Chapter 3. What Parents Can Do

Parents are usually more upset than their young person. At least they are aware of their feelings of frustration, guilt, helplessness and outrage. They have tried everything and yet nothing has changed. Shouting matches don’t change anyone’s mind. Throwing their hands up and letting go doesn’t make their YA [2] more responsible. Even professional help targeting anxiety or depression doesn’t work because those are only symptoms. Worst of all, parents begin to doubt themselves and argue with one another about whether tough love or even more understanding will turn their young person around.

Parents (or adult caregivers) actually have more influence than they may realize. It is not part of the adolescent creed to pay attention to parents, but young people do listen. They are very much influenced by what they hear. YAs may work hard to show that parental opinions don’t matter. It’s because they are trying to develop their own independent ideas and decide which ones to invest in. Saying they don’t care what the parents think is a way of clearing out some space for their own growth and development. It can also be a way of holding onto childhood, not facing the need to grow and change. In spite of outward resistance, it is good to assume that adult children do listen and take in what they hear, even when they don’t want to. It is a good bet that parental opinions carry more weight than they might appear.

Beyond influence, parents also have power. In so many families, troubled YAs are still dependent on their parents for what they most need. They depend on parents for a place to stay, for food, and, maybe most important, for access to a phone and the Internet. In many cases, they use a family car and may be given money for daily expenses. Young people and families may take it for granted that access to these things is a “right.” But each of those needs has the potential to become a source of external motivation or “leverage.” Used thoughtfully, the idea of trading parental support for positive actions can be part of creating environment that actually supports growth.

We’ll see later in this chapter how parents can use their influence and power to strengthen motivation for growing. But, first, let’s lay some basic groundwork.

What is the Role of Parents?

In the good old days, before Amanda entered puberty at 12, parenting was (relatively) easy. The parents’ job was to keep their child safe, give modeling and guidance, and occasionally to provide a consequence. Now, with their YA halfway between dependence and independence, parents’ role is no longer to be in control, but to support learning from experience. This doesn’t mean allowing the struggling young adult to hijack the family’s unity or happiness. That isn’t doing a favor to anyone. Nor does it mean waging war with one’s own child. Here is a way of expressing what parenting a YA does mean:

Parenting a troubled YA means using both influence and leverage to shape the environment to maximize chances of fulfilling his or her potential through engagements with life and learning from experience.

Clear, Caring, and Clinical

These “three Cs” capture the attitudes needed to be effective parents. Let’s start with the first one: clear. What I mean is keeping eyes wide open. It is easy for parents to get caught by the temptation to place hopes in things they really know won’t work. Waiting passively for a young person, caught in her own web of avoidance, to unstick herself isn’t going to happen. Thinking a “heart to heart” talk will change everything is a lovely idea with no chance of success. Practicing strict honesty and clear thinking is vital to navigating the stormy seas of recovery.

In a way, failure of clarity can be seen as collusion with the YA’s wish to avoid the difficult parts of growing, and therefore a form of “codependency.” Sometimes that word is taken to mean a kind of addiction or sickness. I don’t think of it that way. My definition of codependency is simply “wishful thinking.” I see it as a normal reaction to someone we care about who can’t seem to make headway. When we don’t know what to do, we all tend to resort to wishful thinking. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome” is a definition of insanity. So, whenever wishful thinking leads to ineffective action and then to more disappointment, it is time to seek clarity and go back to the drawing board.

Caring: Another form of codependency is giving in to frustration and anger. Criticism, rejection and negative judgment are too easy and don’t help at all. They represent another kind of wishful thinking. Anger assumes that the YA is stuck by choice and could simply make up her mind to “grow up.” Your child may have talked herself into the present situation, but reversing the process is far from a matter of choice. People don’t fail because they want to. Humans have a way of getting lost and not knowing the way out of the maze they have created.

As soon as we stop judging, then it becomes natural to feel empathy and caring again. Even if your YA resists help, somewhere, not too far from the surface, she wants to do better. Maybe it just feels too hard, or maybe the roadblocks are built entirely outside of consciousness and are as frustrating to her as they are to her parents. Caring implies that parents and young people are on the same team. Coming from this point of view helps to call out the part of her that does want to grow, and that is the part that we want to work with.

