Once Children Grow Up

Parents are often perplexed about how much responsibility they have for young adult children, particularly errant children, and about how best to help them.

Our good friends, the Roberts * family, were preparing to move out of state. Linda, their eighteen-year-old daughter, confronted them as they were ready to leave. “I am not going to move with you. I haven’t been living the gospel very well, and I’m not very happy with myself. You won’t be very happy with me either. You go live your lives and forget about me. I will live mine.”

Brother and Sister Roberts were shocked. Feeling numb, they made the move without their daughter. Then they worried if they had done the right thing.

Worrying about children is not new. The scriptures tell stories of parents whose children turned out well: Abraham’s son Isaac (see Gen. 22:7–13; D&C 132:37); of children who lost their way: Lehi’s sons Laman and Lemuel (see 2 Ne. 1:13–26; 2 Ne. 5:1–5); and of children who headed in a wrong direction but later became righteous: Alma’s son Alma the Younger (see Mosiah 27). In each case, the parents of these men probably did their best to rear them properly.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “Of all the work of ‘perfecting the saints,’ none compares to that done in healthy families” (Ensign, May 1994, p. 89). The importance of creating a healthy family atmosphere weighs heavily on most parents. If parenting itself is challenging, figuring out how to parent an older teen or young adult can be very perplexing, especially in today’s world of lingering partial dependence on Mom and Dad that sometimes lasts well into young adulthood.

Yet, no matter how difficult a particular situation is, parents cannot afford to give up hope that their loving, prayerful concern and actions for their child’s welfare will someday, somehow, bear fruit. Nor can they afford to relinquish all responsibility for providing measured, ongoing moral support and direction for their child, believing instead that parental involvement ends once a child becomes a legal adult or leaves home. President Ezra Taft Benson’s words surely apply to mothers of young adult children as well as to fathers: “Fathers, yours is an eternal calling from which you are never released. … Its importance transcends time. It is a calling for both time and eternity” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 48). President Benson also counseled:

“It seems easier for many mothers and fathers to express and show their love to their children when they are young, but more difficult when they are older. Work at this prayerfully. There need be no generation gap. And the key is love. Our young people need love and attention, not indulgence. They need empathy and understanding, not indifference from mothers and fathers. They need the parents’ time. A mother’s kindly teachings and her love for and confidence in a teenage son or daughter can literally save them from a wicked world” (“To the Mothers in Zion,” in Ezra Taft Benson, Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1990, p. 36).

Another key to achieving harmony between generations may be found in forming habits of good communication while the children are young (see sidebar article, this page). Parents can then learn how to build on those good habits to offer appropriate help to children as they move through the challenging transition from youthful naïveté and dependence on their parents to the self-reliance and maturity of responsible adulthood.

Evaluating the Problem

Linda Roberts found herself living several states away from her parents and facing problems that were more difficult to deal with than she had anticipated. Life was hard for her, and she felt terribly alone. She knew her parents were worried, but she still didn’t want to face them.

In the meantime, Brother and Sister Roberts continued to struggle with what their role should be in their daughter’s life. While they respected Linda’s decision to stay behind and try to solve her own problems, they also wanted her to know she had other options and resources available through the family unit. After prayer, fasting, and many phone calls, the Robertses decided to take another step with Linda. Brother Roberts called and asked to meet with his daughter. She hesitantly agreed, and he immediately made arrangements to see her.

The Roberts family did two things during this critical time: they spent time evaluating the problem, and they set up a meeting with Linda to discuss the situation and possible helps and solutions. I have found that these two steps, evaluating the problem and holding what I have come to call a responsibility meeting, are vital in helping families through the difficult process of dealing with young adult problems, large or small.

In evaluating the problem their child presents to the family, parents must separate behavior that is inconvenient for them from behavior that is intolerable. If a troubled young adult still lives at home, his or her behavior may adversely affect the rest of the family. Is there a risk to family members if the undesired situation is allowed to continue? All options, including the possible removal of the young adult from the home, should be considered. Fasting and prayer are essential steps in the evaluation process. If parents are still not sure how serious the situation is or how far they should go with a remedy, they can get ecclesiastical or professional help, or both.

Sometimes family concerns are best left to the parents to evaluate in private discussion. Other concerns are appropriately discussed in a family council setting so that issues can be seen more clearly from different perspectives and the family can act more effectively in the spirit of mutual understanding, unity, and cooperation.

