The Course of Reason

You’re In College: Now What About Your Parents?

June 14, 2013

FamilyYoung adulthood can be an incredibly awkward time for a whole host of reasons, but one of the most difficult is navigating the transition of your relationship with your parents from an hierarchical to an equal one. So how do you do it? Particularly when you’re a skeptically minded, independent thinking young adult, how do you recognize that your parents may still see you as their little kid? There is, of course, no right answer to this question. Everyone has a slightly different relationship with their parents, but there are some main themes that emerge no matter who you are and how you relate to your parents. Here are some things you might want to consider as you move into adulthood, and some considerations about how to navigate them.


One of the hardest elements of transitioning from youth to adulthood is deciding what things your parents valued that you value as well. For much of your childhood, you probably didn’t do too much questioning of your parents’ values (unless you’ve had some major disagreements). My parents value hard work, therefore I value hard work. Many of these values are subconscious, even for the adults in your life. One that I know of from my life is that people around me often valued giving to others at the detriment of yourself. This is something that I have picked up on. It can be very useful to spend some time actively thinking about the things that you value, the ways that you behave, and what things you have been acting like you value without realizing it.

It can also be helpful to think about what you want to value, and how to adjust your behaviors to model those values. It can be hard to justify some of these choices to parents. I have made some different financial priorities than my parents, and I have had some anxiety about expressing to them why I’ve done what I’ve done. One thing that helps is being very aware of what value you’re choosing, and being able to express to yourself and others how you’re prioritizing things. You may still get disagreement, but you will have a strong stance and likely gain more respect. 

Another thing that can be incredibly difficult, particularly if you have a good relationship with your parents, is realizing that they aren’t always right. Now on the surface this seems like it’s really easy to accept. Duh. No one’s always right. But if you’re anything like me, if Mom gives me advice, 99% of the time I do what she says. Because she’s really smart. And it has served me well in the past. But even if you respect your parent’s advice, their priorities and tactics may not always be the best for you. Your values may not be exactly the same as theirs. And we each need to begin to find our own right path. It can be good to start taking parents’ advice with a grain of salt, or recognizing that even if they are making an intelligent, good point, it may not be the one that you want to listen to. Rarely is there one absolutely correct answer or behavior in a situation, and you may choose a different one than what your parents might suggest.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t have the best relationships with their parents and are trying to decide how to navigate the waters of gaining independence and autonomy. One of the hardest things to decide when you’re in this situation is whether you want to put more time and energy into your familial relationships, particularly if your family violates your boundaries, doesn’t respect your choices, or repeatedly does things that hurt you. One of the hardest things for a lot of people to accept is that you do not necessarily have an obligation to continue giving your time and emotional energy to people who don’t treat you well, even if they are your family. It does not make you a horrible person to set boundaries and tell your parents that you will not spend time with them unless they treat you in a respectful manner. You get to decide for yourself how much distance you want and how important family is to you. The hardest balancing act of young adulthood is trying to decipher how to balance your independence against the support and love you get from your family.

A final piece to trying to find this balance has to do with how much information you want to divulge to your parents. When you’re younger, your parents know most everything about you. As you get older you can come to them for advice on things: relationships, finances, jobs. But when you do that, you give them some amount of power over the choices that you’re making. This can be an incredibly hard balance to strike. Sometimes you don’t want your parents to judge you, or you want to be able to make choices that they don’t approve of without having to explain to them (e.g. if I were to get into BDSM I would not want to have that discussion with my parents). This can be a good place to start with all of the other questions: how far do you want to let your parents see into your life. That can help you see where you feel uncomfortable with your parents, which can lead you to ask if you have differing values or if they’re not treating you appropriately or if you don’t think that they’re right about something.

So with these thoughts and questions, go forth into the world and assert yourselves, but remember that staying close to home can be great too.

(feature pic is me, my brother, and my mother)



About the Author: Olivia James

Olivia James's photo

Olivia James is a recent graduate from St. Olaf College who is now navigating the post-college pre-grad school waters. She was a philosophy and religion major and was a member of St. Olaf's SSA. She is also an avid swing dancer, voracious reader, and all around nutjob. 




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