In our society, we somehow send a rather loud and prominent message to our youth that when they have graduated from high school and have turned the magical age of 18, they have finished maturing and have arrived at adulthood. They are free, and the world is now their oyster because a high school degree apparently means you’ve got a life, the universe, and everything pretty much figured out. Armed with this mentality, many young adults ironically celebrate their arrival at adulthood by engaging in a long and disruptive pattern of behaving quite childishly and irresponsibly, with results that often have long-lasting consequences including crippling debt, crumbling relationships, addiction, and inadequate opportunities.
It is concerning to witness a large and increasing number of emerging young adults shipwrecked on the rocks of unrealistic expectations, inadequate preparation, under-developed skills, and unforeseen truths about the way life actually works. For some perspective, in 2005, 13.1% of adults between the ages of 24-34 still lived with their parents. That number increased to 21.4% in 2016 and is still rising. It is noteworthy that there is a much higher number of young adult men struggling with transitioning to adult roles than there are young women stumbling over the same challenges. There are a number of external factors that drive this trend: the cost of tuition vs. wages, rising housing prices, etc. Other contributors include a school system which unintentionally tends to advance students for social reasons rather than as a result of readiness. Research also finds that isolative video game usage and internet pornography use have a heavy, negative impact on the emotional and psychological development of teens transitioning into adulthood.
When confronting the challenges of transitioning to adulthood and finding that we or someone we love is not as prepared as we might like, we would do well to remember the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forwards.”
Even for teens who are well prepared, the transition into young adulthood can be stressful. In many ways, a large number of the rules change from the way they were before. What was adequate for coping and thriving as a teen is not enough for the demands of young adulthood. While there are volumes written about how to deal with stress and work through the transition, I’d like to share just a few basic tips.
1. Forecast the challenge. Without being a voice of gloom and doom, it can be helpful for those who love emerging young adults to normalize the idea that for most people, the transition into young adulthood is harder than they anticipated. We can share stories and experiences—ideally before they run into their first speed bumps—that help them know they should expect to feel at least a little overwhelmed by what they are going to encounter. We can also teach them that if they persist, and if they are willing to recognize where they need to adapt and learn new things, it gets better.
2. Ally with other adults as resources and mentors. As teens, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of seeing adults as obstacles to things we want or as the people who are in charge of taking care of us and solving our problems. It’s also easy for teens to see adults as people who are hopelessly out of touch with the way the world works. Each of these paradigms needs to shift for healthy adult identities and functionality. Young adults do best when they can pair their enthusiasm for independence with an understanding that there is still much they have to learn before they can achieve sustainable independence as an adult, and that there is a multitude of other adults out there who are willing to teach, mentor, assist, and invest in them in a wide variety of ways.
3. Cultivate realistic expectations. The difference between the person who expected $5 and the person who expected $10 and both received a five-dollar bill is that one of them is satisfied and the other is disappointed, even though they are both equally as wealthy. The one who expected the amount that was received is more likely to feel motivated to continue to work, whereas the person who expected more is more likely to feel discouraged and determine that effort won’t pay off. Setting proper, realistic expectations—and realizing how to discover what realistic expectations are—is vital not only regarding issues like wages and work, but also with what it will take to be physically healthy, to create meaningful social ties, to build a long term relationship, and to use time wisely and well in a way that allows us to have more of what matters to us most.
4. Practice delayed gratification. We live in a world of microwave burritos and high-speed Wi-Fi. Research shows that we are losing the art and virtue of delayed gratification. And yet, the early young adult years are all about making investments of all kinds, including investments in skills, education, and relationships. Each of these takes time and grows slowly, and can easily be harmed by impulsiveness or neglect. The stability of your life is unlikely to be stronger than your personal impulse control and your ability to persist in cultivating the things that will sustain you, even when it’s boring or difficult to do so.
5. Focus on the game changers. If you are seeing things at all realistically, you will recognize that there are a large number of things you need to do and become to fully function as an adult. Rather than trying to tackle them all at once, it can be helpful to say, “Of all of the things I could focus on developing in myself, what are the three to five things that would make the biggest difference?” Maybe it’s learning to control your temper. Maybe it’s a specific habit or mindset you need to change. Perhaps it’s a specific skill you need to develop. By developing a laser-like focus on the big-ticket items that will be the most impactful in your life, you will create the tools that will guide you through the rest of your maturing process; and as you will discover, life is easier, more fulfilling, and more fun when you approach it with the right tools.
6. Keep a learner’s mind. Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to cripple yourself is to close your mind and refuse to learn from people around you. While you need to develop the ability to think critically about the sources that influence you, you also need to accept the fact that you will always have the need to be influenced and taught. Learning from others and being open to changing your mind doesn’t mean you are still being treated like a kid; it means you are finally acting like an adult. After all, humble, thoughtful openness is one of the greatest gems of maturity.
Ryan Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, MedFT currently works as the Executive Director of the Telos Discovery Space Center, pioneering the art of simulated experiences as a therapeutic modality. He also serves as the process addiction specialist for all Telos programs. Additionally, he is the author of the book "Screen Savvy: Creating Balance in a Digital World.