Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist Dr. Liz Hale helps us understand this “growing” complexity.
“Child” & “Adult”
We often hear about this tumultuous transition as, “no longer a child but not yet an adult.” We need some wonderful term to describe this life stage; similar to what we have for tweens, those “betwixt and between” childhood and adolescence. Perhaps the “twilight age” would be appropriate for those no longer children and not yet adults. No wonder it can be so confusing…we don’t even know what to call this important stage of development! I encourage parents to look at their early young adult as a child and an adult rather than neither one. This tends to make life a bit less confusing because you’re going to see a combination of those two worlds operating within your young adult for some time. And what do adult children need from their parents? They need a parent and a peer to mirror these two stages!
This begs the question of when human maturity really sets in? It’s later than we have traditionally thought. A Dartmouth College study determined that significant anatomical changes in brain structure continue well after age 18, particularly in the areas regulating emotion and cognition. The studied confirmed that the brains of these college freshmen were far from resembling the brains of those even in their mid-twenties.
Especially when children move away to college, they are forced to face these new social, emotional, and cognitive challenges. That’s how they learn to navigate the world.
When I was in this twilight age, I’d often hear my parents say in frustration with me, “Elizabeth …. use your brain!” I thought I was…but evidently that young brain was still a bit limited. An undeveloped brain may explain a few things in the life of someone else’s young adult, as well.
More Choices, More Complexities
It seemed that the steps into adulthood were at one time traditionally marked: leave home, finish school, start a job, get married and have a family. But it’s not that simple today. Today’s pathways have grown more varied and complex. I hear from concerned parents frequently, especially about their sons, about the alternating from one job to another (unsure what they want to do), shifting between work and college, living at home and living independently, dating long-term or not dating at all, and delaying marriage and a family. And, of course, the family system is the main institution absorbing these costs…and it takes its toll. I smile when I hear parents talk about projecting how the kids will leave the nest 18. Not so fast! Plan for investing in their futures a lot longer.
The best analogy I can offer is to compare today’s adult transitions with the era prior to industrialization, where most families earned a living from the land. Children would work on the family farms well into adulthood where they would later inherit the land themselves, for better or worse. Attaining self-sufficiency was a gradual process, much like it is today. It’s just that adulthood today is shaped more by social institutions, like higher education, than the family.
Why are we postponing marriage? Some say it’s because of our society’s openness to premarital sex, an increase in cohabitation, and fear of divorce. It’s to complex to fully understood the social constraints.
Feed Faith Not Fear
Both parents and teen-adults have fears…so can we do to conquer those fears? It used to be that you could eradicate your child’s fears by turning on the bedroom light and making sure there were no monsters living under the bed or in the closet! Now, the fears are complicated. Today’s teens most fear violence (something bad will happen to them their family), financial dependence (they won’t be able to support themselves or a family), and sexually transmitted diseases (some teen-adults fear this more than others depending on their sexual activity.)
A young adult may not even identify the grip that fear has on their life and decisions. Fear impacts the way teen-adults either lean into or retreat from life. Discussing them can normalize them. Remember the fears you faced as you entered adulthood. I remember wanting to feel responsible…but only to a certain extent. I didn’t want the whole ball of wax at once!
Help them instill faith in themselves not fear. Who they become in the future is dependent on who you allow them to be in the present. Teen-adults are still learning how “to become.” Listen to them and convey your belief in them. Even today, several years after my mother’s passing, her words still echo in my mind; “You can do it!” I don’t even remember what she was referring to, probably because she applied it to numerous situations throughout my life. Think about the words you want your young adult to keep repeating in their minds.
Support Fully, Finance Sparingly
Parents often want to financially support their adult children. When we invest in our children we invest in our future and that is a wise investment. And when we don’t support our young adults, the price to society is going to be great. I’ve worked with couples who have worked very hard and sacrificed as a team to set aside funding for their children’s college education, and some are even investing wisely enough to help their adult children with their first down-payment on a house. I am a proponent of free-agency and doing what’s most meaningful to you. But I’ll never forget walking into a walk of a newly married couple and seeing an unbelievable mansion that their parents had helped them obtain. This is not what you would call a starter home. Allow them to set a foundation; don’t build it for them. Let them make their own increase – something that they will be proud of. Care for but do not take care of. That’s a big difference! Turn from coach to cheerleader.
Bottom line: Love your children regardless if they are living the way you see fit or not. Nothing’s wasted; the learning is on-going. Nothing bridges more satisfaction than living with them through all the confusion and assisting them into their emergence as healthy, balanced adults.
Dr. Liz Hale is a licensed clinical psychologist and a regular contributor on Studio 5. Your comments and questions are welcomed! Please visit www.drlizhale.com to add your thoughts to today’s discussion or learn more about her private practice