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Life After Leaving the Nest

How parents and social supports aid adjustment in emerging adulthood.

Courtesy of Baim Hanif on Unsplash
Source: Courtesy of Baim Hanif on Unsplash

Social support from genuine friendships is invaluable at any age, yet it can be more powerful when young adults first leave home. This period of leaving home is referred to as “emerging adulthood” and includes ages 18-25. But unlike a cake that gets transformed from lumpy, thick liquid into a moist and fluffy dessert in a designated time—reaching a magical milestone in human years does not guarantee that an emerging adult has attained the skills to build social supports (and other life essentials).

Part of the challenge emerging adults face when leaving home is that they are making decisions about their life for the first time after living with parents who set the rules and provided structure.

The other part of the challenge is that parents and emerging adults must forge a new relationship with each other.

Ideally, parents take on the role of a supportive guidance counselor instead of an active coach who calls the shots. Supportive guidance counselor parents are present on the sidelines while providing presence, structure, consistency, positive regard, validation, support, and low conflict.

Low conflict cannot be emphasized enough, as researchers (Wilson et al., 2023) found that less-stressed parental-emerging adult relationships led young adults to adapt better by having a decreased tendency to internalize and externalize problems.

Internalizing is basically avoiding the shameful reactions that lead to negative self-blame (“It’s all my fault.” “If only I was XYZ, everything would be okay.” “I’m a loser and not worthy of ABC.”)

While externalizing tends to cast blame on everything in the environment or onto others. (“I would be okay if my professor or boss didn’t have it out for me.” “The way they do things here is intolerable.”)

And then there’s a combination of both externalizing and internalizing. (“Everyone else has it better than me because they fit in to the rigged system and I don’t, so I might as well quit.”)

What I found particularly interesting in Wilson et al.’s (2023) research was the different findings between fathers and mothers on sons and daughters. Healthy father relationships resulted in decreased externalization among sons while healthy mother-child relationships led to decreased internalization in daughters and decreased externalization in both sons and daughters.

Also, woven in Wilson et al.’s (2023) research was the measurement of empathy, where they explain cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize another person’s feelings, known as perspective taking. While affective empathy is the ability to respond to the person after gaining an understanding of what they are feeling. And empathic concern allows a person to walk in someone else’s shoes and gain a richer and deeper understanding of other people’s actual and potential experiences.

Not surprisingly, healthier parenting can lead to increased empathy and prosocial behaviors, which in turn can lead to developing more positive friendships and social supports—which aid in adjustment, improved mental health, and overall well-being.

So what happens if your relationship with your family or caregivers has been wrought with strife? Maybe you did not even have a mother or a father and reading research like this feels depressing. And possibly unfair.

Are you doomed? Absolutely not.

Some of the most empathetic and resilient people I have known came from difficult and even traumatic circumstances. They found counselors, teachers, coaches, friends, and other role models who taught them compassion, wisdom, patience, empathy, love, and strength.

What research like this provides is a guiding light for being our best and most compassionate selves. It is also a call to everyone that you can be that role model in someone else’s life.

If you are a parent of an emerging adult who is having some struggles, a family systems therapist can be a great resource as it is never too late to repair and learn new relationship skills. As Salvador Minuchin said, “Only the family, society's smallest unit, can change and yet maintain enough continuity to rear children who will not be ‘strangers in a strange land,’ who will be rooted firmly enough to grow and adapt.”


Wilson, K. J., Nguyen, T. H., & McKinney, C. (2023). Parent-child relationship quality and emerging adult internalizing and externalizing problems: Empathy as a pathway. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues.

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