Supporting Older Adolescents in Hard Economic Times

Adolescent independence can take longer to establish than in their parents' day

Posted Dec 09, 2012

The reader asked: “What about parenting older adolescents in the current economic climate, often requiring an extended dependence on parental support in various ways?”

This is a serious question, and the answer is probably better given by a sociologist than a psychologist, but here are a few thoughts from my family counseling perspective.

To begin with this conclusion: I believe it is probably realistic for parents today to expect a longer financial dependence of their older adolescent than was the case for them with their parents growing up. There seem to be both psychological factors and economic factors in play.

Psychologically, our society has become more culturally focused on the process and influence and responsibility of parenting. For example, witness the plethora of parenting articles, books, and self-proclaimed “experts” to which (for good and ill) previous generations of parents never had access. The topic of parenting is now part of the public discourse.

In consequence, parents have been made more self-conscious about their role and so become more invested in the process as many of them feel encouraged, and even obliged, to continue that investment into the older adolescent years. Perhaps they enjoy parenting and don’t want to quit or don’t know when to quit or believe a period of older adolescent struggle is no time to quit or that a good parent never quits or they have an older son or daughter who doesn’t want them to quit.

Just as parenthood doesn’t come with a set of directions for how to get started, there is no fixed schedule for financial letting go. Thus many parents continue their parenting by offering extended help, often of the financial kind, until a firm hold on young adult independence is finally gained.

Economically, at the moment, we have a harsher economic climate where jobs are harder to find, and most of those of a lower paying kind, while the cost of higher education is rising. Along with that rise is the size of student loans that must be paid after graduation. The New York Times (10/18/12) reported the average 2011 undergraduate debt was about $26,000.

In most cases, new college graduates are hard put to find a job related to their course of study and must settle for unrelated entry level employment they are fortunate to secure. Of course, if a student flunks out of college or leaves for other reasons, the existing loan amount must still be paid. And on average, only about fifty per cent of entering freshman manage to graduate from college (Journal of College Retention.)

If you’re helping to send your daughter or son to college, you might want to check college retention rates to help calculate the educational and financial risk you are taking, as well as estimating the loan obligation, and monthly payback, you and/or your child will be piling up. You don’t want your son or daughter to graduate into unmanageable debt, borrowing more than the young person can afford to repay while working a startup job. You both might also want to consider this question: “Could the same amount time (4-5 years) and money (thousands of dollars) be invested differently in the young person’s life to more beneficial long term effect?” It's a complicated question because there's no guarantee that the life time and financial investment made, whether in higher education or in some alternative educational experience, is going to be justified by a later return.

Further, if parents want to save on the cost of getting a four-year college degree and improve the chances of retention and graduation once enrolled there, here is a strategy they might want to consider. Before financing and sending a young person off in pursuit of a four year degree, have him or her attend a nearby or local community college. The tuition is less expensive and the program usually offers smaller classes to begin with. Successfully completing two years there not only demonstrates the self-discipline and academic readiness to go further, but those credits that transfer into a four-year program may reduce the duration and and cost of that course of study,

High school to job or high school to college, it can be a costly trade-off either way. Over the long haul, college graduates do tend to have higher earning power than high school graduates; but high school graduates who immediately enter the work force don’t have to worry each month about coming up with enough money to pay off their installment of college debt.

Disregarding these economic realities, to what age should young people be expected to live dependently at home before leaving and beginning their actual independence? There is so much cultural variation. In the United States, we seem to have a common parental expectation that after high school graduation age, young people should be ready to move off more on their own. But that’s just our culture. One reporter from Santiago, Chile told me that, in general, young people don’t leave home there until around the age of twenty-five. Another reporter from the Netherlands told me that when students go to college in Holland, most of them live at home.

The point is: there is no universally fixed schedule for when the departure from home and the undertaking of full financial independence should begin. And parents should be mindful that graduating high school, the young person does not enter young adulthood but begins the last and most difficult stage of adolescence, what I call Trial Independence (ages 18 – 23), trials I described in my last book, “Boomerang Kids.”

In most cases that I have seen in the small sector of this country where I practice, students just graduating from high school are not empowered to immediately assume full financial self-support. If they go directly into a job, they often live at home or if sharing an apartment, some expenses may be partially subsidized by parents.

Going to college, of course, protracts dependence because most students are not completely self-supporting, full-fledged members of the workforce. They are full time students preparing for financial independence four or five years hence. Except, having just graduated from college, a young person can still move back in with parents for a while until a job is secured and money saved to finance later moving out.

The 22-year old wasn’t lying when, in so many words, he said, “I could live independently, but it would be a struggle, the way everything costs so much, you can’t believe. Covering all my expenses, it’s really hard to save from what I earn, and credit cards charge up really fast. I can live better living with my parents, on what they provide, than I can on my own.” By which he included a stocked refrigerator, Internet, cable, and cell phone services, and use of a family car when he needed it. Not to mention, having no roommate problems, even though this cost him having a place to socially entertain. He saw the lifestyle drop that would occur when he was on his own, and preferred enjoying a higher standard of living that came with staying at home. And besides, since most of the earlier adolescent conflicts over freedom were behind them now, he and his parents were getting along pretty well.

In one sense, the young person who claims the inability to “afford” to live independently on the little money they can make may not exactly be speaking the truth which is that they can’t live as comfortably as when living with parents. In fact, electing comfort they may be missing out on learning some pretty powerful survival skills such as doing without, scraping by on less, prioritizing fundamental needs, buying cheap, sticking to a budget, making ends meet, living within one’s modest means, and maybe working more than one job to get from one week to the next to support a fragile independence. So if your son or daughter is up to the hardship, don’t automatically jump in and try to spare them the challenge.

It’s a complicated compromise for parents to make – between giving enough assistance to help promote progress, but not so much that progress is slowed by enabling dependence. You want parental help to foster self-help, not discourage it. This is why the helping contract must be conditional: “Before we help you, we need to see efforts (actions, not words) of self-help from you first; and once we start helping you, we need to see evidence that you are gathering more power of independence as you grow.”

A lot of how parents respond to this extended adolescence and emerging adulthood depends on their philosophy of family and the function they believe it serves as a young person grows through life from adolescence into adulthood. Born into this human system, growing up in it, moving out from it, the older adolescent and adult child still belongs to it, assuming that there is a welcome connection that has not been broken.

Personally, I believe parenting is a lasting commitment -- to be there for your children whatever their age, not only in constant love, but in times of need. Life is an unpredictable journey, what Thomas Wolf called “the groping accident of life,” where happenstance for good and ill plays a huge role in the challenges that arise and must be met. It is a source of security to know that membership in family is life-long.

As for completing adolescence, the schedule for assuming functional independence varies widely. Some young people take it earlier or later than others. And that is okay. The job of parents is to work with their older adolescent so long as he or she is engaging and advancing in the struggle to establish an independent life.

And of course, parents might want to consider that old aphorism, “what goes round comes round.” The supportive function of family can be life-long, even cyclical, when it becomes an inter-generational story often, but not always told: first the old care take their young, then the young care take their old.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)More information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Being Solitary for Good and Ill

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.