Step back! How to help your child become an adult


I can’t adult today: funny when stated ironically on social media, but not so much for parents of students who struggle to start taking on the responsibilities of adulthood as they should be doing in tertiary education.

“Students need to start preparing for their adult lives and the world of work incrementally at university, but many of them may be reluctant to do so - to the consternation of their parents and guardians,” says Dr Gillian Mooney, Dean: Academic Development and Support at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest private higher education provider. 

“The central reasons for many young adults’ ‘failure to launch’, is often because parents don’t hand over the appropriate responsibility reins when they should, which means that their children don’t become empowered to handle their own affairs, and simply, some children may not yet be ready to cope,” she says.

From the mother who still cleans her daughter’s dorm room, or cooks weekly meals for her son, to the father who calls the institution to explain why his child didn’t complete his assignment, there are so many ways in which parents and others – in a loving effort – can do students more harm than good.

“Higher education should not just be seen as a period of life when one acquires theoretical knowledge and a degree, but also very importantly as a stepping stone from dependence at school into adult independence,” notes Mooney.

“It is understandable that letting go is a difficult thing to do for parents, but it is the developmental challenge of parents of university students to do so. Letting go of your children is a fundamental part of raising them and is developmentally appropriate for parents of children at tertiary institutions.”

Yet many parents don’t always know where they should step in, and where they should step back. 

“This is a complex question, and depends on both the parents and the child. However, it may be helpful for parents to think of this developmental challenge as they did about any other. For example, we feed babies milk before we feed them solid foodstuffs. In other words, we implement incremental steps in any changes. It is, therefore, important to realise that the ‘letting go’ needs to take place in small steps.”

Parents should therefore consider the following developmentally appropriate handovers: 

1. Application forms

Prospective students should be taking responsibility for researching their options, investigating entry requirements, filling in and submitting their applications. The parent’s role is a supporting one to ensure that proper research was done, and that forms were completed correctly and submitted timeously. Under no circumstances should parents be taking the lead in deciding on courses or institutions, or completing applications on behalf of their children. It is important to remember that many students who are not successful at university are the ones whose parents have “forced” them into a specific qualification or university. 

2. Budgets

Parents and prospective students should sit together and determine what their available budget is to cover studies, accommodation, materials, transport and other living expenses. Then the child should do the legwork to determine how this budget should be implemented – obviously with parental guidance and final approval. Looking for accommodation, for instance, is an important part of the process for the future student, which will start giving them an idea of the realities of affordability.

3. Trouble and challenges

It is instinctive for parents to want to step in when a problem arises, but in their student years, young adults must learn the very important twin skills of taking responsibility for their actions and negotiating the process of rectifying what went wrong. This develops the all-important emotional intelligence that is in demand in the workplace, and also provides an opportunity for the student to demonstrate their maturity to those who can play an important role in terms of future options.  

This learning cannot be by osmosis though, so the parent should also institute an incremental approach here – preferably by allowing the child to handle progressively more complex challenges from when they are young or, at the post-school stage, doing this progressively.  First the parent can brainstorm and plan with the child or even accompany them the first time, and then next time just talk through possible solutions until eventually the skills are learned and the first thing the parent gets to hear is how something was resolved.

4. Day-to-day life management

Shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing the washing – these are all basic tasks which surprisingly many students still leave in the hands of the grownups. Parents should assist in showing how the budget needs to be spread, but thereafter the student needs to start managing these tasks independently. 

“If parents and guardians still feel that their ongoing interventions with these ‘adult’ tasks are required, it could be an indication that the child is not yet ready to live alone,” says Mooney.

“If that is the case, this should be considered when choosing a higher education institution – by choosing one closer to home or opting for distance learning instead of a contact institution.”

Do you "baby" your teen or do you believe that they need to learn to stand on their own two feet? Send us your thoughts to and we could publish them.

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