The Hazy Line from Teen to Adult

by Melissa Deuter

Have you ever considered that a teenager is a creature designed to leave home? From the outset of adolescence, teens are fearless, restless, and driven to social and sexual exploration. Most parents would agree kids aren’t ready to leave home at thirteen or fifteen—they still have a great deal to learn. Instead of leaving the family at puberty, the standard evolved so that kids started to break away after high school. Eighteen was the line. Over time, parents saw value in extending support even longer and the adulthood line has been getting pushed later. Parents are supporting and supervising kids longer, so kids are taking over financial responsibility well into their twenties and beyond. Today, financial support for adult children can last as long as a decade or more.

When kids progress through early young adulthood without faltering, the new method of moving from childhood to adulthood is perfect. If they attend college, they can live in an in-between world with aspects of childhood (parental help, returning to childhood bedroom on breaks) and aspects of adulthood (living away from home, privacy, running daily lives unsupervised). But when kids cannot get through college as planned, parents often don’t know what to do next.

Who knows where childhood ends and adulthood begins anymore? Parents want adult children living at home to follow rules like children, be grateful and respectful like children, but then to be as responsible as adults. The kids want to be cared-for like children, have the responsibilities of children, but be respected as adults. Everybody ends up disappointed and ultimately having to adjust their expectations. Families today have to make their own rules, there is no blueprint. Since the line between childhood and adulthood is no longer clear-cut, each family must develop a plan, as kids take on adulthood step by step. Parents and kids have to structure a program for support and responsibility so everybody is on the same page.

It surprises me that parents don’t expect more bumps on the path to transitioning a kid into adulthood. It is one of the most complicated times in a person’s life. Think about the long list of tasks a young adult is attempting to master: education, short and long term career, relationships, dating, intimacy (emotional and physical), managing money (paying expenses, saving for the future, and planning for unexpected financial emergencies), cleaning up their own messes, and keeping life organized. Kids might stumble in any of these areas, and it is remarkable that they succeed most of the time. How much time is enough to prepare a child for all he or she will have to do as an adult? Do you have a plan?

Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.

Posted on January 13, 2014 .