On the other hand, not caring, or outright blaming and anger call out the part that isn’t helpful, and is against progress. Worse than that, it gives the YA a perfect excuse for resisting. Surprisingly, fighting with angry parents is far more comfortable than growing. An adversarial relationship with parents is a classic adolescent refuge, creating a distraction from the stress of engaging with the outside world. It is a way to stay a child, safely locked into conflict with parents instead of having to face the true aloneness of adulthood. Remember the definition of adulthood: “experiencing a sense of full ownership of one’s own life.” For YAs that is a lonely place and YAs who are stuck are, deep down, too afraid yet to face it.

Clinicalis the outcome of the other two. If you are clear and stay far from the unhealthy luxury of wishful thinking, then it is natural to care. And with clarity and caring, it is natural to approach the situation with an attitude of pragmatism. Clinical, here, doesn’t mean cold. It means like a good healthcare professional, ready to take actions that may not be natural or typical in family life. It does mean doing whatever will work best to achieve the narrow goal of motivating the YA to go towards adulthood. For example, it might be best not to make an issue of the messy room because that is more appropriate for a younger child. To focus on the clothes on the floor would create a distraction from more important objectives. Or it might mean holding firm to a decision in spite of powerful resistance. Clinical also means knowing that the love and personal bonds you feel with your child are not, at this point, strong enough to make him or her ready to change.

So the attitudes that work best are to avoid anger and judgment, to assume that some, possibly invisible, part of the YA is actually on the side of growth, and to keep asking what, realistically, will help support the motivation and strength to face doing the next right thing.

Avoid Paralysis by Analysis

One common avoidance is focusing on the ideal choice of career. When the YA’s maturity and motivation are the problem, then just about any experience that involves healthy engagement with people in the world outside the family is good. Without good maturity, knowing what might be ideal is not even possible. It is true that having a dream does generate motivation, but for YAs who are stuck, distant goals are more frightening than they are motivating. From the base of the mountain, the summit looks much too far to climb, so it is better to put one foot in front of the other. Parents can also get stuck on their own dreams about what their child should have become. I have worked with parents who had to work hard to let go of shame they felt about their child not achieving what they had once imagined. That kind of idealism creates a serious burden for a YA who is having more than enough trouble believing in what he or she can realistically achieve right now. Furthermore, for goals to have any motivating power they have to be owned by the one who is doing the hard work. And today’s world is very different from the one that shaped parents’ dreams. The aspirations of the current generation of young persons are more about quality of life than dreams of climbing the ladder held by many of their parents.

Don’t Argueor Try to Convince

As pointed out above, young people, still struggling to “own” their own values and ideas, are often more comfortable fighting parents than accepting responsibility for themselves. They may gravitate to argument. Arguing is trying to change something inside the head of the other person. That is neurosurgery and few parents are licensed to do it. Besides, no one learns lessons they didn’t sign up for. When we feel that someone is trying to change us, we naturally resist and the more they try, the more we resist. So arguing with a YA who is stuck just won’t help. How can we avoid it?

Here are three things that are not arguable:

  1. What we feel inside.
  2. What we see and know personally.
  3. Our personal beliefs.

By refusing to go beyond those three subjects, parents become argument-proof. It may be helpful to make it clear that parents are expressing their personal views. And that may not stop the YA from trying to get into an argument. The YA might say, “You shouldn’t feel that.” But the response is easy. “I’m sorry, that’s what I feel,see, believe, so I’m not going to argue with you about it.” In this way, feelings, perceptions, and opinions are actually facts. They are personal facts, and not subject to argument.

There can be discussion. That takes the form of an exchange of views. When done without the aim of changing the other person, then there is no reason for the exchange to become heated or polarizing. Everyone has a right to state their view. Parents may also have an obligation to act on theirs, but that does not preclude listening.

