Long Distance Parenting

When our children reach the age of 18, they may be legally an adult but as many of us have learned, they are generally not ready to be completely independent. The term “Emerging Adulthood” has been used to describe young adults from age 18 to 25. Tune in to this week’s episode to hear Tina and Serena talk about their personal experiences parenting “emerging adults”, how they’re managing long distance parenting, and lessons learned along the way.

Notes and Mentions

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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.

Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.

Serena: So how about we start our episode today with a question from our big book of questions. I’m going to go ahead and pick number 410.

Tina: OK, 410 it is! The question is…(which really isn’t a question) name three beautiful things about where you live.

Serena: So I’m in Upstate NY as some of you know and number one on my list is the waterfalls and yes, that is more than one. I love our waterfalls here. We have some really nice walking trails that we take every morning to walk with the kids to school and then there’s really a lot of natural areas that can be explored. Kind of endless.

Tina: Yeah. You guys are all about the nature for sure. And I will follow that theme I am newly in Virginia and I loving (don’t hate me) The mild weather in December. Love it! My bright red Japanese maple tree right outside my window that’s still holding its leaves, again, in December and I also love living in a city with so very much to offer including a river, a gorgeous capitol building and parks galore!

Serena: And we hope that all of you out there listening will respond to this question (that is not a question) on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter we are on all of those. And if you are not already connected with us on each of those, please do so! Ok so, today, our episode, I want like to talk about the art of long distance parenting.

Tina: Oh, you mean those young adults who have flown the coop, but might need a little help adulting?

Serena: Yes, exactly. There are probably a lot of kids who could fall into this category. It’s all about ages 18 to 25 which developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett refers to as “emerging adulthood”. I think this is an excellent name for this period of time.

Tina: “Emerging adulthood”. Yeah, I like that. We know that during that time period our young adults are still experiencing brain development, they are still learning how to adult and being presented with more freedom and decision making. It’s a tricky time for them and a tricky time for us as parents.

Serena: Yeah. I think there’s definitely an art to parenting these emerging adults. A push and pull and a lot of trying to figure out when to step in and when to step back and ... Would you say, Tina that your kids have made it to the other side of this transition?

Tina: I guess I would like to respond with a qualifier: I think that becoming and feeling like a “full” adult ( I am putting air quotes around that) it is fluid and it doesn’t just have to do with brain development. As you know and probably everyone else knows, I have one who is above that age in question and one that falls within. And I feel like both of them need support in decision making (no so much the don’t do this, definitely do that thing, right) but with the decisions adults have to make all of the time. I certainly still lean on my mom for kind of those support things when I support with decisions when I am unsure about and I am clearly way out of that range!! And that was a long way of saying that I do think that both my kids are adulting in amazing ways that neither could have 5 maybe 3 years ago.

Serena: My oldest is 20 so right in the middle of this kind of emerging adulthood and I would say that it has been extra complicated by COVID although not always in a negative way. She had made it halfway through her first year of college when everything shut down the first time around. She chose to stay home last year because that’s what made the most sense for her and now she’s back at school…and almost done with her culinary degree...which is hard to wrap my mind around. We’ve really appreciated having her home for that time that we otherwise wouldn’t have had and her sisters definitely miss her so much when she’s away. They’ve always been very close and college was a really a huge transition for all of us.

Tina: And she’s totally doing it. She’s adulting!

Serena: She is! She is renting an apartment with a friend and manages all of her classes along with a job and she even has a cat. In many ways it’s surreal to me to watch her grow up into this young woman who was so crippled by anxiety at points in her life that we honestly wondered how she would ever be able to find her way in the world.

Tina: So this is where I have no qualifiers. I can see both my young adults handling their lives with maturity, responsibility and grace and that is totally reassuring. I have two kids with two stable jobs (a firefighter and a nurse) helping others in ways that make me super proud. But that doesn’t mean that anxiety or depression don’t happen, right. For all of us but what I am witnessing is amazing. It is amazing!

Serena: And certainly the anxiety for my daughter still pops up for her and trying to handle that from a distance is really challenging. And I am just going to say it: I want to fix everything!

Tina: Yes! We all want to jump and fix things but we know (or perhaps we have learned over time) that we really need to let them figure out stuff as much as they can, right?