Responsibility Meetings

We have found the responsibility meeting to be the single most effective communication activity we have with our children, even now after some of the children have been out of our home for several years.

What a responsibility meeting is. When troubles arise that may involve us, our home, or our resources, we plan a meeting with our adult children for the purpose of identifying the responsibilities of all parties. Essentially a family council, this is a meeting of understanding and discussion; often it serves to clear the air and create feelings of harmony. The meeting differs from a family council when it is limited to those directly involved in a concern, such as parents and a disobedient child.

In a responsibility meeting, participants expect to evaluate each problem on the agenda and to agree upon a plan for resolution. Parents should be prepared to respond with love and kindness while upholding family rules and seeking to reduce turbulence within the home. The goal is to teach and encourage mature, responsible behavior among family members.

When to hold the meeting. While our young adult children were still living at home, we met with them about once a month. However, if things seemed to be getting out of hand, we met more often. We have found that consistency in holding our responsibility meetings often prevented more serious problems from developing.

How to prepare. My wife and I prayerfully develop an agenda. Speaking to parents, Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “Personal revelation regarding parenting can provide customized guidance and reassurance” (Ensign, May 1994, p. 90). We carefully develop three lists of possible solutions to problems at hand. Our lists include a perfect or preferred solution, an acceptable solution, and an unacceptable solution. Nonnegotiable items are identified and agreed upon by both parents before the meeting begins so that they present a united front. We are not being kind to our children if we allow unacceptable behavior to continue indefinitely.

Examples of nonnegotiable items might include these expressions: “We can no longer afford to pay for your upkeep if you do nothing in return. We must see some progress in your education [or employment prospects, helpfulness around the house, etc.] or you will have to move out.” “If you are going to live with us, you will have to obey family rules and live certain Church standards here.”

How to conduct the meeting. My wife and I usually find a place where we may meet in private with our young adult and begin with an opening prayer. Inviting the Spirit to the meeting is of tremendous help. The meeting should proceed in a loving but firm manner. Many parents have found, to their surprise, that after a candid, heartfelt discussion troubled youth often agree to a mutually beneficial plan.

One family felt deep concern for a daughter that seemed to be going nowhere. The parents met with her and openly discussed their expectations and hopes as well as their concerns. The daughter responded immediately by agreeing to go to school. She simply hadn’t known that her education mattered to them and was glad to have some direction in her life. Compliance dates and financing were discussed, and each person’s responsibilities were identified and agreed upon. The meeting cleared the air, opening the way for the family to work together for the daughter’s benefit.

We have had to be flexible, however, in how we hold our meetings. If an opening prayer is unrealistic under the circumstances, we pray in private prior to talking with a son or daughter and seek only a time and place to be with them, without labeling our effort a “meeting.” The agenda still is followed, though in a casual way.

Dealing with criminal behavior. A responsibility meeting may be held to establish clearly the nonnegotiable house rules for any child who seems headed for trouble. However, once parents become aware of criminal activity, they are under a legal obligation to inform authorities. Immediate corrective action should be taken by parents to see the matter resolved. They may need to seek and follow legal counsel. The situation is largely out of their hands then. Protecting an adult, albeit a beloved son or daughter, from facing the consequences of his or her criminal behavior denies the person an opportunity to deal constructively with the problem and move ahead with life, and such sheltering could put the family at great risk.

A 22-year-old son was secretly storing stolen merchandise in the family garage. His parents were unaware of the extent of his wrongdoing until one day when they opened the seldom-used garage in back of the house. They were appalled at what they saw. Tearfully, they acted immediately by calling in authorities. They soon found out that their son was acting as a “fence” for stolen property and that under the law they were technically considered to be accomplices!

How to implement decisions made during the meeting. Follow up on each point discussed. Record the decisions, the compliance dates, and the penalties for noncompliance. Track those dates to see that the promised actions have occurred. If they have not, carry out the consequences of nonperformance.

One family threatened to evict their 23-year-old son from home if no improvement was made on the items discussed during a responsibility meeting. The son was enjoying a “free ride” at home and wasn’t particularly motivated to change his ways and become self-reliant. When his parents saw no change, they told him he could continue his lifestyle only at his own expense. He must get a job and find his own apartment by the end of the month. He never thought his parents would follow through. When nothing had happened by midmonth, the parents began preparing for the eviction. One week before the eviction, the parents found an apartment, and at month’s end they helped their son move out. Harsh words came from the son, but the decision was firm and agreed upon. This was a major turning point for the well-being of both parties, and the situation has worked out well.

