Are Parents Putting Too Much Pressure on Young Adults to Be Happy?

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In the months leading up to graduation, many high school students will hear from the adults in their life that college will be “the best four years of your life.” Older adults tend to remember their days in college as being incredibly fun and carefree, especially when compared to the demands of their current life.

While these sentiments may be well meaning, such statements may not be realistic. Catherine Steiner-Adair, Clinical Psychologist and author of several books including, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age explains, “Older adults tend to romanticize the nostalgia around the college years.

They may have forgotten that it is a confusing time of self-discovery and risk taking. It isn’t necessarily the best time in a person’s life and saying that it is can be misleading.”

Why Happiness Cannot Be a Goal

In Bobby Farrin’s 1998 hit song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, he implies that happiness is easy to achieve if a person just chooses not to worry. But young adults are worried and rightfully so. They are adjusting to their independence, trying to make new friends and thrive academically. They have to pick a major and eventually find a job. Rather than feeling happy and excited, they may feel overwhelmed and stressed.

Today’s parents tend to over emphasize “happiness” without helping their children to understand what it means to be happy. Steiner-Adair explains, “Prior to the 60’s and 70’s, no one said that happiness was a top priority. Instead, parents would say what they wanted for their young adult children was independence, financial security, a job they liked and a good family.”

If you ask a parent what do you want for your children, many will answer, “All I want is for them to be happy.”  But what does it mean to be happy?  Steiner-Adair explains, “No one is happy all of the time. Happiness comes and goes. To understand happiness, sometimes you have to be unhappy and experience disappointment.

This is how you teach resilience. You learn that you can be unhappy or disappointed but that with time you will become happy again.”

Comparative Happiness

Social media adds another layer of pressure to young adults. They see their friends all posting amazing pictures and narratives online about their college experience. Young adults may compare their lives to their peers and think, “Everyone else is having so much more fun than me.”  Steiner-Adair says, “Social media has created new opportunities for young adults to compare their lives to other people’s.  They don't just hear about where everyone is going, they see it in photos and they know immediately if they have not been included.” 

The impact of social media on young adults can be distracting, depressing and anxiety producing. Steiner-Adair says, “Some young adults may prefer to stay in their pajamas in their dorm room rather than go to parties and be thrown into stressful social interactions.”  

Parents Who Over Identify

Parents today may be overly invested in their young adult children’s lives. Steiner-Adair says, “Parents are constantly worrying about their children, even their adult children. The dynamic is exhausting and not beneficial to the parent or the child.”

Parents may be so involved in the college application process they forget that it is their child that is going to come and not “a do over” for them. Steiner-Adair says, “It is important for parents to separate their own happiness from their child’s happiness.” Young adults need to have the opportunity to live their own lives, find their own paths and work through their own struggles.

Helping Young Adults Adjust

There is a saying that parents are “Only as happy as their unhappiest child” and there is truth to that. Parents can’t help but want their child to be happy and conversely, feel terrible if they think their child is suffering.

But just because a young adult is having a tough time or is not elated with their college experience, does not mean they are suffering.

Steiner-Adair says, “The opposite of happiness is misery or despair, it is not disappointment.

Parents need to give their child an opportunity to self-soothe and problem solve on their own rather than jump in to fix things.”

Keep the lines of communication open. Help them to brainstorm solutions to problems. Let them know it is okay to be sad or frustrated or overwhelmed sometimes. Remind them that what they see on social media is not a true picture of what is going on – everyone has setbacks and unhappy moments.

Suggest they go to the counseling center on campus if you think they need more support. Steiner-Adair says, “Young adults may feel like they failed if they don’t love college but not everyone does.”