When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?

When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?

Loving and understanding your emerging adult.

Oakland writer Elizabeth Fishel and psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett blended their two perspectives—his as an academic, hers as a journalist and mother of two 20-something sons—to create When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?, a guidebook for parents that’s been called a “Dr. Spock for parents with children in all stages of emerging adulthood.” Based on 90 personal interviews and polls of 2,000 parents nationwide, the book advises parents on how to stay connected while stepping back during their children’s 20s.

It covers a range of issues, from grown-up kids finding love to starting a career, and boomeranging home to becoming financially independent. It also explores the parallel concerns for parents as they figure out their own post-parenting lives. The book builds on Arnett’s research with 18- to 29-year-olds that defined a new life stage between adolescence and adulthood that he calls “emerging adulthood.” For most young people it’s a time of exceptional freedom, flux, and uncertainty. For parents, it may be a time of high anxiety. Here, excerpts from the introduction and an early chapter:

When my sons, Nate and Will, left for college on the other side of the country, I thought my child-raising days were over. No more family dinners, carpools, or weekends spent cheering at soccer games. But with their first phone calls home (“Should I take Economics 1 or Modern Poetry?” “How do you make lasagna?” “Do I have to separate lights and darks?”) and the hundreds of email exchanges that followed, I realized that I was not quite out of business yet.

This new stage of parenting was not as daily or hands-on as before (and often virtual), but the boys and I still had a vital relationship. During the college years and beyond, they would disappear for a while, then check in. They would want help making this decision or that. They would come home for vacations or after they graduated. They would have money woes, or need financial advice (or, more likely, a bailout). They would fall in love (fewer calls), then out of love (more moral support). They would look for jobs, not find them, then find them, and leave them. They would travel to the other side of the world but Skype to stay connected. And then they would come home again, if only for a while, to retrench before embarking on the next phase of their lives.

Although we were relieved that our sons remained part of the family even as they launched themselves into the world, my husband and I were often confused about how to be good parents at this stage. Their uncertainty about their life paths in turn stirred up our uncertainty about them. We often huddled behind closed doors and wondered, “Are they all right? Will they land on their feet? Is there something we should be doing to help them along?”

At dinner parties we compared notes with friends who had kids the same age. Most were similarly bewildered by their 20-somethings. Some were seriously concerned. One friend’s daughter had opted out of college; without a circle of peers around, she was lonely and depressed. Another’s son had changed his college major so many times that his parents wondered if he would ever graduate. Still another mother bemoaned her daughter’s unemployed, live-in boyfriend and her son’s choice to be a “manny” while writing his Great American Novel. “I could choose such perfect partners for them and such wonderful careers, if they’d just ask,” she said with a sigh, only half joking. As if.

We also heard the anguish from parents in our circle who were desperate to know how to cope with grown children’s lives gone haywire: drug addiction, suicide attempts, bipolar illness with frightening outbursts of mania. The 20s are the years when certain mental health issues first become apparent, and the parents grappling with those problems were the most shaken and the most in need of support.

As we fretted about our kids, there was one more topic that newly empty-nested parents discussed with equal passion: our own lives and how they, too, were suddenly full of uncertainty and flux. Raising kids had provided pleasure and meaning and structure for 18 years or more, and now everything was up for grabs. Our marriages and friendships. Our finances and work lives. Our newly quiet households. What we did for fun. “I feel as if I’ve been at the center of the best party for 25 years,” one friend said after the last of her three sons left home. “And now it’s over.” It seemed ironic that we parents were asking ourselves the very same question our kids were asking themselves: “What do we do with the rest of our lives?”

* * * * * * * * * *

There is a lot of good news to tell about the years from 18 to 29 and how they help set the foundation for a happy and successful adult life. Just as the months of crawling prepare babies for a firmer footing when they finally get up and walk, so do the exploring, unstable, fall-down-and-get-back-up emerging adulthood years prepare a young person for the tasks of adulthood.

Perhaps most importantly, the extended years of emerging adulthood enhance the likelihood that young people will make good choices in love and work. The 28-year-old is a lot better prepared to choose a marriage partner than the 18- or 22-year-old is, having had far more years of experience with relationships and having gained far more cognitive and emotional maturity. The 28-year-old can also make a wiser decision about a career path, having established a much clearer identity, that is, a much better sense of his or her abilities, goals, and opportunities.

Another reason for parents to celebrate this new life stage is that it gives their children a window of opportunity to have experiences they could not have had at younger ages and will not have the chance for once they’ve taken on enduring adult responsibilities—take a shot at that musical career, volunteer for a service project in a developing country, or just hang out and have fun for a year waiting tables or working for a dog-walking service. At first glance, parents may not see these episodes of adventure as cause for celebration. They may think to themselves, and may say to their grown-up kids: “You could be going to grad school, or doing an internship, or starting to make progress in a career, or . . . something!” As parents ourselves, we sympathize with these concerns, but we advise parents to take the long view. If today’s 20-somethings are likely to live to be at least 80 or 90 years old, why rush into adulthood at 18, 22, or even 25? Making the most of the freedom of emerging adulthood while it lasts will make for fewer middle-age regrets.

The long transition of emerging adulthood allows parents to enjoy the fruits of all those strenuous child-raising years from infancy through adolescence. Before long your grown-up kids will fall in love; they’ll find a partner who will become that person they rely on for support and nurturance every day, instead of you. It happens to almost everyone. So, if you’re still seeing a lot of your children in their 20s, enjoy this special closeness one last time, and try to create a foundation of love and mutual trust that will endure in the decades to come.

Adapted and excerpted from When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Copyright 2013 by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Elizabeth Fishel.

Elizabeth Fishel, an Oakland journalist who specializes in family issues for magazines, including Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and O, is the author of five books, including Sisters and Reunion. She leads the Wednesday Writers’ groups in her home and teaches magazine writing at U.C. Berkeley Extension. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at Clark University, lives in Worcester, Mass.

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