If all goes well, as we reach the end of our teenage years, we are ready to settle down and apply ourselves to the difficult challenges ahead. In a perfect world, we would feel confident about our goals, have started to learn a trade, feel comfortable within a relationship, and have a social safety net to fall back on if we falter.
For most of us, the transition into adulthood is not so ideal. We may be clueless about our career, in deep turmoil about our need for intimacy and we may be unable or unwilling to get material or emotional support from our family. Our difficulties extend beyond just preparation and tasks. Our entire image of our self as actors in the world must undergo a radical change. As teenagers we actively scorned and feared the idea that we would ever grow up and become one of “them.” Now, instead of turning away from adults, we must become one. All the responsibilities that as teens seemed foreign, we must now embrace. Changing our attitude so abruptly, and leaving the freedom of adolescence behind, comes easier and faster to some than to others.
As newcomers to adulthood, we have less than perfect vision, and must base our choices on our own small sliver of experience, pressured by invisible forces inside us about who we think we are supposed to become. Yet despite our incompletely formed ideas, the mistakes and victories we make in young adulthood shape our lives. Marriage and family, the direction we point our career, where we choose to live, all have a major impact on the coming decades.
Identity, the Story of our self
As children, our knowledge of ourselves came from our parents. During our teen years, we expanded our horizons, collecting ideas about our identity from many sources, including our neighbors, religion, teachers, peers, TV and movies. As teens, we had the luxury of being able to change this story of our lives from week to week. As we get closer to the real thing, we must start to follow a particular path, and test our initial dreams and desires against the realities of the world.
If our story contains flaws, such as profound self-doubts, or desires for unrealizable goals, or no goals at all, we find ourselves walking down an unclear road or a road without a destination. Ironing out the details of our story becomes a critical task of young adulthood. If we are blind to our mistakes, blame others for failures, and continue on the same track, we may prolong our frustration and dig ourselves deeper into unproductive holes.
Gradually we outgrow our reluctance to receive input from adults. As we realize that older adults have been through years of experience, we become curious about what they may have learned. While many of us turn to our family as our main source of input, we may also take advantage of other resources, including teachers, fellow workers, or other members of our extended adult community, as well as self help books, tapes and workshops.
When we have the flexibility to admit mistakes, and are open to input we can adjust our actions more quickly and effectively. As we succeed and fail at our efforts, we gradually find out what works and what doesn’t. As our steps take us further along the road to our adult life, we begin to settle in to our own unique approach to actualizing our selves.
Making the transition
It takes preparation to successfully face the world. Yet, many young adults want to get started whether they are ready or not, eager to start a family before they have considered their livelihood, or so anxious to get away from home they give up the supportive safety net of the family. They recklessly step out of their teen role and jump in to adult responsibilities without first testing the waters. If they move forward before they’re ready, they face their life challenges at a disadvantage. On the other hand, some young adults want to hang back and cling to the family and their own childhood dependence. This extended period of helplessness drains them of confidence and hope. Whether they are forced out too soon or hold back too long, they might not be energized and prepared to live life to its full potential.
Launching from the family
When we make the transition from teen to adult, our family must launch us from our childhood shelter out into the world. This launching profoundly affects every member of the family. Our parents are losing a child, and our siblings are losing a peer. Whether they say “good riddance” or “do you really have to leave?” can make a big difference in our experience of becoming an adult.
Some members want to hold us back, fearing that we won’t be able to handle the wild and dangerous world, or they may fear that losing us will take away a valuable support from the family. On the other hand, some members may believe the family unit will be better off without us, and feel eager to get rid of us. These attitudes hasten our move into the world, without providing the support and nurturing this important transition deserves.
During this period, the family may itself be struggling, weak and unhealthy with its own problems and not have much energy to offer. If our parents are divorced, we must seek support from two separate family units, adding to the complexity of the transition. The more emotional support each parent can provide us during this important transition, the more we feel strengthened by the family.
It takes great wisdom for a family to launch a grown child out into the adult world. As parents we must generously nurture our newly emerging young adult while at the same time gracefully letting go. During this transition, we naturally remember the emotions surrounding our own launching. Our hearts echo with feelings of being smothered or insecure if we were held too closely to our family for too long, or perhaps we feel the humiliation or fear of being expelled too quickly and with little compassion. The intensity of these memories of becoming adults may interfere with our ability to gracefully launch our children.
To launch children into adulthood, we need to make peace with our own past. Making peace with those years is difficult. We may feel so traumatized by the turmoil of our teenage years, we either blot them out all together, or think about them as a distant, dreamy blur. Revisiting these years, and introducing wisdom and compassion into the story of our launching is one of the best gifts we can give our kids.
Life transitions, leaving behind our old self
Historically human tribes created powerful rituals to signal the transition from childhood to adulthood. These rituals made it clear to the individual and to the community that this young person should now be treated as an adult. Few of these rituals remain in our complex society. Nowadays, each of us must struggle within ourselves to find our new, adult identity, and when we’re not sure of ourselves, we flounder.
