When Will Adolescents Finally Grow Up?

Moving out after high school does not mean one is ready to act adult

Posted Oct 29, 2012

It’s a very common complaint parents make during the last stage of their son or daughter’s adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 – 23), after the latest lapse of judgment, failure of responsibility, or stumble into trouble: “When is our child ever going to finally act grown up?”

The answer is usually more complicated than they know because it encompasses three problems in one – unrealistic readiness expectations, the challenge of taking over from parents, and the task of finishing unfinished business.

Start with UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS. Many parents seem to think that if they can just get their son or daughter graduated from high school and launched from living at home that he or she is ready to act grown up. In fact, the final and hardest stage of adolescence now begins as the young person struggles with the challenge of trying her wings and keeping her footing while living away from family and more on her own, in most cases for the first time.

In reality, most young people are not fully prepared to master this next degree of independence right away because it entails much more knowledge and experience than they possess. In addition, they are surrounded by a cohort of similarly challenged peers who are feeling overstressed by the multiplicity of new demands, slipping and sliding, breaking commitments, and groping for direction like themselves. Factor in that this is a period of maximum alcohol and other drug use, with a much wider variety of psychoactive substances now available, and there is a lot of social distraction and personal disorganization going on. It is simply unrealistic for parents to expect an adolescent of high school graduate age to master independence right away.

Maybe the best parents can hope to provide is about 60% adult readiness, and then they must turn their son or daughter over to the Big R -- Reality – for the hard knocks education required to learn the rest. So don’t treat your older adolescent as a failure for not catching hold right away. Rather, teach her the value of mistake-based education, of confronting the consequences of ill-advised choices, of accepting responsibility, and of learning to recover from the errors of her ways.

Next, consider the older adolescent TAKING OVER FROM PARENTS the direction and oversight that they formerly provided. Of course, this passing of the torch requires that parents be willing to let go their traditional involvement and give the young person a clear field for self-management. They must forsake helping and hovering and holding on. It makes a positive difference at this juncture when difficulties are encountered if parents express faith not doubt, patience not impatience, encouragement not criticism, and confidence not worry. Most last stage adolescents are beset with more than enough doubt, impatience, criticism, and worry of their own.

What the young person now discovers is that what seemed like parental interference while living at home turns out to be parental assistance in disguise, support that the young person must now learn to do without. For example, now there is no one to supervise them but themselves, no one to remind them, to organize their efforts, to determine their priorities, to confront their bad habits, to schedule their day, to take them to task, to moderate their social freedom, and to monitor their progress. Now the young person realizes that irritating though parental limits and demands certainly were, they were also a great help. As parental discipline is withdrawn, self-discipline must take over.

Finally, consider FINISHING UNFINISHED BUSINESS. No one leaves parental care fully formed and free of problems yet to be resolved. Everyone still has some growing up to do. Thus as the older adolescent confronts his independence and takes a hard look at the person it is now his responsibility to manage, what he sees is partly what he wants in the future, partly what he must deal with in the present, and partly a lot of unresolved issues and incomplete growth from the past that he must take care of if he is to finish growing up.

What he notices are ways of functioning that are holding him back. For example, when it comes to communication, maybe he can still be shy about speaking up for himself. When it comes to habits, maybe he still procrastinates to his cost. When it comes to emotion, maybe he still denies hurt feelings until he overreacts. When it comes to caring relationships, maybe he still withdraws when the other person disagrees with him. When it comes to managing money, maybe he still spends more readily than he saves. When it comes to responsibility, maybe he still blames others for his mistakes. When it comes to keeping commitments, maybe he is better at making promises to himself and others than remembering them. When it comes to health, maybe he still stays up too late and shorts himself on sleep. Feeling frustrated and burdened by these and other nagging, lagging issues, he wouldn’t mind some corrective help. However, now he is on his own. Like it or not, he has to finish parenting himself.

When will your older adolescent ever become all grown up? The answer is never entirely, because we are forever a work in process, continually struggling to overcome aspects of our younger selves to become more mature. Growing pains last all our lives.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Parental Friendship with their Adolescent