The new 20s: growing up slowly

Kids are taking a longer road to adulthood.‘Emerging adults’The trend can confuse parents and the child.

What’s wrong with kids today?

This refrain can echo any generation of parents when discussing their beloved offspring. And today is no different than years past. Baffled by their kids’ behavior, parents are struggling to help them the best they can while simultaneously letting go. And knowing when to step in or back off is especially complicated for parents of 18-29 year-olds.

Because according to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., author of “When Will My Grown-up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult,” kids who are 18-29 are “emerging adults” and are part of a new life transition phase.

These emerging adults are taking longer to adjust to the demands of adulthood. They are demanding and expecting a lot from their lives and taking their time to embrace adulthood and independence.

“You’ve heard the phrase, ‘30 is the new 20,’ and what’s happening now is the 20s are a very flux time. They are trying out different jobs, getting an education and finding a life partner. It is a decade of change, flux and chaos,” said Arnett during his talk at Books & Co. at The Greene in Beavercreek on March 23. “It can cause confusion and frustration for both the child and the parent.”

But the idea that emerging adults want and expect more from life is not necessarily a bad thing.

“The baby boomers, we invented the idea that work should be fun,” Arnett said. “Kids in their 20s have grown up with the idea that work should be fun. They want to find something they really enjoy; they’re not just looking for a job which can be confusing for parents especially if they are still financially supporting them.”

Parents in flux, too

With their young adults on the verge of major life decisions, parents, too, are facing their own transitions.

“Parents are asking themselves how much do I parent now? There are a lot of transitions in young adult lives—college, relationships, jobs—with these transitions, parents ask, what is my role here?” said Matthew Heiner, Ph.D., psychologist and coordinator of training, University of Dayton Counseling Center. “Up to the age of 18, the parent’s job was to teach, enforce rules, be in charge of behavior; now the parent shifts from caretaker, guardian and enforcer to a consultant.”

Heiner said to ease the pains of these transitions, parents should gradually remove layers of support (think in terms of scaffolding) throughout the teenage years to introduce them and ready them for the demands of adulthood. Heiner said that by handing over the responsibility of such tasks as making doctor appointments, handling auto repairs and paying bills to their young adults, parents can offer them valuable life experiences before they are completely independent.

“Parents need to resist the temptation to save or impose their will on the child. Parents need to allow their children to fail. Failure is a valuable experience to have, to learn from,” Heiner said. “Parents will not be around forever. It’s a disservice to kids for parents to save them all the time.”

Arnett agrees that shielding kids from any upset is not helpful in the long run. “Parents are trying to gauge how much help they need and what they can do on their own. We want to help them, guide them, give them the benefit of our experience, but they have to step out on their own, have the experience of making life decisions on their own,” Arnett said. “Stepping back can be hard, especially when parents see trouble on the horizon. But you have to let them make their own decisions.”

Open, ongoing discussion

Because the line of parent involvement and parent over-involvement can be a little muddy, Heiner stresses the importance of open communication between parent and young adult.

He said young adults need to express their needs and wants and how they want their parents to be involved, and parents should ask their young adults, “what do you need me to do?”

“It’s not a one-time conversation,” Heiner said.

Even though it is more culturally acceptable for the 20s to be a more exploratory period, parents might have different opinions on the subject, said Heiner. He suggests parents have a structure or plan in place detailing expectations for the young adult like a certain date until he or she can live at home or whether he or she needs to pay rent.

“It’s important that a two-parent family be on the same page with these plans,” Heiner said.

Arnett said although it might be agonizing for a parent to say, ‘By this date, I am no longer financially supporting you,’ parents need to make that call if they feel like their kid is not taking initiative on their own to achieve independence.

“Ask, ‘What do you want your life to look like in five years, and what steps do you need to take to make that happen?’ ” Arnett said. “Parents and kids need to respect each other as adults. It means a lot to them to be treated with respect and taken seriously by parents because they do have attributes of adults. Parents must insist on the same respect from them.”

For parents who are ready for an empty nest, Heiner stresses the importance of maintaining the role of parent, supportive person in the young adult’s life.

For parents who are not ready for an empty nest, Heiner said letting go will be an emotional experience.

“Prepare for a grieving process, because it is a loss, a loss of not being a day-to-day parent anymore,” Heiner said. “Allow the emotions to come. Direct energies in new ways: hobbies, re-establish old relationships and focus on new relationships.”

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