Parents often have challenges with their children making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. This generally happens around the ages of 18-20. In some families this stage can start as early as 16 years. Our callers describe difficulties setting boundaries, getting young people involved in family life (or getting them out!), arguments and relationship difficulties, and differences in values and beliefs.
People often say to us that their adolescents have a “bad attitude” or are “unmotivated”. Surprisingly, the opposite is true: young people are very motivated at this stage of their lives. Problems arise when they are not motivated by the things that parents consider important. Adolescents tend to be interested in:
Choosing how they spend their time
Hanging out with friends without the restrictions of school days and ‘curfews’
Having money to spend on activities they enjoy
Exploring things that make them feel ‘grown up’.
It can help parents to understand how young people in this stage may be managing changes in a number of areas.
Moving into adulthood is about defining what makes a someone an adult, compared to what makes them a child or adolescent. Parents often say things like “young people these days are so different”, and “we never had the internet or mobile phones – we just got on with things”. It is true that the means young people have to establish their identity are different from generation to generation, but the developmental task is the same.
Young people need to separate out what parts of their personality and lifestyle are part of ‘them’, and what belongs to their parents, family and upbringing. Sometimes the closer a young person has been to their parents, the harder they need to ‘push’ to develop their own identity. To parents this can look like rebellion, rudeness and poor decision making.
This can happen in career and study choices, personal appearance, recreational activities, religion and cultural values, and of course in relationships.
In Western culture a large part of our identity is our occupation, or what we ‘do’. The move from being a high school student to a university study, an apprenticeship, working or unemployment can have big implications. Young people can feel as though they will be permanently stuck with any choices they make at this time. Adolescents may be anxious or reluctant to make commitments, or have difficulty choosing their direction.
Young people can respond in a range of ways, ranging from disinterest (e.g. I just want to hang out with my friends) to disillusionment (e.g. I didn’t get the HSC results I wanted, so why even bother?) or uncertainty (e.g. I want to study but I’m not sure what I’m interested in).
On the other hand, some young people can be very focussed, even too much. Sometimes parents call us wanting to know how they can encourage a young person to be less serious, to have more fun “while they can”. Parents can be perplexed by having two children on different ends of the scale.
Having an income for the first time and coming of age (in a legal sense) can also mean that young people explore new activities and interests that they may not have had access to before. Conflict often arises in families over value differences around activities like drinking alcohol, going out at night, sexual relationships, and contributions to the household.
Many parents feel quite prepared for the visible, material aspects of their children becoming independent, like driving or buying a car, and earning money by working. It’s generally accepted that parents will support their children in these areas by helping them learn to drive, teaching them about job hunting, making agreements about contributing to household costs, etc.
Sometimes the smaller details of these transitions can be difficult for parents to manage. For example, a parent can be quite proud of their son or daughter earning their own money, but then feel frustrated when they prioritise going out with friends over paying the bills.
For families where young people continue living at home, it is a challenge to find a balance between supporting independence and encouraging responsibility.
Young people’s relationships with all the people in their lives can change during this stage of development. Their friendships may change or end, and new ones will form as they move in different circles outside of school and home. Adolescents are likely to explore or intensify intimate relationships as they move away from their parents.
How parents negotiate these changes will determine the quality of the parent-child relationship and how much influence they have as young people develop into adulthood.
As the parent you may never have a completely equal relationship with your child: they may still need you to be ‘bigger’ and wiser at times. However the way you care for them needs to change as they develop into young adults.
Some tips for parents and carers:
Think about your own adolescence. What were the things that you couldn’t wait to do away from your parents’ supervision? In what ways did you establish your own identity and separate from your family? Your son or daughter is trying to achieve the same things, just perhaps in different ways.
Take a ‘learning’ approach to your adolescent’s behaviour and your own. Consider what your response to an issue is really teaching your son or daughter (not just what you say). For example, if you insist that they wash their own clothes, but then clean out their room when it gets too much for you, your adolescent learns that they don’t really have to do anything because you’ll cave in eventually.
If something isn’t working, try something else! It’s easy to fall into the trap of responding in exactly the same way each time and hoping for different results. When you try a different approach, observe what happens and learn from the results.
Remember that if your son or daughter is making decisions independently, you’ve actually done your job as a parent! While they probably have lots to learn, and may make mistakes, you have given them the confidence to make their own choices.
It can be very difficult for parents to let go and let young people learn their own lessons . It’s easy to keep thinking about how much you’ve invested in your children over time, supporting their studies, setting them up for a good future, and to feel like that will be wasted if you don’t keep looking after them. However one of the best ways for young people to learn is through direct experience of the consequences of their decisions.
Support young people to make connections between the choices they are making on a daily basis and the things they want in the future.
Provide enough information to adolescents to allow them to make informed decisions about important issues. You won’t be able to control what decisions they make, but you can ask thoughtful questions, share what you know and encourage them to think things through.
You can also call and speak to one of our counsellors about how to put these ideas into practice with your son or daughter, or any other parenting issue. Call 1300 1300 52 and talk to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.