The Proper Care and Feeding of Emerging Adults

Parenting Strategies for Launching Kids into Adulthood, Part 1

Photo by Ana Luísa Pinto.

Bugs are a big deal at our house, and this time of year my boys and I love to observe butterflies in each of their life stages. From caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly, we marvel at the magnificence and beauty of the transformation.

As a researcher of emerging adulthood (ages 18 to 29), I can’t help but connect the radical change taking place within the bug-house in my laundry room to the equally-radical change experienced by families as adolescents emerge into adulthood.

“Emerging adulthood” has been recognized as a separate developmental life-stage for more than a decade. The economic shift from manufacturing jobs to careers in information, technology, and human services has prompted a greater number of emerging adults to spend more time and energy on secondary education.[[Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, and Joseph Schwab, The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults (Worcester: Clark University, 2012), 2. The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults is the first comprehensive national survey of the lives of emerging adults. Researchers interviewed 1,029 18-29 year olds about their experiences.]] Many emerging adults have more choices than ever before. They may find themselves continually searching for the absolute “perfect fit” when it comes to career, marriage, or parenthood.[[Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice,” http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html, (July, 2005).]] These elements stretch out the time between adolescence and adulthood, creating an in-between stage that can last from seven to ten years, usually from age 18 to somewhere between ages 25 and 29. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a leading researcher in the field, coined the term emerging adulthood and proposes five features that distinguish it from either adolescence or adulthood: [[Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties. (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2004).]]

  1. It is the age of identity exploration: Emerging adults may frequently try on different identity possibilities as reflected in shifting interests, hobbies, styles, career goals, romantic partners, and even religion.

  2. It is the age of instability: Unbound by parental rules and expectations, but not yet committed to a career, spouse or family of their own, emerging adults often feel as though nothing in their life is stable.

  3. It is the self-focused age: The developmental objective to reach full adulthood (defined by emerging adults as financial independence and self-reliance) results in an inward focus as emerging adults attempt to make sense of who they are and where they fit in the world.

  4. It is the age of feeling in-between: Emerging adults, while “adult” in physicality and often in lifestyle, are not likely to experience the traditional markers of adulthood like marriage, children and a stable career until they are well into their twenties or thirties. They are “adult” in many aspects of their lives, but unable to define themselves as “husband/wife,” “father/mother,” or by a specific career. The most socially recognized relational epithets they hold are “student” or “son/daughter,” keeping them in between adolescence and adult status.

  5. It is the age of possibilities. Most of the defining categories of the emerging adult’s life are undecided, and therefore still rich with possibility. Will he get married or not? Will she stay in the same town or move away? When? Who? Where? Emerging adults face countless possibilities.

So what does this mean for parents and mentors? How can we best support emerging adults and stay connected? Let’s look at three common big questions about emerging adulthood and their implications for parents and mentors who want to stay in healthy relationship with the newly winged.

QUESTION #1: What is happening in there?

Emerging adults are emerging from the physical changes of adolescence, finding themselves in a fully-formed adult body, and often living away from home for the first time. This is a season of major identity development, particularly in the areas of work and love. Arnett asserts that identity exploration in these areas now takes place not in adolescence as in decades past, but during emerging adulthood.[[Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties,” American Psychologist 55, no. 5 (2000): 469-80.]]

So what kind of work are emerging adults looking for? The most recent research shows that a large majority (86%) of emerging adults believe it is important to them to have a career that does some good in the world, and that it is more important to enjoy their job than to make a lot of money (79%). Moving from one job to another, going back to school, or “taking a year off” are some of the ways that emerging adults develop their professional identities.

As emerging adults wrestle with what to do with their lives professionally, they are also stretching their wings romantically. Of today’s emerging adults, nearly 80 percent report being involved in some type of romantic relationship. But what are they looking for? Consistent with their search for work, emerging adults are taking time to find a partner they really want. Between 1980 and 2009, the U.S. median age at first marriage increased from 24.7 to 28.1 among men and from 22.0 to 25.9 among women.[[U.S. Census Bureau 2011, http://www.census.gov]] Eighty-six percent of emerging adults believe that their marriage will “last a lifetime,” and they are taking time to choose the right partner.[[Arnett, The Clark Poll, 15]]

Strategy #1: Be Patient

Our butterfly care-sheet warned us that the young butterfly would emerge with soft, folded wings that would not be ready for flight. We were to wait patiently for two hours while the butterfly stretched and strengthened its wings. The instructions were very specific about one thing: “During this time you must be careful not to touch or jiggle the habitat and you should not try to touch the newly emerged butterflies.”  What!? Don’t touch or jiggle? But it is so hard to just watch! Isn’t there some way to make this whole thing go faster?

Similarly, parents of emerging adults can feel frustrated or impatient with the slow progress of their young adult’s development. It can be tempting to “jiggle the habitat” with unsolicited advice about career directions or love interests. Parents might feel that by urging or encouraging their emerging adult to choose a direction, they are supporting their child.

In fact, just the opposite is true. In a 2007 study, researchers concluded that the more emerging adults felt controlled by their parents, the more difficulties they experienced in establishing committed choices.[[Micael D. Berzonsky, et al., “Parental psychological control and dimensions of identity formation in emerging adulthood,”  Journal of Family Psychology 21, no. 3 (2007): 546-550.]] Even more discouraging, they were less likely to identify with or feel certain about choices that they did make. Many parents feel compelled to increase their use of psychological control when their children explore different life alternatives in a broad fashion, further hindering their child’s ability to make a commitment.

Tips for staying connected:

  1. Refrain from “jiggling the habitat.” Let your emerging adult come to you when he or she is ready for advice or counsel. Allowing time and space for young adults to sort out their choices will serve you both.

  2. Be curious about your emerging adult, but avoid interfering. When they share details about their upcoming choices and commitments, help them to discover their wants and needs, not yours. One way to do this is to ask three types of open-ended questions, nuanced to the particular context:

  • “What elements of that job offer excite you?”
  • “What are your concerns about possibly moving away?”
  • “How do you feel about this transition?”

The objective is to open up space for the young adult to explore their ideas and become more confident in the decisions they are choosing for themselves.

Up to this point we have talked about what an emerging adult is, and where he or she is trying to go, but what can you as a parent or mentor do to facilitate the actual launch into the world of adulthood? In the second part of this article we will explore some of the ways emerging adults seek adult status and how you can support them. We will address how to know when your emerging adult is ready to fly, ways to acknowledge that new status, whether to follow or stay behind, how to be flexible during the launch, and finally how to keep your sanity in the midst of the transition.

Action Points

  • Have you seen some of the “symptoms” of emerging adulthood in your family? How does reading about this life stage and its characteristics help normalize what you’ve experienced?

  • With your own emerging adult, initiate a conversation about the challenges and opportunities they see playing center stage in these years. Then wonder aloud about what kinds of support and what kinds of space they’d find helpful from you as a parent.

  • Share this article with a friend who also has a child in this life stage, or who has lived through it, and get together over coffee to discuss what this looks like in your families. Ask for their honest input in how your parenting might be “jiggling the habitat” or hindering growth.