Advice to parents: support your ‘emerging adult’

If only I had read Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties (Oxford University Press, 2006) when my daughter was a freshman, I would have had a better understanding of how and why her college experience and her view of life after college differ so much from mine.

Arnett describes the years from 18 to somewhere around 25 as the period of “emerging adulthood” — a time of identity exploration, instability, self-focus, transition and seemingly unlimited possibilities. No longer do our children expect to finish school, get a job that leads to a career path, marry and start a family in their early 20s. Rather, current American society encourages young people to explore, try out new experiences, dabble in romantic relationships, and to wait before getting married and having kids.

No wonder my daughter and her friends seem unsure of their plans for after graduation. They have no specific plans — and, according to Arnett, they probably don’t even think they should.

Initially, this seeming lack of clear focus baffled and frustrated me. However, in Chapter 6, “The Road Through College,” Arnett explains that college today is a place where students discover what they want to do — a place to experience personal growth rather than vocational training.

I now have a better understanding of the college experience for my daughter and her friends. College represents a safe place, a place for trying out different ideas and different directions for one’s work future while many of the decisions and responsibilities of adult life are temporarily postponed.

Arnett also suggests that emerging adulthood is a time when young people may be simultaneously moving away from and becoming closer to their parents. For our part, we parents need to learn not to ask so many questions and to expect our emerging adults to tell us less; we need to let them lead their own lives with as little interference as possible.

The reward is that we will begin to see each other as individuals and establish new relationships as friends and near-equals.


Judy Maillis is a retired English and theater teacher and a member of the University of Denver Parents Council. Her daughter, Caitlin Holleron, is a senior majoring in international studies with minors in Spanish and anthropology.

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