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Connecting to Kids in the Digital Age

With instant communication, parents need to be mindful of getting a little too close

1. Take cues from your grown child's development. Where young people are located along the road to independence affects their need to reach out. In the launching years, college-age children often still rely on parents' guidance in making decisions — what classes to take, how to open a bank account or resolve roommate troubles. The phone tends to ring more after a disappointment or during a crisis and decreases as grown children build their problem-solving skills or consult with their romantic partner or a newly formed network of friends. As young people progress through their twenties, becoming more settled, secure and self-reliant, communication may once again increase, comfortably initiated by either side.

2. Follow your child's lead. When your grown kids are first starting to set up their lives, it's usually best to let them set the pattern and pace of contact. Gradually, most parents develop a second sense about when their sons or daughters need a check-in or a thumbs-up and when they want to be left alone to puzzle things out on their own. Unmade or unanswered calls may just mean a child's life is happily full and attention is elsewhere, but they can also be a sign of trouble brewing or a crisis that has deepened into despair. Parents have to make a sensible judgment about each child and each situation. If a longer than usual silence suggests that a child is having a hard time, or if a recent call home has been particularly emotional, it might be time to followup with an email or text — "Just wanted to make sure you're OK" — or arrange a future call.

3. Get your own e-life. If you're the sort of parent who's tempted by a child's unlocked diary, then beware: the Internet is like one big, unlocked diary and needs to be treated with the same respect and caution. Sure, you can go on your student's college website and get all worked up about the blogs posted there. And if they'll have you, you can become "friends" with your grown kids (and their friends) on Facebook and follow every drama in their personal lives.

But even the friendliest snooping can become intrusion and threaten the all-important boundaries between you and your emerging adults. So it's better to focus on your own life, follow your own favorite blogs and use Facebook to reconnect with long-lost friends from your own colorful past.

However high-tech, digital communication with emerging adults remains a delicate dance between staying connected and letting go. Finding the right balance is a personal decision for every family and an important part of parenting 20-somethings. 

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties.Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer on family issues and the author of four nonfiction books, including Sisters and Reunion. They are working on a parents' guide to emerging adulthood to be published by Workman in 2012.

You may also like: Create a family facebook group.

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