When the YA doesn’t want to hear a parent’s point of view and it needs to be shared, then I think of a technique I call “memo from Mom.” Write down what you want to convey on paper and leave it on a bed, desk, table, or some place where the YA will see it. An electronic communication might also do the job. By indicating clearly that this is only informationand that the YA is free to do with it whatever she chooses, the contents is communicated without the young person having to fend off the parental point of view. Examples might be resources: “We think a job coach of your choosing would help you with your job search and are willing to support that.” Or ideas: “It is our belief that you would be happier in any job, and choosing your ideal one is not going to help at this time.” Or a condition: “We have made a decision that using the car after 5 p.m. is not helping you and will no longer be allowed until you have a job.” If explained, or even worse, if presented with arguments about why they are “right,” these could each be the launching pad for a huge argument with zero benefit.

The Absolute Requirement of a United Front

Among families struggling with a failure to launch son or daughter, as explained above, parents become polarized around how tough to be. One thinks the situation calls for stronger measures while the other believes in more understanding. Perhaps surprisingly, the harsh one is not always the father. It can be either one and the roles can change. One parent believes in what I call the “kick in the pants” theory of mental health. Just a swift kick, and the YA will turn around and start moving forward. Of course in any but the easiest cases, that doesn’t work. Avoidance of engagement has gone on too long and the fear of growing is too great. More likely harsh treatment will become a distraction, giving the YA a good reason to blame the parents and to keep waiting for themto change. On the other hand, the softie isn’t doing any good either. The form of wishful thinking that more kindness and understanding will lead to change, is also inadequate. The dynamic is that the harsh one becomes more harsh to compensate for the soft one’s coddling and the soft one becomes softer to compensate for the harshness. This combination is devastating, since it deprives the YA of any reliable parenting. The end result is that the young person doesn’t take either one seriously and is left to parent him or herself. Until the polarization is addressed, this is a family that has cancelled out its effectiveness.

The rule, then, is that parents must present a united front at all times. Any decision that could be controversial must be discussed and made jointly. This can be even harder when parents are separated or divorced. One solution is for one parent to take responsibility for the decision making. There is a much better approach.

Conflict Resolution

The better solution is to use the technique of conflict resolution. What just about all the books on conflict resolution and negotiation say is that people naturally focus way to early on the solution. That is exactly wrong, because it polarizes the situation. What people really want and need is to be heard. So the correct order of business is first to engage in a thorough listening session or sessions until each party understands the other’s feelings perfectly. That may not be obvious because we so often get into a habit of not really asking ourselves what our true feelings might be, nor do we expect the other to be interested. We focus, instead, on what we want to do.

Exploring feelings is one of my core skills, so let me share some pages from my playbook. Don’t ask directly about feelings. Instead, ask about facts. “What makes you believe that is the answer?” “When did you first come to think your YA needed a tougher stance?” “Does it have to do with your own experiences from a long time ago?” Then follow up with whatever questions come out of your own curiosity. Ask yourself what you still don’t understand with certainty.

Be sure not to argue. Don’t tell the other person it’s wrong to feel that way. Insist on a spirit of curiosity. “I just want to understand as deeply as possible where you are coming from and why you feel so strongly.” This may take time, but it’s worth every second, minute, hour.

When you understand your partner, if he or she hasn’t already asked, then it is time to ask, “Would you be open to hearing my feelings and point of view?” By that time, it’s pretty hard to say no. Then the process starts in the reverse direction.

When everything is out on the table, you will automatically experience empathy. Like it or not, you will care about the other person’s point of view as well as your own, and they will care as well. At that point, finding a compromise or solution that takes care of both of you is almost trivial.

Why won’t this work with your YA? There is plenty of conflict to be resolved there. The problem is that, unlike the parents or surrogates, the YA has a stake in keeping true feelings hidden, even from him or herself. Those are the shameful fears of adulthood and responsibility. All of us value maturity and feel a good deal of shame in admitting any ambivalence. For the YA, it is even more powerful. Admitting to being afraid of growing will inevitably open the door to facing more stress and discomfort. Once we admit to an irrational fear, then the next step is to conquer it, and that is exactly what the YA has consciously, or more likely, unconsciously been avoiding.

Codependency Revisited

Both harshness and excessive softness are forms of codependency. Recall the definition as “wishful thinking.” When a parent is truly unable to let go of excessive harshness or softness, it is time to focus on codependency. When those unrealistic and counterproductive attitudes are too entrenched to be within the parent’s control, then it may be time to think of the inflexibility as a serious problem in itself.

