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Adolescence and Learning to Interact with Adults

Adolescents must learn to communicate with adults to navigate the grown-up world

A common challenge for many last stage adolescents (18-23), in college or in the workplace, is overcoming awkwardness they feel interacting with a world of adults.

Why would this insecurity with adults be so? I believe the answer is because these young people are not feeling fully adult themselves. “I’m not yet one of them” seems to be their thinking about this inequality, “so I can’t act like I am.”

Such “adult un-readiness” can become a problem when it prevents assertively communicating and effectively relating with older adults with whom the business of life must now be transacted. And the discomfort can be made more acute when dealing with adults in positions of social authority like a professor or a boss where the adult is also in a position of superior influence.

Because they haven’t learned to feel adult and act adult with adults, some young people find approaching such authority and speaking up for themselves uncomfortable to do. In consequence, at first some don’t.

For example, rather than dare to ask the professor for an extension, the college sophomore skips class on the due date, planning to apologetically slip the paper in next week, hopefully accompanied with a good excuse. Or the new employee, at age 22, has the production skills for which she was hired, but would rather defer to older staff than state her opinion. She would rather shut up than declare herself at a team meeting with older members who consider her a non-contributor, at least so far. Acting like a shy child or a fugitive adolescent will not serve a young person well in adult society.

For parents, the point is this: encourage your adolescent to practice communicating with adults so those skills are available when the independence of older adolescence and young adulthood arrives. One parent of my acquaintance routinely starts this training with her children when they are in early elementary school teaching them to make eye contact, meet and greet and talk with her friends and acquaintances “because I want my kids to feel confident and comfortable talking with adults. After all, it’s a grown up world out there.” She wants her children to be able to make their social way.

When the separation from childhood and early adolescence begins (around ages 9 – 13), while supporting their son or daughter’s increased preoccupation with peers, parents need to make sure that time spent with same age relationships does not preclude parallel companionship with significant adults. To this end, parents encourage adult connections in which the adolescent can experience equal standing, engage in person to person communication, and bridge the age gap in the name of friendship. It is through forming these associations and adult friendships that the adolescent learns to act more socially adult.

Paraphrasing the explanation of a high school student, “With my classmates I learned to act like a teenager, but with my uncles I got to act man to man.” Just as the company of peers brings out the same age side of the adolescent, the company of adults encourages acting more mature.

So where are these adult friends to be found? Here are a few places to look: employers, tutors, mentors, teachers, coaches, activity directors, youth group leaders, older siblings or cousins, adult members of the extended family, neighbors, and adult family friends. Of course, there is one family situation where this adolescent education in adult socializing seems to come naturally. It is this.

There is a much overlooked gift of being an only child. Having no sisters or brothers with whom to play in the family, she peers with parents from the start, striving to fit in and behave like them. Daily she interacts with these resident adults, identifying with and imitating their older ways. In this process, she is given a head start learning how to comfortably act adult.

A common observation about an only child is how socially and verbally precocious she is, able to interact with adults in adult-like ways, like a little adult herself. Then, from socializing with parental friends, the only child feels additionally comfortable interacting with outside adults, acting on an equal social footing when it comes to having something to say, taken seriously that way, her words respected in response.

Because of placing herself on a near or equal personal standing to parents, she is often not intimidated by adult authority. This has some benefit. So much of adolescence involves dealing effectively with adult authorities who broker many of one’s needs in the world, the teenage only child is often at ease socially approaching, speaking up to, conversing with, and negotiating with adult powers that be. This is a huge social advantage not only because it enables an effective passage through adolescence, but because it also eases the transition into acting adult in a grown up world when the time for social independence arrives.

So what I suggest is this: encourage your adolescents to learn to socialize and talk and spend time with valued adults who are not their parents, forming friendships where they can. The more they do so, the more adult they practice acting, the more at ease dealing with adult associates and authorities they become. It’s that simple. It’s that powerful. And it’s that important.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” Wiley, 2013.)

Next week’s entry: Parents and How Adolescence has Changed Today