By ~ Mathew Meyers, MA, LMFT
Recently I was remembering when my daughter was born. It was the 2nd day of her life. I remember my wife holding our daughter and crying. I asked my wife “Why are you crying?” She responded by looking at this beautiful and helpless little creature saying, “She’s going to leave us!” I, having worked with adolescents for many years, responded very emphatically with, “Yes, in 18 years… and by then we’ll want her to go!”
As parents, we are constantly letting go. Each new milestone is in some way grief and loss. When our daughter went to preschool and other adults became important caregivers and attachment figures, when she went to kindergarten for the first time and then spent more time awake with others than with us. This last year when she entered Middle School, her friends started to become more and more important and seemingly more important to her than her parents. For us as parents these are launching moments. A moment in time in which she steps out into trying out life outside of her family. Each of these developmental and cultural milestones is both to be celebrated and grieved. As parents, as our kids reach that developmental place of launching it is important to understand our own process of grieving. If done well, we allow them the freedom to move on to adulthood. If done poorly it is possible that we hold on and make it difficult for them to launch.
While launching today may look like it has in the past in many ways, there are differences to acknowledge. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” in his book, “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties”. He and many current Sociologists, Psychologists, Therapists, Doctors, High School Teachers, College Professors, Youth Ministers, Employers, and Parents are all picking up on a changing trend in American Culture. It is taking longer for young people to reach maturity and become less dependent on the institutions and relationships around them and become more interdependent. Most people see this period lasting from about 18 years of age though the mid to late 20’s. Some are suggesting that even as late as 30 to 35 years old.
In his book “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood” Christian Smith highlights some of the sociological changes. What’s changed?
- Education – with enrollment rates for post-secondary education being in the neighborhood of 70% and the high cost of education these individuals are often financially dependent not only on their parents but on loans that will often take decades to repay. And the amount of education needed to be competitive in the marketplace has increased as well. Entry level positions in nearly every industry seek at the very least a Bachelor’s degree.
- Expenses – housing, insurance, medical care, food, digital devices, student loans have all increased significantly in the last two generations.
- Marriage – The age of marriage has slowly and steadily increased. In 1970 it was 21 for women and 23 for men. Currently for women it’s about age 26 and for men it’s almost 28 years old. This milestone for many, is a time when people begin to think about those other than themselves. They begin to feel a responsibility to their spouse and also about having a family.
- Children – The average age that adults are having children has steadily increased. From 1970 the age of mother at first birth was 21 years old while in 2006 it was 25. Much of this movement may be attributed to a large minority of women delaying first childbirth to 35 years or older. Delaying having children or even choosing not to have children changes the way individuals interact with their world. One of my colleagues often says, ‘Children grow-up adults faster than adults grow-up children’. Having children shapes your perception about life, relationships, and the world.
Given the complexities of growing up in the modern world, achieving the markers of adulthood (marriage, children, financial independence, career) may just take longer. It also seems that this new emerging adulthood is at least partially an extension of adolescence. Adolescents have several developmental tasks; emotional maturity, autonomy from parents, and vocational decisions. Sound like what emerging adults are dealing with? So, while we may want our daughter to leave at 18, she might not be ready to launch. Instead of seeing launching as an event, it may be more of a process. It may take a number of intentional steps, both on our part and on hers, to help her reach adulthood.
Some of those steps likely include having her pay for any digital devices that she wants to use, paying part of the internet bill, paying for groceries and even paying a portion of rent. Our job as parents and caregivers may be to make their staying with us more and more uncomfortable and to manage our grief and loss as we push them out into the world. We sometimes feel that they are incapable of launching because of the enormous weight of debt or because we, as caregivers, in some way contributed to their inability to launch effectively. This may cause caregivers to overcompensate for their perceived inability and contribute to delaying their launching.
The contemporary philosopher Louis C.K puts the task of raising and launching kids into adulthood much more eloquently and concisely. “I’m not raising children. I’m raising the grown-ups they’re going to be. I have to raise them with the tools to get through a terrible life. That’s the way I look at it.”
Implications for our work with Emerging Adults in the helping fields:
- Advocate for Emerging Adults vocationally/occupationally.
- Help them engage their passions – What issues are important to them, what causes, charitable organizations and how can they be involved in these passions?
- Identify or remind them of their strengths.
- Support Emerging Adults in setting realistic and achievable goals, helping them break down the steps and create action plans (without feeling more ownership of the plan than they do).
- Encourage, support and be a resource to Parents of Emerging Adults helping them put in place a process for helping teens become adults.
- There can be grief and loss for both Parents and Emerging Adult as this life transition takes place. Allow time and space for grieving to take place without placing this on your Emerging Adults making it more difficult for them to do their work of launching.
If an Emerging Adult is struggling to find direction, withdrawing from family or friends, abusing substances, unable to keep a job or stay in school, or spending inordinate hours on the computer, finding a counselor to help them identify the issues that are making it difficult to move forward can be helpful. Parents of Emerging Adults may benefit from Parenting support/coaching as they help their son or daughter navigate this transition to achieve these developmental markers and become adults.
In addition to his clinical work with Traverse, Matt is a husband and father of three future adults.
Other blogs by Mathew Meyers, MA, LMFT