However, changing those attitudes overnight sometimes just can’t be done. Maybe the harsh parent truly can’t let go of his or her harshness. The anger is just too strong. Often this means that the harsh parent is equally tough on him or herself. When we don’t give ourselves much understanding or room for excuses, then it is very hard to give that leeway to an adult child. The tough parent sees the YA giving himself every break and it doesn’t feel fair. This is especially true when the tough parent is foregoing personal comfort to support the YA’s apparently effortless lifestyle. This is the reason fathers are especially prone to anger at their failure to launch sons. Paralysis isn’t fun or even effortless, but that’s not apparent to the harsh parent.

I have also seen situations where it was the softie who couldn’t accept change. This can be equally limiting of progress. When the softer parent doesn’t have the strength to implement firmness or stick with limits, the result can be enabling that is every bit as powerful as harshness in stopping growth.

When either of these patterns remains in spite of understanding how seriously they can block progress, then it is time to think of the codependency as an emotional problem in itself, and to see help for that. Excessive harshness and inability to hold limits can both be serious problems and both forms of enabling. They may be indications of a need for serious psychotherapy. When deeply entrenched, both tendencies can represent difficulty with early attachment, where the deeper cause is an inability to let go and tolerate the YA as a separate, independent human.

I’ll never forget a father who wanted to celebrate the good old times they had had long ago when his son was in grade school. In spite of strong advice to the contrary, he followed his impulse to take his son on a ski trip when the son was in the very early stages of recovery from failure to launch. This triggered the son’s difficulty letting go of the parent and set his recovery back at least 18 months.

Until the codependent can succeed in gaining control over his or her behavior, then the next best solution for the family is for the codependent to acknowledge the problem and agree to bow out of decision-making. That is drastic, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of resolving or mitigating this type of problem. Enabling of either type can effectively sabotage all progress until it is eliminated from the equation.

Characteristics of Effective External Motivation

So far, the discussion has been mainly about parental influence and how a wrong attitude can undermine its effectiveness. But influence is not the only gadget in the parent’s toolbox and it is not the strongest, either. Leverage makes use of the ways the YA is dependent on parents for things that are needed or desired. Let’s look at how this most basic tool can be used to good effect. It is not simple or obvious.

When the YA wants something controlled by the parents, the latter have an opportunity to trade the want for something he or she truly needs. That is simple enough, but there are many factors that affect the way such a trade is experienced.

Typical wants controlled by parents are money, housing, food, phone, internet, car, and time, as in when to get up and when to sleep. Other items may serve as well. Consequences can be tied to contingencies of all kinds. Some examples are getting out of the house at a certain hour, drug testing, attitude, work, job applications, grades, homework done, payment of rent, etc. What these all have in common is that they involve the YA doing something hard but within reach to engage with life and make a step towards positive results in the world. Let’s look at how to make the use of leverage successful.

Motivation:  The parental motivation for contingencies must not be punitive. If a consequence is motivated by the need to punish, then the YA will fight as hard as possible, feel justifiably like a victim, and be distracted by the unfair punishment. Whatever positive intent will be overshadowed by the negative attitude and the effectiveness will be lost. Even if a parent tries to disguise punitiveness, the truth will most likely be detected and will have a destructive effect. The motivation should be to support growth that is too hard for the YA to undertake by him or herself.

Explanation:In abbreviated form, contingencies, are best explained (truthfully) as follows: “We, as your parents, have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is our duty to set these conditions in order to increase the likelihood of you doing the difficult but ultimately rewarding things you need to in order to grow and develop towards fulfilling your potential.” This brings out in the open how the parents see their job, how they understand the situation, and that their goal is not to control or punish, but to open doors. The young person will probably disagree, but there is no reason for argument because you don’t have to agree. Yes, it is good to hear the YA’s argument and feelings. But then, unless they are convincing, it will be time to say, “Thank you for sharing that, but our beliefs about what is right for us have not changed.”

Unilateral:Contingencies are the unilateral decisions of the parents. They have an obligation to do what they consider to be best. It is, of course, respectful to listen to the YA’s point of view, but it is the YA’s dependence and lack of adult development that allows, even mandates, parents to make unilateral decisions. It is actually freeing for the YA that she doesn’t have to agree. She can retain her beliefs and point of view, and doesn’t have to defend herself from a foreign idea, but can still accept the conditions the parents lay down. It is much less onerous to accept someone else’s rules when you don’t have to believe in them. Perhaps even more important, the parents’ willingness to hold their ground demonstrates a confidence and conviction that it is OK for the YA to have a separate life and values.

