WHEN 4-YEAR-OLDS get into serious trouble, parents simply step in and take charge. But their role is less clear if the child in trouble is 24 or 34.
Parental responsibilities and obligations are quite different when children reach adulthood. When either generation fails to acknowledge those differences, a relatively minor family crisis can leave everyone involved feeling angry and hurt. Major but solvable problems a child's drug abuse, impending divorce or possible bankruptcy can turn into disasters.
"Helping a child who's an adult is like walking through a mine field 20 years after a war," said Dr. Joseph Mancusi, the president of the Center for Organizational Excellence in Alexandria, Va., and a former national director of psychology at the Veterans Administration. "You can trigger emotional explosions left over from when the child was younger unless both of you have dealt with those issues."
The most important issues concern competence and independence the focus of many of the battles between adolescents and their parents. When a parent refuses to recognize a child's development or an adult child hesitates to become self-reliant, their relations can become frozen in time.
"I once saw a 63-year-old woman who was upset that her 87-year-old mother was still meddling in her affairs," Mancusi said. "It was as if the younger woman was still a teen-ager living at home."
When parents who have not adjusted to their child's adulthood sense the child is in trouble, they may rush to help in inappropriate or unnecessary ways.
"The feeling is so urgent that you risk two missteps," said Dr. Judith Sills, a psychologist in Philadelphia who works with the parents of adults. "You act as if you still have control over your child, so you do what you would have done 15 or 20 years ago. You act as if your child's life belongs to you and is still your responsibility."
The problem is deciding when to intervene and when to let children weather a storm by themselves. One rule of thumb is to get involved when the problem directly affects you or your grandchildren. Are people calling you to collect your child's debts? Is your son calling you from jail to ask for bail money? Is your daughter's behavior affecting the health or safety of your grandchildren?
"If you question whether it's a serious problem, don't intervene," Dr. Sills said. "If you're upset because your child is in a career you don't like but your child is happy, that's your problem, not the child's."
* Don't make suggestions about what to do before your children recognize that there is a problem.
Rushing in is likely to compound the problem, since it allows the children to focus on what you are doing instead of what they are doing.
"Unless there's a life-threatening emergency, jumping in feet first will always get you into trouble," said Dr. Fred Gottlieb, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and the director of the Family Therapy Institute of Southern California. "Instead, let them know that you appreciate their points of view and their feelings."
* Take your time and plan your strategy.
Be sure to acknowledge the children's adulthood and their ultimate responsibility for their actions both in getting into trouble and getting out of it.
"Explain that it's hard for you not to say something because you do care so much," said Dr. Lawrence Hartmann, the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association who is on the faculty at Harvard University Medical School. "You'll learn more by disagreeing openly with your child than by harboring your resentments or being too fearful to say anything."