, climbing up canyon walls,” said Andy Sugerman, of Ann Arbor, Mich. “It was night. The sky was beautiful. Everybody was fully engaged.” The value of shared adversity and overcoming these obstacles together allowed for bonding unlike any other kind of experience, he said.

Many parents sending kids off to college weep over their empty nests, thinking their time as a family is over. And a generation ago, young adults often wanted to get as far away from their parents as possible once they entered adulthood. But that isn’t always the case these days. An increasing number of young adults move back home for summers or after college. And even for those who launch quickly, family vacations present an opportunity for parents to remain close to their adult children.

The trip to Utah was the latest annual family vacation for Mr. Sugerman, his wife, Gayle Rosen, and their three sons, Eli, 25; Alex, 23; and Sam, 19. The family’s first outdoor adventure — a road trip across the West in 2008 — was motivated by the recognition that “as the kids were getting older, the opportunities for time together would be more limited,” Mr. Sugerman said. Since then, the family has explored 28 national parks together.

Ms. Rosen presumed that as the boys grew into young adulthood, they’d lose interest in being with their immediate family and that the trips would stop. But that has not happened.

“The opportunity to go on a cool outdoor trip with my family continued to present itself, and I’ve continued to take it,” said Eli, who lives about four hours away from his parents, in Chicago. “I see no reason why an end would be in sight.”

Ms. Rosen feels fortunate that her children still want to go. “I love being outdoors with them. We all unplug and I get to see the amazing human beings they’ve become,” she said.

A variety of factors are keeping young adults connected to their parents — both geographically and emotionally. Research by Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, found that, compared to the mid-20th century, young adults today tend to be less financially stable and are more likely to marry later — keeping them closer to their families — while many more of them live with their parents. She also discovered that technology and accessibility of transportation make it easier to stay close. “The culture is shifting toward increased contact and increased interdependency” between parents and their young adult children, Dr. Fingerman said.

Her work indicates that 30 years ago, only half of parents reported weekly contact with a grown child, while currently nearly all parents had contact with a grown child in the past week, and over half of parents had contact with a grown child every day. She found affection and intimacy between young adults and their parents rising as well. Dr. Fingerman said this is generally a positive development that benefits both generations. As young adults turn more to their parents than their peers for guidance, “they’re getting better advice from people who care about them,” she said.

Although you can foster close relationships without spending money, taking a family vacation with young adults is a growing trend, said Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association, a company that encourages family travel. He points to Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company focused on upscale active travel for families as an example. Next year, Backroads will introduce a “20s & Beyond” segment dedicated to parents traveling with their children in their 20s and 30s. Tom Hale, the company’s founder and chief executive, said that last year, 6,500 parents and their adult children went on the company’s trips, even though the trips weren’t specifically aimed at this older age group.

Diane Sanford, a relationship psychologist based in St. Louis and author of “Stress Less, Live Better: 5 Simple Steps to Ease Anxiety, Worry, and Self-Criticism,” suggests these trips go better if parents manage their expectations, don’t overschedule and allow everyone to have time to themselves.

Laura Sutherland, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and her husband, Lance Linares, have taken their son, now 30, and daughter, now 32, on 10 trips since they graduated from college. The trips now include their spouses. Ms. Sutherland recommends booking accommodations with private rooms if possible. She assigns everyone responsibility for preparing or treating for a meal — and pitching in with cleanup. “We have clear communication in the beginning that parents shouldn’t be servants,” she said.

If budgets or timing don’t allow for travel, hiking close to home or going out for lunch and a visit to a local museum can work, too. As young adults strike out on their own, there’s a delicate balance that parents need to achieve. It starts with respecting kids’ growing independence in adolescence, said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They should feel comfortable coming to you for advice. By the time they are young adults, it’s no longer a one-way street.

“When you honor the fact that they can guide and support you, you’re developing a relationship that can last for decades,” Dr. Ginsburg said.

Dr. Sanford says if a dispute arises, instead of reacting or getting angry, “pause, take a breath and ask yourself whether it’s more important to get your way or have the opportunity for a good relationship.”

Carl Pickhardt, a counseling psychologist based in Austin, Tex., and author of the blog “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” and the book Who Stole My Child? Parenting Through the Four Stages of Adolescence, encourages parents of adult children to repeat a few mantras to themselves: I will respect the choices you make and how you face the consequences; I will not criticize or censor your behavior in any way; and I will cheer you on as you engage in life. He said to never provide unsolicited advice, but to request permission, saying something like, “I have some advice I would like to give that would be helpful, but only if that’s something you would like me to do.” Dr. Ginsburg suggests determining if your child wants you to listen or to provide advice, using language like: “I’m so glad that you always feel you can come and talk to me about these things. How can I be the most supportive?”

Dr. Ginsburg emphasized that there are some situations that call for a parent to become involved if the adult child’s safety is at risk, including dangerous depression, significant and substantial drug use or domestic abuse.

As young adults struggle with their identity and their life goals, parents should rest assured that they continue to play a vital role, Dr. Ginsburg said. “You are the person who is going to love them no matter what.”

Whether you take a vacation or just spend time together at a movie or a restaurant, he noted, “Your highest yield time is to just be with each other and enjoy each other.”