Enforceable:Contingencies based on factors that can’t be clearly determined can only lead to argument and distraction. Contingencies should be based on something simple and measurable, like getting dressed and out of the house by a certain hour. Since the contingency is unilateral, it may actually work best to make it something subjective like “If I feel that you are engaging positively in this process, then…” The YA can disagree, but the determination is still clear-cut and not subject to argument. “I’m sorry, that’s not how it feels to me, and I have to follow my best judgment.” What if there is a matter of trust? “Why don’t you trust me?” The parent may still have to invoke a personal judgment of whether the YA is trustworthy at that moment. “I am simply not able to believe you are telling the truth.”

Contingencies and consequences that are too complicated will be forgotten and not enforced. They will not be taken seriously and will undermine the overall program. They need to be simple enough to be written and to be followed consistently.

Goal Appropriate:Contingencies and consequences need to be in line with the goal of encouraging growth and development. If not, they will be experienced as motivated by a wish to control or punish. A common example is that parents decide that the young person should keep her room clean or set the table each night. These are the kinds of actions that are appropriate for a 10-year-old. They feel infantilizing to a 22-year-old. It looks more like the parents’ goal is to get back to the good old days before middle school. Consequences should not take away things that are positive for growth. For example, interfering with contact with friends might be the wrong consequence for a YA whose social skills need strengthening.

Contingencies and consequences can aim at making the household livable for the parent and other siblings or relatives. Parents, too, have a right to a home where they are comfortable.

Respectful:  Contingencies and consequences should not be based on negotiation or personal interaction each time. For example, if a stipend is given, the amount should be set and given automatically without the YA having to be involved in arguing or begging. Weight loss and hygiene are examples of other issues that are, in most cases, too personal to be the business of parents. The outside world protects dignity by keeping a certain respectful distance and the goal here is to move towards healthy separation with less emotional involvement rather than more.

Flexible:  Contractual conditions will naturally evolve over time. A YA who demonstrates trustworthiness should be given more responsibility. These changes should be announced out loud and explained as either positive or negative changes related to observed progress.

Loving:  Ultimately the aim of a unilateral contract is loving. It is to shore up the YA’s limited, but crucial inner motivation to grow and to face and overcome challenges and discomfort that didn’t seem think possible. In this way, the contract is a vote of confidence and promise of sustained support even when the going is hard for everyone.

The Limits of Leverage

What if the YA defies a consequence? Adolescents and young adults are amazingly creative in the ways they can put parents in difficult positions. “If you don’t give me money for my expenses, then all I know how to do is sell drugs.” The right answer might be, “OK, we’ll give you a modest amount and watch what happens.” Or the right answer might be, “We don’t recommend it, and if you end up in jail, we won’t be able to bail you out.” The point is that a great deal of personal judgment is needed to know what will be most likely to motivate your YA to move towards positive engagement in life.

Some YAs have more “street smarts,” or experience in the world and ability to do without things the parents control. Those YAs may decide to leave home. Once again, the judgments are complex. Will the YA grow better at home with less strenuous limitations, or will he or she do better being on his own for a while?

Occasionally threats of suicide are a factor. There it is a matter of judgment, perhaps using the help of a professional, to decide how much risk to incur. Risks of letting go may need to be compared to the very real risk of enabling and no growth. In my experience, hope is one of the strongest deterrents to suicide. A young person who has hope is much safer. Also, clarity that use of leverage is really motivated by love can be a factor against suicide. However, each person is an individual and this book cannot be taken as a guide to determining the level of risk.

After Leverage

When influence and the power of leverage have been used to the extent possible, that still isn’t the end of what parents can do. The last source of external motivation is a willingness to let go. Let me explain, using addiction as a model.