Additional Helps for Dealing with Young Adults

There are times when circumstances prevent us from holding responsibility meetings with our young adult children. Particularly during such times, our family relies on other guidelines that help us deal constructively with the challenges and decision making of the young adult years.

Pray, fast, and follow promptings of the Spirit. One day while at work I felt prompted to find my recently married daughter. I knew that she and her husband were looking at cars for sale, but because I thought it would be impossible to find them, I did nothing. The feeling came again, so I left my office and drove to various car dealerships. I found my daughter and her husband at the third dealership, seated with a salesman and about to sign for an expensive new car that would burden them with payments for years. They stepped out of the office to talk with me about the kind of vehicle they needed and the kind of payments they could afford. The couple made a different choice that day.

“These [love, patience, and encouragement], with prayers, will accomplish wonders,” President Hinckley has said. “You cannot expect to do it alone. You need heaven’s help in rearing heaven’s child—your child, who is also the child of his or her Heavenly Father” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 60).

Inform local Church leaders. If your young adult child lives away from home and is not actively involved in the Church, inform local Church leaders of his or her address and background. Wards and stakes have people and programs designed to search for those who have strayed. One contact could make a difference.

Write or call. Even if you receive no response in return, try to stay in touch with your young adult child who lives away from home. One young man threw away letters from home without reading them. However, the very process of receiving the letters let him know that he had not been forgotten. One day he began reading the letters before throwing them away.

When our children began to leave home, we found it helpful to take the lead in maintaining contact with them. A weekly call matters a lot. Even when our family economy is fragile, we stay in touch. One family we know installed an 800 number to encourage their children to call often. “The cost was not as much as we thought it might be,” said the husband, “and the rewards are more than worth it. We are all on limited budgets, but this has been a good decision.”

Work as a team with your spouse. Working together generates more inspiration and ideas, making it easier to establish a course of action and to stick with it. Single parents may find a powerful resource in home teachers and Church leaders.

Trust in others. They may find ways to touch the heart of your troubled child. We have found that Mom and Dad can only do so much to assist a child who has reached adulthood. Bishops and other ecclesiastical leaders, members of the immediate and extended family, friends, and professional therapists may also be of help. As parents, we sometimes hope we can solve all our children’s problems by ourselves. However, often we need help from other people.

As a bishop, I worked with a relieved family who found that their errant daughter, away at college, decided to repent and return to Church activity. The parents had prayed and fasted for her well-being for a long time. I felt the Spirit guiding me as I worked with her. In time, she prepared for a temple marriage. There was joy at her wedding reception when her father and I met for the first time. “It’s great to meet another member of the team” were his first words to me. “Thank you for what you have done for our daughter.”

Remember that we cannot and should not pray away the individual agency of any of our loved ones. Our children may never respond the way we would like them to, but we must allow them their agency and, in the process, maintain our sanity. Even though their wayward child may not experience a change of heart in this life, parents must do everything in their power to let the system work.

“A child, even one raised with great love and care and carefully taught, may choose, when an adult, not to follow those teachings for a variety of reasons,” said Bishop Robert D. Hales, then Presiding Bishop of the Church and now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “How should we react? We understand and respect the principle of agency. We pray that life’s experiences will help them regain their desire and ability to live the gospel. They are still our children, and we will love and care about them always. We do not lock the doors of our house nor the doors to our hearts” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 10).

Elder Boyd K. Packer, now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “The measure of our success as parents … will not rest solely on how our children turn out. That judgment would be just only if we could raise our families in a perfectly moral environment, and that now is not possible. It is not uncommon for responsible parents to lose one of their children, for a time, to influences over which they have no control.” Elder Packer continued, quoting Elder Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “‘Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. … Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God’” (Ensign, May 1992, p. 68).

Back to the Robertses’ story: Linda Roberts drove to the airport and picked up her father. She eventually agreed to drive to a place where they could talk alone. Once there, she began discussing her reasons for moving out. The session did not begin amicably. However, after lengthy discussion, tears were shed and a solution was worked out that both felt good about. The meeting proved to be the turning point in Linda’s life.