Serena: So I will share just a little story, we had to deal with a minor medical emergency over the phone a few weeks ago and those are some of the toughest moments for me. It’s really hard to get a clear assessment of the situation over the phone and I felt like this was a situation when I really needed to problem solve for her because she wasn’t thinking straight.

Tina: Right, right. And that totally makes sense and, again, I don’t fall into the 18-25 category but I can relate to those those kind of “looping” medical thoughts and totally takes me to my dinosaur brain! I am in fight, flight, freeze and I can’t be particularly rational. I see one of mine from time to time getting into this “looping” state. And your are right, our inclination is to jump in and fix it. Sometimes that is the only way.

Serena: Yeah And she was panicking, you know when she called us so it was a matter of not only addressing the medical issue, which needed to be addressed but also trying to calm her down from a distance.

Tina: Yes. That is important. I’ve done a lot of that over time. For sure.

Serena: And that’s to say that was kind of an emergency but I don’t know about you Tina but it’s often hard to tell the level of the problem. Sometimes everything is an emergency, right?

Tina: Right and I would say that I have a little perspective on this because everything used to be an emergency. And I think over time you get to gauge that, I mean part of it is the talking on the phone, the texting even over, you know, online, FaceTime or whatever you do, it is reading your kid in a different way than you have read them all of their lives. Right?

Serena: Yeah, so I’ve had several therapists in the lives of my kids talk about thinking about problems and evaluating whether it’s a big problem or a little problem. As in, do you need to go to the emergency room or maybe just take a deep breath? And again, when they or us are in their lizard or dinosaur brain, that fight, flight or freeze, there’s a lot of “I don’t know”.

Tina: So as you know Serena, and maybe other people know, I just had a hip replacement and I had an ask the week of my surgery. I asked all of my people one thing: please try to tend to your own needs this week. I need to focus on me and while I have been happy for a lot of years to help everybody else with their stuff, this week I need to focus on me. I was unavailable to fix things. And it was amazing to watch what everyone was handling on their own! Which I only learned about after the fact, of course! Which was hard in itself.

Serena: And those are really good boundaries you set to take care of yourself. But what do we do? How do we walk this line between fixing and supporting? What works for you?

Tina: Well, I am going to say it once and I will say it again and I think that we have said it and we will say it again…Validation!

Serena: Oh yes, I rely on that a lot. Not only validation but reassurance as well as in I hear you, I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, and how can I support you?

Tina: Yes. And asking questions is huge! I think when we want to move into that fixing place we need to take a step back and ask for our kid’s input. What do they think they should do?

Serena: Yes. Even then I might get an I don’t know so I have to drill down to be more specific. And that might look like asking: Who could help you with this? What are your options? Who else might you talk to? In the end I’m incredibly grateful that my daughter is in communication with us and calls when she needs something. I know it’s not like that for all parents…and I’m not even sure it will be like this for all of my kids but I’m grateful for what I have at the moment. What about you and your kids Tina? Do you communicate a lot?

Tina: We do. I generally talk to both my kids really nearly almost every day. It is weird when I don’t talk to them every day. I get to hear their highs and lows, and usually can as a skill I’ve developed, learn by the tone of their voice how their, what their mood is and how they are feeling and sometimes I will get that emergency call and I get them a lot less often than I did before.

Serena: Yeah so when I was in college, I remember speaking with my parents once a week at a pre-determined time. And again I am grateful that communication is different now with my kid away at college and I love that she has a cell phone that she can use to check in whenever she needs to.

Tina: Right and sometimes boundaries are super important.

Serena: You’re absolutely right. It’s a fine line. So you talked before about the boundaries you set around your surgery. What about boundaries around phone calls?

Tina: So that has been a really tough one for me over time but again, I have learned over time, recently I have been not answering my phone if I am in a medical appointment which has honestly happened a lot lately physical therapy, everything and that feels ok to me. I also know when my kids tend to call at their regular time, like driving to or from work or just want to talk. And that helps me set boundaries around maybe not answering the phone at that time because I know it is not an emergent issue.