Both kinds of enabling, the negative angry kind and the too soft kind, keep an addicted person feeling an emotional connection. Negative attention is almost as reassuring as positive. A negative, argumentative relationship implies belonging and connection. That is why Al-Anon, the 12-step program for codependents has the slogan “detach with love,” and the first step in Al-Anon is to admit powerlessness. Both mean letting go emotionally and disengaging from the other person’s struggle. What the addict hopes for (usually not consciously) is to have both connection andthe substance. When this is no longer possible, many addicts will choose connection. When an enabler is finally ready to let go, the addicted person can no longer avoid choosing between the substance and an emotional relationship. Letting go of a family connection is very hard, and that need is often the one thing more powerful than addiction.

This is the principle behind planned interventions. The addict is, in effect, given a choice between the substance and his or her connection with important people in life. Up to that time, the addict has managed to manipulate the situation to have both. This is where the angry relationship has given just enough reassurance to allow the addicted person to feel confident in continuing to use substances. A successful intervention finally makes it clear that a choice can no longer be avoided.

In the case of failure to launch, the same letting go may be the last resort. Clarity that the parents are ready to let go and allow the YA to face the world on her own may have a positive effect. It can influence her stay with the parents or it may have the effect of her deciding to leave. Many young people have started their growing up when they physically left home. Interestingly, the process of letting go of the parental connection is often a trigger for internalizing a dose of parental wisdom. Both positive outcomes are much more likely if the parents have done a great job of avoiding punitiveness, communicating their love and support, and demonstrating their ultimate commitment to helping her grow.

How to Develop a Program

The practical work of developing an effective parental support program starts with an honest and fearless look at their ability to form a united team. When there are real problems in this area, they need to be resolved before making changes. A neutral outsider can be helpful in sorting out the line between what is firm and what is punitive. Once a functioning team is in place, then the next question is how ready are team members to understand and use good judgment in following the principles outlined here. No plan will be perfect, because there are too many matters of judgment, but the more personal and genuine it is, the more it will motivate and the less it will require painful confrontations. That is a fine ideal, but, of course, parents will still need to be willing to have confrontations and difficult conversations. Often problems a couple are having, even when they seem to have been overcome early in the process, have a way of returning and requiring refresher work.

Beyond parents’ readiness to engage in a process of supporting the YA’s motivation with influence, leverage, and possibly a willingness to let go, the next aspect of a plan is that it needs to be tailored to the individual YA. A good plan will take into account a great number of factors including the degree of positive motivation, available opportunities for leverage, limitations of leverage, individual strengths, preferences and values, psychological and other handicaps, and outside influences, positive and negative.

Putting all these together, the challenge is to invent a package that will be just pushy enough so that the YA begins to engage with life and reap some benefit from whatever small steps are taken. From there, decisions will need periodic re-evaluation to take movement into account. The goal is for the YA increasingly to experience positive feelings and to experience that adulthood is not as painful as anticipated. With even a little buy-in on the part of the YA, the process becomes a lot easier.

Each family’s program is a living, evolving personal creation. It will require work and energy and will be stressful at times. What is most fortunate is that we are working with nature. I call it “paddling downstream.” Every YA somewhere wants the same thing parents want, to fulfill their potential in the world. In the end, everyone will grow stronger and wiser from having engaged in this process.

In the next chapters, we will follow different YAs on their journey to have a better idea of what this looks like in real life.


I see this chapter has subheadings, which I like, but feels a little different than Chapter 1. Just an observation.


*** I added a second one in the first chp. ??


Also, upon finishing this chapter, it feels, perhaps necessarily, a little more abstract than the first. My guess is that the chapters that come before (2) and follow (4) will help balance that out.  *** Seems OK to me to start with a story and draw the reader in.  ??  JS


Establish this abbreviation early on with “young adult (YA)”


  1. Rose McConnell

    The title is looking for the positive, but then the chapter digresses into discussing multiple psychiatric diagnoses. It almost seems like that section needs to go first or in some way be separate. Is the transition to adulthood something that parents and adultelescents can handle or do they need professional help? Perhaps a story about the more normal adultelescent and one needing psychiatric are might help elucidate the situation a bit.

    How will they know? If that is answered in another chapter, it might be nice to cross reference.

    There are several typos throughout the article.

  2. SarahM

    Dear Dr. Smith,

    I’m finding this information extremely helpful. I hope you are continuing to work on finishing this book – I’d love to read the whole thing.

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