Linda has since married in the temple and moved closer to home. She called her parents recently and invited them to lunch. They were delighted. During the visit, Linda tearfully thanked her parents for saving her life. That one moment—and all the promises it held for the continued, future concord between Linda and her parents—made all the patient effort worthwhile.

Establishing a Good Foundation

My wife and I have found that many of the things we did while our children were growing up bore tremendous fruit in our lives and in theirs once they began leaving home. At the time we did not realize the importance of much of what we did, but we have since identified those parental practices that seem to have made a difference.

Teach our children the gospel. The home is the best place for children to learn the gospel by example and precept. Parents are under sacred obligation to see that their children are taught in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Enos 1:1; see also Prov. 22:6; D&C 68:25–28; D&C 93:40–43). President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency at the time, said in 1993: “Bring up your children in light and truth as the Lord has commanded. … I make you a solemn and sacred promise that if you will do this, the time will come when, looking upon those you have created, nurtured, and loved, you will see the fruits of your nurturing and get on your knees and thank the Lord for His blessing to you” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 60).

Follow the advice of Church leaders. Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “Monday night has been set aside as an evening for families to be together. … We have been promised great blessings if our families would be faithful in this regard” (Ensign, May 1994, p. 37). In our home we did set aside Monday nights on a fairly regular basis for family home evening. We also had individual interviews with each child, held family councils when making important decisions, read scriptures together, and spent one-on-one time with each of the children. Great blessings have come to our family as we’ve done these things.

Show respect for our own parents. Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy said: “The spiritual strength of every new generation has its roots in parents’ and grandparents’ love for God and obedience to the gospel” (Ensign, May 1994, p. 88). To nourish our roots, we made frequent visits to our parents, telephoned often, or wrote letters. At appropriate times we talked with our parents about finances, illnesses, and personal problems. It was clear to our children that we respected and valued the advice of an older generation.

Discuss our expectations for our children. As our children grew up, we helped prepare them for their missions and schooling, including the financial requirements for each. We were involved in postmission plans before, during and after their missions. And we were part of their practical marriage and career plans.

Find out what our children expect from us. As our children became adults, they often told us what we could do to best help them. During our discussions about money, jobs, schooling, or marriage, we listened carefully. Sometimes we were surprised by the simplicity of our children’s requests. We find they want to know what we think of their plans, and we try to respond with a balanced amount of encouragement or discouragement, depending on the situation.

Over the years those steps have helped provide a good foundation for our continuing association with our children.

Four Problem Areas between Parents and Their Young Adult Children

Q: What do I do if my unmarried child is involved in a pregnancy?

A: Stay close to your child through this experience. If the couple are in love and appear compatible and capable of succeeding in marriage, encourage marriage.

If marriage is not an option, seek help. Church members are encouraged to get help from LDS Social Services whenever possible. The official position of the Church was stated in a letter from the First Presidency: “Unwed parents who do not marry should not be counseled to keep the infant as a condition of repentance or out of an obligation to care for one’s own” (1 Feb. 1994). It has consistently been shown that in such a situation babies fare better with adoptive parents.

Q: How do I keep my son from getting angry with me when I say no to him?

A: You don’t, but don’t let him lay the guilt trip on you. Meet with him and let him know how you feel. Don’t get drawn into a confrontation. Stay calm and ignore the tantrum. The problem is mostly his, not yours. Keep the love flowing his way.

Q: My son came home from his mission and has done nothing for many months since his return. He lives here, does not go to school, does not work. He is active in the Church. What do I do?

A: This really is the place for a responsibility meeting. You need to let him know that his free, irresponsible lifestyle is over. He needs to be making progress toward independence. If he remains noncommittal and uncooperative, make it clear that although he may choose to be unproductive, he must do so at his expense, not yours. This may require him to move out to better help him become independent.

Q: How much money should we give or lend to our children?

A: Don’t give or lend any amount you cannot afford to lose. Don’t use your savings to bail out children from bad decisions, and don’t use retirement funds for their new homes or new business ventures. Parents are often the first to be asked for money, and the last to be repaid. A rule of thumb: the more your resources are involved, the more input you have in the decision.

[photos] Photography by Welden Andersen

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh

Garth Hanson is a high councilor in the Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake.

Show References

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    Names have been changed.