The Proper Care and Feeding of Emerging Adults

Photo by James Fitzgerald. 

We are bug lovers at my house, and this was the first year my six-year-old son was able to patiently watch the entire emergence of our butterfly from her chrysalis. In past years the process was just a little too long to keep his attention. Similarly, this article was just a little too long to keep most readers’ attention so we broke it in half (not recommended for chrysalises).

The first section provided basic information about the traits and needs of the newly-identified species “emerging adult.” Emerging adults are between the approximate ages of 18 and 29 and are considered by developmental psychologists to be in a unique life-stage that is neither adolescence nor adulthood. We explored some of the ways parents and mentors can support their emerging adults as they transition into adulthood. One of the major areas of focus was on the need for parents to be patient as their emerging adults stretch their wings and get ready to fly.

In this second part, we will look at what’s ahead for the flight-ready and how parents can provide an adequate launching environment. Watching the emerging creature struggle to make sense of his or her new adult “self” is difficult, but perhaps even more difficult for parents is wondering how and when to help their adult child really take off. The following questions, strategies and tips will explore this part of the process.

QUESTION #2: How will we know that she’s ready to fly?

The emerging adult’s need to be both autonomous and dependent can strain family relationships, but it is a normal part of the transition to adulthood. Emerging adults recognize two elements as the most necessary to claim adult status:1

  1. Accepting responsibility for yourself

  2. Becoming financially independent

Unfortunately, financial independence often proves difficult for emerging adults to achieve. Forty-five percent of emerging adults receive either occasional or regular financial support from their parents. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed in the most comprehensive study of this age group reported they would rather live independently of their parents, even if it means living on a tight budget.

While becoming financially independent is clearly an important marker of adult status, research also shows that some financial support from parents improves emerging adults’ chances of success in the transition to adult roles. 2 Living at home or receiving financial support from parents can allow children to pursue education and training required for jobs in today’s market, increasing their chances for long-term financial stability.

Finding the balance between adequate support and over-support becomes a delicate dance for parents. A recent study in the Journal of Family Relations found that when parents exceed the developmental needs of their child, the result is lower quality parent-child communication and a greater sense of entitlement in young adult children. 3 In other words, helping too much can actually backfire in ways that damage both your relationship and their ability to launch.

Strategy #2: Acknowledge Emerging Adult Status

Formally acknowledging your child's adult status despite financial dependence on you can be an empowering exercise. A 2000 study called this formal recognition “the blessing." 4 Bestowed upon the emerging adult soon after his or her transition out of adolescence, it marks the parent’s acknowledgement that the child has progressed to a more equal position with the parent. The blessing can recognize any number of aspects of adulthood, but in this particular study the following three were most prevalent:

  • Recognition of the child’s decision-making ability,

  • demonstration of respect for the child, and

  • recognition that the child had transitioned through a rite of passage (moving out, going to college, etc.).

This can be challenging when the emerging adult is still living at home and may be fully financially dependent. The blessing can be something that is given through a ritual, a conversation, or a series of discussions and actions over time. In an open discussion, parents can formally acknowledge decision-making ability and successful transitions the child has made, and then explore ways that the emerging adult can exist in the household in a more responsible and equal position with the parent. This might mean the emerging adult is in charge of certain home repair or meal preparation, perhaps a portion of living expenses, and their own personal luxuries (like a cell phone and its monthly bill).

Tips for staying connected:

  1. Consider bestowing a blessing on your child. You can write a letter, host a special dinner, or plan a road trip. Be sure to build some formality or sacredness around the event.

  2. Treat your child in a way that acknowledges the transition in your relationship. This might mean that you try to refrain from giving advice unless it is requested, or that you share aspects of your own vulnerability. Let your emerging adult know you as an individual, not just as a parent.

QUESTION #3: Should I Follow To Make Sure He’s Okay?

College professors and administrators are reporting increases in the prevalence of parental interference in student academic performance. 5 Parents are calling professors to complain about grading, accompanying their emerging adults to graduate school orientations and even writing cover-letters for their hopeful adult children. These examples of over-parenting that exceed actual needs of the emerging adult hinder identity development and ultimately hinder launching.