Serena: Yeah, absolutely. Something else I’d like to bring up here is the idea of modeling adult behavior. And that sounds really basic but it can be really powerful. Our kids need to know not only how we might handle a particular situation but also that we make mistakes too. I think back to when my kids were toddlers and they would fall down. There was that split second when they would look at me and see how I was reacting to determine how they should react or how hurt they should feel. If I was alarmed then they would get upset. I think this still happens with young adults and it’s a great time to practice maybe some deep breathing.

Tina: Yeah so I will give a shout out to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law here when their kids used to fall they used to yell “SAFE” that was it and then nobody cried, it was all good right? So I think you’re right. If we’re panicking then they will panic too. Using our own tools to remain calm is important and sometimes hard.

Serena: Yeah. Not easy at all! When my oldest calls me sobbing about something I’m taken right back to elementary school when the school nurse would call me because she had injured herself (which happened a lot). They would put her on the phone to talk to me and I would get choked up immediately.

Tina: I hear you! And it is not easy to see or hear your kids in pain, in any kind of pain.

Serena: As I began researching this topic a bit more for this episode I discovered that there is not a lot written about this. There are so many books about babies, toddler, tweens, teens, and how you parent those ages and stages but not so much about parenting young adults.

Tina: Part of the reason might be that I think we grew up really thinking that when you’re legally an adult at 18 then you’re emotionally an adult as well.

Serena: Yeah. I think we’re learning more and more now about this and there are still some parents that grant their children full independence at 18 I think more often these days, the parenting journey is continuing.

Tina: There’s a great article called, “Parenting kids over 18 is still parenting. You just get less control and the stakes are higher.” https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/parenting-kids-over-18-still-parenting-you-just-get-less-ncna1122376 that talks about this very thing. In this article, Megan Francis states, “When my five kids were small, I naively saw the age of 18 as the light at the end of the tunnel. During that sleepless stretch in which my life felt like an endless blur of night feedings, diapers, bandaging boo-boos and navigating piles of sippy-cups and sippy-cup lids that never seemed to match, I looked forward to my kids’ legal adulthood as a kind of finish line. Once they’d crossed it, I figured, I could relax and celebrate having gotten past the hardest parts of parenting.

Now, with two of my children well past voting age and their three other siblings hurtling ever-faster toward that benchmark, I can look back at my former self and say with the benefit of hindsight: Hahahaha!

Instead, I often feel like I’m learning “how it works” all over again. Parenting older kids is still very much parenting — only you get even less say, the results are more public, and the stakes are higher. The lines between appropriate helping, spoiling and enabling are often difficult to define and the concept of parenting “to the child” rather than following a one-size-fits-all plan starts to feel less conceptual and more necessary.”

Serena: I can totally relate to so much of that, particularly the idea of learning “how it works” all over again! Like this shifting parenting, like we are starting from the beginning again in some ways.

Tina: And I like that shifting parenting for sure. There are a few other resources we found helpful that we will link to in the notes. One is called, “Adult Children: A Guide to Parenting Your Grown Kids” https://extramile.thehartford.com/family/parenting/parenting-adult-children/

Serena: My favorite tip from that article is, “Be a Consultant, Not a CEO”. And I think this is a great reminder of our changing roles in our children’s lives as they grow. This particular resource covers lots of different topics such as children who move back home, how to discuss and manage finances, top concerns of parenting adult children and when an adult child has mental health issues or special needs.

Tina: That last one is super important. Just because science and research tells us that our children’s brains have fully developed by the age of 25 doesn’t mean that ALL individuals are ready to be fully independent at that age. Especially those with the invisible mental health struggles, right? You know your child best for sure and any kind of additional need may mean more support is required.

Serena: Yeah and we hope we have made it clear to you in our conversation today that we don’t have all the answers…maybe we don’t even have any of the answers.

Tina: Do we ever have any of the answers? I am not sure about that. We totally are learning along with all of you out there listening and we would love to hear your thoughts on this super important topic as well so please YOU ARE NOT ALONE, come on board with us.

Serena: Send us an email at mamaresilience@gmail.com and tell us what you think. Tell us about how you’re managing the job of parenting your young adult and what works for you!

Tina: We would love to hear it…every word. So podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribing and please share with others. You will find lots more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com.

Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks again for listening!

Serena: Bye!