Parenting the "emerging adult"

Do you know how to effectively parent through the gap between high school and adulthood?

The term “adolescence” was a brand-new concept a little over 100 years ago. Dr. G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist, coined the term in acknowledgment of specific developmental needs and milestones of children between the ages of 12 and 18.

Now (perhaps largely in response to increasing globalization, the economic and social climate and ongoing technological advancements), Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett of Clark University has proposed a new developmental stage he calls “emerging adulthood.” This stage includes young adults—roughly between the ages of 18 and 25—caught in the midst of what sociologists refer to as a “changing timetable for adulthood.”

The achievements of adulthood have historically included graduating from high school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. With much of the American population not likely to hit all five of these markers until nearly 30 (if at all), what is happening in the gap between high school and adulthood?

To answer this question, Dr. Arnett identified five components that make up the experience of “emerging adulthood.”

Identity exploration

Today’s emerging adults have grown up with the ability to scratch the itch of a passing interest by simply speaking into the phone attached to their hands. This readily available access to information and increased globalization has given young people, who are developmentally hardwired to explore the world and their place in it, the unprecedented opportunity to broadly investigate many aspects of work, fashion, music, and education.

Young people can utilize the Periscope app to live stream the World Cup, YouTube their favorite K-Pop group in South Korea, take classes remotely, and play video games with opponents around the world. They can make and sustain friendships through social media or find a meet up for nearly anything with a simple internet search. Dating apps provide an endless and varied directory of potential love interests. It is a rich time to find one’s self.


The ability of a high school graduate to find a job that pays enough to live even modestly on their own has become nearly impossible in today’s current economic state. Most parents and young adults have come to expect that financial support in the way of rent, groceries, and transportation will be required for a young adult to move toward independence successfully. Emerging adults are likely to move out but also return to their parents’ homes at least once. Entering and leaving college, changing roommates and romantic partners, traveling, and shifts in employment necessitate the growth of adaptability for today’s emerging adult.


One hundred years ago, young people moved from their family of origin to the family of their making relatively quickly. Now, with prolonged time in educational pursuits and less cultural pressure to settle down and procreate, emerging adults are provided more time to explore which decisions they want to make for themselves. Obligations to parents, a spouse, or children may be minimal to non-existent.

Feeling in-between

It is not unusual for many 20-somethings to feel less than fully adult until closer to age 30. College graduates may work full-time doing very interesting, responsibility-laden things. They may live in their own places but remain fully aware they still can’t fully afford rent and have never had long-term relationships. Emerging adults find themselves living in the space between adolescent reliance and adult, long-term commitments.

Sense of broad possibilities for the future

In a national survey from Clark University of 18- to 29-year-olds, nearly all agreed with the following statement: “I am confident that one day I will get to where I want to be in life.” Parenting in the past few generations has trended towards bolstering the self-esteem of children, yielding a crop of self-assured young people.

In addition, kids’ access to content in the world is broad but not unfiltered. Nearly everything has a polish to it, creating an image that may not always match reality. There is always the possibility that the emerging adult’s optimism is na├»ve, misguided, or over-inflated, though youthful optimism is nothing new. To quote the famous artist Henri Matisse, “I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.”

As a parent of a high-school or emerging adult, here are some things to keep in mind:

Accept that the world for young adults is likely very different than it was even a generation ago and adjust expectations accordingly.

An article from The New York Times reinforces these new cultural expectations:

“Today young people don’t expect to marry until their late 20s, don’t expect to start a family until their 30s, don’t expect to be on track for a rewarding career until much later than their parents were. So they make decisions about their futures that reflect this wider time horizon. Many of them would not be ready to take on the trappings of adulthood any earlier even if the opportunity arose; they haven’t braced themselves for it.”

Expectations drive perspective and feelings. So, for peace of mind, expect and work on accepting shifts in jobs, perspectives, trends, interests, people. Expect there to be painful lessons and meaningful ones. Expect children to explore the things that bring them joy, unencumbered by the responsibilities that parents may have had at their age.

That being said

Identify and communicate the expectations you have for your emerging adult.

Generally speaking, American parents give an average of 10 percent of their income to their 18- to 21-year-old children, and it is not unusual for ongoing emotional and financial support to continue for many years beyond that.

For many households, this can be taxing financially and has the potential to breed resentment if the parents’ unconscious hope that certain goals are reached within a certain time frame aren’t explored, tested, and mindfully corrected.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are all the ways my child can reasonably contribute to their own care and movement toward autonomy?
  • What sort of support am I willing to offer my child for a period of time?
  • What is the marker at which point you intend to withdraw or reduce your contribution? (i.e., graduation, when sibling leaves home)
  • What are the indicators that, on a large scale, my child is moving in the right direction?
  • What would be indicators that things aren’t headed in the right direction and may require me to re-evaluate the nature and degree of my support?

After taking time to truly explore the answers to these questions with one’s partner and maybe, to some degree, in collaboration with one’s child, it is helpful to communicate this with the emerging adult. When expectations and limits are clear, parents are better safeguarded against guilt, resentment, passive aggressiveness, entitlement and feelings of being taken for granted that can be left in the wake of misunderstandings.

Don’t rescue your child from negative feelings or experiences.

To love a child is to want to protect them, advocate for them, provide for them, and indulge them. That said, it is no surprise that doing so in excess fosters entitlement, a weak ego, and over-reliance on others. In addition, the faster, bigger, more accessible world offers countless avenues to avoid and distract us from obligations and painful feelings.

In contrast, the cultivation of resilience (the ability to spring back in the face of adversity), grit, gratitude, and social interest are the ingredients of a successful and fulfilling life.

Failure is a great teacher, not something to be avoided. Facing down challenges and persevering develops distress tolerance. Practicing delayed gratification strengthens impulse control. Things mean more to us when we have earned them. We are better able to learn and are trusted more by others when we are vulnerable enough to admit we were wrong and are accountable for our behaviors. All of this is uncomfortable, even painful, but profoundly valuable.

When a child is hurting, acknowledge it and validate it. Connect to your love for them and express it to them—for who they are, not what they did or didn’t do. Do not rush in with advice or solutions. Instead, explore if the child can identify what may be helpful or what to do next on his or her own. They’ll never know unless given a chance to try.

Remember, you matter too. Actually, you matter the most.

For some, worshipping our children has become a new religion. Parenting involves an investment (at times too much) of hopes, dreams, energy, time, and effort. Children young and old can be crushed under the weight of becoming successful for the sake of their parents’ well-being.

A parents’ anxiety or incomplete sense of self is too much to put on the shoulders of children. Although there is a great deal of opportunity and richness in this age of emerging adulthood, it can also be overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, and intimidating all on its own. Parents must commit to their own well-being, for their own sake. And, if that’s simply not enough, role modeling a commitment to health and wellness shows young adults what it means to truly become successful, far more effective than hand-wringing and advice-giving.

Elizabeth Devine, M.Ed., LPC- Supervisor, is the Executive Director of Innovation360 Austin, a mental health organization that offers support to parents and emerging adults.