In her book A Nation of Wimps, psychologist Hara Estroff Marano examines the effects of parental interference. She states, “Intrusive parenting undermines children in the most fundamental ways. It spawns anxious attachment to the children, setting them up for lifelong fragility.” 6 Marano highlights the importance of letting emerging adults struggle some to find their own way. The path may pose more challenges to the emerging adult without parental over-involvement, but the emerging adult learns a great deal about his or her self-efficacy.

According to researcher Chris Segrin, “One of the apparent consequences of parents attempting to solve all of their children’s problems and to assume responsibility for their child’s well-being well into adulthood is that the child never develops a strong belief in his or her own ability to solve problems and achieve goals. This low self-efficacy is understandable in that the child would have little experiential basis for such beliefs." 7 In other words, adult children who have never been allowed to really fail and then learn from those failures aren’t able to handle the inevitable blunders of adulthood.

Strategy #3: Be Flexible

Riding the winds of emerging adulthood with your child (and staying connected) over the gusts of autonomy and dependence will require you to be very flexible. As we released our butterfly into the wild, I had to continually remind my son that he should not try to catch her. I assured him that she would come back to visit, and that since we have a butterfly-friendly garden we would likely see her again.

Likewise, parents can best serve their college-bound or workforce-entering emerging adults by being a stable secure base, while also giving their children plenty of room to find their own way. Remaining flexible as the balance of your child’s needs gradually move more toward autonomy will allow your relationship to develop both closeness and independence, the gold standard in family cohesion. Your calm non-anxious presence at home, and confidence in your child’s ability to navigate his college or workforce experience, will offer him the best chance at success and encourage continued connection with you.

Tips for staying connected:

  1. Sit down with your emerging adult and discuss the changes that have taken place. Reassess what you are both hoping for in your relationship in the years to come. In what ways does your adult child still need support? In what ways does he or she want to try things out independently? Where would you like to see more independence or decision-making developed?

  2. Talk about the inevitable times when you or your child will feel that the relationship is out of balance. How will you address the situation? What are some positive and proactive ways to connect with one another and make adjustments?

Keeping Your Sanity in the Midst of Transition

Unlike emerging adults, caterpillars come with a how-to manual for successful launching into butterflies. As your emerging adult wriggles out of the chrysalis of adolescence and prepares to take flight, use these final ideas to help you stay grounded:

  1. Get Another Opinion: Talk with a close friend or trusted mentor who is also a parent. Ask them what they see in your relationship with your young adult. Are there areas for growth?

  2. Talk About the Elephant in the Room: Talk with your emerging adult about your desire to stay connected while also providing structure and space for their growth into full adulthood. Explore together what areas feel balanced and what areas might need readjusting. Revisit this conversation every six months or so.

  3. Work on Yourself: This is a great time for you to take a step towards your own growth and explore parts of your life you may be missing. Why not take that dance class you’ve been putting off, try your hand at a new hobby, or even treat yourself to a season of therapy? If you are married, this season also allows all kinds of opportunities for new growth in your relationship with your spouse. Your well-being is the best gift you can give your emerging adult.

Action Points

  • Among each of the sets of tips above, which seem the most natural for you? Which feel least comfortable? Start with what feels doable as a first step toward negotiating the changes in your relationship with your emerging adult child.

  • For the harder steps, talk with a friend about why these seem hard for you, and ask for input or ideas.

  • If you feel like you’ve already been stumbling through some of these areas with your emerging adult, have an honest conversation with him or her and acknowledge some of what’s not been helpful in those patterns. Work to renegotiate a way of relating that helps both of you move forward in healthy ways.

Further resources:



1. Arnett, The Clark Poll, 7

2. William S. Aquilino,  “Family relationships and support systems in emerging adulthood,” in J. Arnett & J. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in america: Coming of age in the 21st century (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2005), 193-217.

3. Chris Segrin, et al., “The Association Between Overparenting, Parent-Child Communication, and Entitlement and Adaptive Traits in Adult Children,” Family Relations 61, (April 2012): 237-252.

4. Christopher A. Bjornsen, “The blessing as a rite of passage in adolescence,” ADOLESCENCE, 35 no.138 (Summer, 2000): 357-363.

5. Hara Estroff Marano, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (New York: Random House, 2008)

6. Hara Estroff Marano, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, 31.

7. Chris Segrin, Family Relations, 238.