Advice From a Formerly Lonely College Student

ADVICE FROM A FORMERLY LONELY COLLEGE STUDENT

Emery Bergmann

Last fall, I made a viral video about having trouble making friends. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Emery Bergmann in a scene from a video about loneliness that she made as a Cornell freshman last fall

Being known as “the girl with no friends” wasn’t my favorite part about having made a video that went viral — but you take what you can get.

About a year ago, as a college freshman at Cornell, I was assigned a short video project for my Intro to Digital Media course.

I decided to focus on my disappointment with the early weeks of college: How I couldn’t get past superficial conversation, how I couldn’t seem to enjoy parties, feel comfortable on campus, or just meet people who I wanted to spend more time around. I felt so lost and beyond confused.

I had been a pretty social person in high school and I fully expected to make great friends right away when I got to college. It’s supposed to be the time of your life, right?

I had been looking forward to college for years. I started studying for standardized tests in 10th, hammering out extracurricular activities and A.P. courses all through 11th, and spent senior year typing applications till my fingers practically bled. I got into a great school, pleasing myself and my family. This was not the payoff I expected.

The worst part was that I felt as if I were the only one who was this lonely. I’d see all these freshmen walk in packs — just massive groups of friends already formed in the first two weeks of school. I couldn’t muster the courage to ask people to get lunch. It was so frustrating. I immediately turned on myself — criticized and blamed myself for being weird and unapproachable.

I spent a ton of time on social media, constantly checking in on my high school friends and seeing how they were getting along at their colleges. They’d post more and text me less. I really tried to put myself out there, but the more people I met, the more defeated I felt. I wasn’t interested in forging fake relationships out of necessity, I wanted genuine friendships that I could treasure. Why couldn’t I find them in my first month on campus?

I poured my loneliness into the four-and-a-half-minute film I made, called “My College Transition.” I posted it on YouTube expecting only my professor and a couple friends to see it.

It now has over 275,000 views and hundreds of comments. I had students from all over the country reach out to me and express their experiences, thanking me for making them feel less alone. Administrators from various universities wrote to me asking for permission to show the video to their freshman class. I even landed a few freelance video design jobs. I spoke on panels, gave tons of interviews and won an award at a film festival.

It was overwhelming in the most beautiful way, and was further proof that I wasn’t alone in my experience. It also showed how necessary it was for people to be open about isolation on college campuses.

Now a sophomore, I see how ridiculous my expectations were for my first year. To assume I could instantly meet my New Best Friends while also getting used to a new place, starting a new academic career, and learning how to adjust to life away from home — that’s a full plate already. Some of the high school friends I was missing had been my friends for my whole life.

Expecting close relationships like the ones that had taken years to develop was unfair to myself and the people around me. Going to college is a massive change — so many students are being uprooted from the familiar comforts of their homes and thrust into a completely new place. It was beyond unrealistic for me to anticipate a seamless transition.

After I posted the video I had people of all ages and genders reaching out to me, explaining how they felt the same way when they started a new job, when they moved to a new place, even when they started retirement.

Loneliness is too often paired with self-blame and self criticism: “I can’t find my place among these people, so it must be my fault.” My social life became a big game of trial and error, slowly learning in which groups I felt welcome and included. It was hard! It was draining! But by putting myself out there, I found so many communities on campus to invest myself in, and where I knew I would be happily received.

The video was definitely a conversation starter, and it made people more likely to open up to me about their struggles as a freshman. But I don’t think the video was any sort of motivator for people to actually become my friend.

Now, a year after making the film, I’ve settled in to college a lot better. But I see the new batch of freshmen around me and imagine many of them are going through the same transition. Here’s what I know now that I wish I could have told my younger self.

The notion that my college friends should be stand-ins for my close relationships from home: impossible. One of the great things about going away to college is the chance to meet people who are not the same. I learned to cherish each relationship for its uniqueness, for the different perspective and ideas it brought into my life. At first I searched for people who reminded me of my friends from home, who would play a similar role in my life that they do. But I began to realize that no one can stand in for or replace them — which was oddly comforting, and a relief to acknowledge.

I had to minimize my time on social media. It became a platform for comparison. I evaluated every picture my friends posted, determining whether their college looked like more fun than mine, if they had made more friends than I had, just meaningless justifications for my unhappiness. It was comforting when old friends reached out to me to say that they related to the video. Many of them were people I thought were having a fantastic time at school. Social media reinforces the notion that you should always be enjoying yourself, that it’s strange to not be happy and that life is a constant stream of good experiences and photo-worthy moments. I taught myself that everyone’s college experience is different, and slowly, I started to embrace the uniqueness of my own.

Transitions are always hard — regardless of your age. But the social expectations around college put overwhelming pressure on students to fit in seamlessly into their campus, without truly acknowledging the difficulty of uprooting your life and starting fresh. The hardest thing to tell struggling freshmen is that acclimation takes time — and “thriving” even longer. Making friends is an active process, and all the preconceived ideas college students arrive with can make for a defeating experience. Understand that your loneliness is not failure, and that you are far from being alone in this feeling. Open your mind and take experiences as they come. You’re going to find your people.

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