It's time for "Tough Love"


Are your adult children bringing their money problems to you? Some "tough love" might be in order.

It's no secret that Americans in their 20s and 30s are grappling with ever-larger debt loads. In 2002, for instance, individuals graduating from public colleges and universities had an average of $17,100 in student-loan debt, an increase of 57% from five years earlier, according to lender Nellie Mae Corp.

Less apparent, though, is the financial strain on the parents of these adult children -- parents whose own retirement savings have been stretched thin in recent years.

"Often adult children will go to parents for help, and yet [the parents] are actually on a limited budget," says Deborah McNaughton, president of Professional Credit Counselors Inc. in Brea, Calif. Even so, Mom and Dad typically pitch in, mainly because "they're too proud to say no. They don't want [their children] to know that they don't have the money. And so [the parents] end up in a financial bind. It's a sad situation."

How can you help adult children through difficult financial times without putting your own nest egg at risk? Consider these ideas:

  • Pay specific bills. Simply giving cash to adult children usually doesn't solve anything, Ms. McNaughton says. Rather, tailor your giving to the problem at hand. "If they have no money for groceries, buy groceries for them," she says. "If they're going to have the utilities turned off, or if the rent or mortgage is going to be in jeopardy, write the check for that specific bill."

    And if the problem is a credit-card bill? "Don't do anything," Ms. McNaughton says. "Parents need to jump in when we're talking about 'survival' bills -- your rent, food, utilities, medical. Something that you have to have. Credit cards are a luxury."

  • Set ground rules at home. If an adult child, after leaving the nest, moves back home, start asking questions. Fast.
    "Even though it's your child, the parents are the ones whose lives are disrupted," Ms. McNaughton says. Thus, the questions: "How much are you going to contribute toward groceries? How much are you going to contribute toward rent? How long is this arrangement going to be necessary?"

    Of course, if your son or daughter is unemployed and has little money, discussions about rent are beside the point. In that case, "find out what [the adult child] can do to help around the house," Ms. McNaughton says, "and once they're back on their feet, then start talking about these other issues."

  • Wait before co-signing a loan. The problem with co-signing a loan is that the parent doesn't see a copy of the monthly bill. "If the young adult falls behind on the payments," Ms. McNaughton says, "Mom and Dad usually don't know about it until they try to get credit on their own -- and the black mark is on their credit report."

    Two suggestions. First, if possible, strike an agreement so the adult child will refinance the loan in six to 12 months in his or her own name. Second, at the least, the monthly bill should be sent to the parent, who can ensure that the account is current. Only then, Ms. McNaughton says, should you hand the bill to your child.

  • Buy a journal. If parents find themselves acceding again and again to requests for money, they will likely end up "crippling their children," Ms. McNaughton says. The latter "are never going to learn the proper use of money and money management."

    A simple and effective tool is a blank journal. "Give the journal to your child with instructions to write down for 30 days every nickel, dime and penny they're spending," Ms. McNaughton says. "And let's see where they can cut back. That would be the greatest gift you could ever give them, because that's one step to setting up a budget and getting out of debt. And put a big bow on it."

Glenn Ruffenach is the editor of "Encore," The Wall Street Journal's quarterly guide to retirement. Write to him at


Are your soulsucking parents taking your soul away from you? Some "tough love" might be in order.

It's no secret that Americans in their 50s and 60s are grappling with ever-larger number of discontented young adults. For instance more than 75 percent of college students reported feeling “overwhelmed” in 2001, while 22 percent were sometimes so depressed they couldn’t function (ACHA, 2001). In addition, the suicide rate among males between the ages of 15 and 24 has nearly quadrupled over the last 60 years, and the rate among females in the same age group has doubled. (CDC, 2002)

Less apparent, though, is the childhood repression and emotional strain on the children of these soulsucking parents - children whose own temperment and mental well-being have been stretched thin in recent years.

"Often soulsucking parents will try to live their dreams through their children, and yet these dreams do not belong to the children they are projected on," says a Dr. Wisecrack. Even so, son and daughter typically give in, mainly because "they don't want to get grounded or are tired of having the same arguments over and over. They know that they will never be truly understood as people. And so [the children] end up emotionally detached. It's a sad situation."

How can you help soulsucking parents work through their own emotion demons without putting your own demons on display for your parents to attack? Consider these ideas:

  • Pick your battles wisely: Simply yelling at your parents doesn't solve anything, Ms Nanny says. Rather, gather your chi to tackle the problem at hand. "If your mom is trying to grind 'the reality of things' into you, go to your happy place," she says. "If they're going to lecture you about the basics of responsibility or if they make you feel as small as an ant by picking out all the mistakes you have made while never recognizing all the hard work you have put in, take a deep breath and realize that the universe is you."  

    And if the problem is them tearing down your spirit because of their own problems, "Don't do anything," Ms. Nanny says. "Parents need to realize their own faults. Silence might be the best mirror for this kind of a situation. It will make them remember more clearly what they have just said. Maybe a dim lightbulb will turn on in their heads."

  • Set the ground rules of your temple: If a soulsucking parent, after sheltering you their whole life, decides that they want you to become instantly independent, start asking questions. Fast. "Even though they did raise you with the best of intentions, its the child whose life has been screwed up because they were only told how to survive, but never experienced how to live," Miss Whoakares says. Thus the questions: "How am I supposed to live an independent life when you were always trying to control it? How come you will never let me make mistakes? Will you ever see me as more than just an investment?"

    Of course, if your soulsucking parents were raised by soulsucking parents themselves and have little soul, don't expect honest answers. In that case, "find out what the parent will talk about that is meaningful to them,” Ms. Nanny says, “and once they have started to open up to you without attacking you, then start talking about other issues."

  • Wait before thinking they have truly changed: The problem with believing that parents have changed in some respect is that parents are usually too proud, hardheaded, and scared to think that their child's fresh perspective on life could drastically shake the foundations of their own static view. "If a parent has a way of life that works for them," Ms. Nanny says, "any new idea that they take in might start to affect their everyday life in ways they might not be prepared to handle."  

    Two suggestions. First, if possible, assure the parents that you merely want to be respected and appreciated for being who you are (all the good and the bad) even if the parent does not fully understand (or agree with) their child's "wierd" ways of thinking. Second, if the child feels appreciated and loved without being constantly judged, persecuted, and scolded, the child should reciprocate this appreciation by showing respect for the ways and views the parent holds. Only then, Ms. Nanny says, can a beautiful relationship begin.

  • Buy a Journal: If children find themselves constantly giving in to their parents demands, they will likely end up "being sucked dry", Ms. Nanny says. Children "are never going to learn about themselves or who they really are."

    A simple and effective tool is a blank journal. "Give the journal to your parent with instructions to write down for 30 days every critical remark, suggestion, or advice they dish out," Ms. Nanny says. "And let's see when they can shut up. That would be the greatest gift you could ever give them, because that's one step to lower blood pressure and happier children. And put a big bow on it."