How to Support Young Adults

Big Kids, Big Problems


Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems. Does it have to be that way? Or is there something we can do?


Between 17 and 25, a person is bound to go through at least one life-changing transition, and probably several. We all know how stressful they can be. But it would be a terrible mistake to arrive at a crossroads only to seek out the nearest fence to sit on. These challenges are meant to take people from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence, from being provided for to learning how to provide for themselves and for others. On a spiritual level, the period of young adulthood signals the end of living a way of life that was chosen for them and the beginning of choosing a way of life for themselves.


I know. I am watching four of our children go through it. One was married last year and is now expecting her first child. Another just finished college, bought her first car, and moved out of state to begin a teaching job. Another is halfway through college and thinking about graduate school. The fourth is finishing high school and working and saving for college.


If there are young adults in your life, maybe you have asked yourself what you can do to help. What kind of support is right? And how much? What do young adults need from you—the, ahem, old adult in their lives?


For insight, I spoke to parents Abby and Martina; to a youth mentor and missionary Patrick; to the director of Young Adult Ministry in the Allentown Diocese, Abbie Langsdorf; to 21-year-old college student Lilly and 24-year-old graduate student John; and finally to clinical psychologist Dr. Greg Bottaro, founder of the CatholicPsych Institute in New York City. I asked them one question: “What, in your experience, is the top need of young adults?” Here are their answers.


R.E.S.P.E.C.T.—find out what it means to me

Martina: I think young adults need respect most from their parents in terms of support. We often confuse respect with tolerance, so I will clarify that what I mean. Respect is something we are all owed due to our unique nature of being God’s children. This doesn’t mean we accept all the decisions our children make, but respect allows us to have strong lines of communication—especially the tough conversations when the secular world will attempt to crush their faith—and give them the support they need even through disagreement. I want my kids to know that, even if my husband and I disagree with some of their choices, our door is always open and we are always willing to talk things through. If I am always making something else “more important” than being with them, I am showing them what takes priority, thereby making anything that I say fall on deaf ears.


Parents who just do understand

Lilly: I come home and my parents aren’t afraid to talk through all the controversial issues with me. We’ve always had an adult interaction about them. They’ve always wanted to hear what I have to say about things. I can’t remember a time when they were talking down to me or saying, “Oh, you don’t understand.” Instead, they would attack the topic. That approach made me take myself seriously and allowed me to make better decisions. I do have friends whose parents won’t have real conversations with them and both sides aren’t able to see where the other is coming from. They just expect behavior out of nowhere. “Just because I said so,” doesn’t work. I always knew I could come to my mom with my stupid stuff, my drama, or my personal stuff, and she’d never judge me. She’d love me unconditionally.


Don’t put a stop payment on my reality check

Patrick: Young adults don’t want you to butter them up. They hate to be pandered to. I treat them the way we all want to be treated. Be honest with them and completely real, and you will win their loyalty. They want you to know them as individuals. You can’t treat them as a huge group. We all want to be known. I’m trying my best to meet them wherever they are with whatever tools they’ve got in their toolboxes. I give them ownership, too. It’s like if you want a great company, then give all your employees stock in it. I know 14-year-old boys in Haiti who are taking care of their family because their father is dead, their mother is sick, and they’ve got a grandmother. Obviously our nation has not progressed in preparing youth for adulthood. It used to be that 14-year-old boys were riding horseback hundreds of miles alone delivering messages across the wilderness.


A coach who helps you play the game

Abby: My college-age children get a lot of help from me. I’m a guidance-counselor/life-coach/career-advisor. I know many families who believe this sort of support “enables” their young adult children to put off taking responsibility for their own lives and futures. But I don’t think it would be right to do as much as I do for my kids if they weren’t pouring their own energy into their education—if they weren’t taking ownership. I’ve seen more families err in the opposite direction, leaving their children really lost. Providing emotional and moral support is trickier. We give advice when they ask us, but we know it would be wrong for us to make decisions for them. We have watched them make bad decisions and realized that it would be a mistake to pressure them to change their minds, because at least in certain cases, all we would have achieved was to damage the relationship between us.


Train a child in the way he should go

Abbie: Youth will mirror the faith of their parents. It’s hard. We have had decades now where the transmission of the faith has been focused on the practices of the faith, and that might not carry a child to adulthood. Teach a child to have a relationship with Jesus. If they have that intimate relationship, they are going to own it. Families need a Catholic identity. Where is God? Is he a priority? If not, anything goes. We need to go back to the basics. Most people don’t know what Eucharistic Adoration is. Whatever programs we do, we try to have elements of prayer, confession, and adoration. The difficulty is getting our kids there. That’s why youth ministry is shifting to family ministry.


Friendship, the perfect blendship

John: Without a strong community people don’t make it. We need Catholic friends. The secular world bombards us with lies. We need to be supported by others. One of my classmates didn’t have any Catholic friends or support so he hadn’t been going to Mass. We had him over for dinner and invited him to Mass. He was excited about it and ready to go. There needs to be a Catholic on-campus group doing fun social events that bring people together so they can form friendships. This will give them strength so they can live the faith.


Love—it’s a verb

Dr. Bottaro: The most common problem in the young adults that I treat is a lack of identity built on the notion of being loved. Parents are to give their children the first experience of being loved and also teach them that human love is only a dim shadow of God’s love for each one of us. The need to fit in comes from the need to be loved. When a person does not know how much he or she is loved, there will be a deep, unfulfilled longing that craves to be satisfied. St. Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” If people could only really believe that!


If each person believed that he or she is the son or daughter of the great King of the Universe, and not only is he a Father, but he is a Dad who is madly in love with each of his children, I would probably be out of a job.

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