As parents and children struggle to make this transition as gracefully as possible, we can improve our chances by consciously embracing the rituals available to us. For example, religious ceremonies, such as Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, retain some of their original significance. For many, a high school or college graduation ceremony is the most compelling signal. Others feel they’ve entered adulthood when they take the marriage vows or move into their own home. By celebrating rituals to help us mark the crossing from childhood to adulthood, we step away from our individual emotions and circumstances and become actors in the larger human drama, participating in a scene as meaningful as the birth of an adult.
Beliefs form background for life decisions
Beliefs affect everyone, intimately and powerfully impacting the direction of our lives. As we make life-directing decisions such as which partners we seek, which school we attend or which job we accept, beliefs form an important, yet often overlooked foundation. Do we believe each person is in it for himself, or do we believe that we thrive when we serve others? Do we believe that risks are an inevitable price for learning or do we hold back, waiting for a perfectly predictable outcome? Do we share our burden with a higher power, or do we feel isolated in a harsh universe? Have we thought through our long-term mission, or do we just get through each day? These and other beliefs shape the direction towards which we move, and the way we choose to get there.
Many of us expect philosophers and clergy to do our work and take care of the world of beliefs. But if we want to tend to our life direction, we ought to cultivate our own beliefs. Through reading and consulting about our family’s religion, or other religious beliefs, reading self help books, and pondering how beliefs affect our lives, we can empower ourselves.
Many people consider college to be a necessary step on the road to adulthood. In addition to preparation for careers, this additional time in school also plays a role in the rite of passage from the family out into the world. College can shelter us from the “real world” and give us the opportunity to try out adulthood with trainer wheels, taking on additional responsibility without being pushed out too far, too fast. While this stepping stone helps many people enter adulthood gracefully, it may not work for everyone. Moving away from home too suddenly removes familiar supports, while at the same time throwing us into an unfamiliar, unstructured world. We may not be prepared to deal with free running parties, scheduling our own study time, or coping with unfamiliar social pressures.
College is no substitute for a healthy preparation in the home, and young adults in college continue to be profoundly affected by the quality of the family safety net that helps them safely make the transition.
Earning a living
To make a living we need to know what we want to do. Our best guess, based on incomplete, preliminary information, demands years of preparation. And that’s only the beginning. We must look for and land a job, go to work everyday, create a sense of satisfaction in our daily activities and continue to push forward to satisfy our dreams of an unfolding future. Our livelihood becomes the foundation for a core aspect of our lives. While preparing for a career is important, we also owe it to ourselves to spend quality time researching our direction. By taking advantage of career counseling, career oriented reading and workshops, internships and part-time jobs, we can improve our understanding of how our dreams fit in to the real world.
Building our own family
We have left the cocoon of our parent’s home, and we now want to create a new one of our own, to provide ourselves with a base of emotional support in our adult life. The success of our new home profoundly affects the quality of our lives, yet, we do not have the life experience to see down the road and understand where our decisions are taking us. Our relationships, formerly seen as a source of fun and romance, now become the starting point for family and home. This transition from romance to home-making comes in fits and starts and may lead to awkward, and even impulsive decisions. For example, if we have children early, before we can provide emotional or financial support, we struggle until we can get our feet on the ground. If we are unable to form a safe relationship, or lose the ones we start, our dream of a nurturing family unit doesn’t materialize. If we move to a remote location, we at first know little about the new area, even though our family gradually puts down roots that may last a lifetime.
When we’re young adults, life events seem to have a mind of their own, and looking back, we may not remember making conscious choices. Nowhere are these seemingly automated responses more apparent with more far reaching affects than when we build our family. When we look back on these key events, falling in love, having kids, deciding where to live, developing a life plan, it all seems like a blur and yet our decisions affect us for decades.
While youth is a time when we’re fascinated by spontaneity, we also need to consider the direction our course is taking us. Through counseling and reading we can try to exercise discretion and discernment as we make decisions that we’ll have to live with for years.
More growing yet remains
Young adults stand at the threshold of entrance into the adult world. As they accomplish adult successes, they are rewarded with achievements of home, career, and hopefully happiness. And yet, this is not the end, but only the beginning of adult life. The accomplishments of young adulthood must stand the tests of time, and continue to bring security and satisfaction. Beyond the external rewards of money, children, home, we also must find personal happiness, with a minimum of disturbance from our own emotions or problematic relationships.
Looking back on young adulthood
As older adults, we can learn a great deal about ourselves by looking at the life choices that brought us to our current situation. Choices made during our young adulthood strongly influenced our career, our life partnership and family, and where we live. And these choices were influenced by events that unfolded as we were preparing to leave the teen years and enter into our young adulthood. Revisiting those years may help us reveal gaps in our maturity. By learning about what we missed, we may be able to grow wiser now. If we left our family of origin too abruptly, we may not have had the opportunity to learn some of the social skills that could make us more satisfied now. Or if we left too slowly, we may want to revisit the vulnerability and dependency that kept us home, and learn how that may be continuing to affect us now.
When we are children, we don’t have much control over our circumstances. Our parents and teachers guide us, and to a large extent, we follow. During the turmoil of the teen years, we prepare for independence, trying to figure it all out on our own, while hopefully being protected from our impetuous experiments. This period looks and feels crazy, but it is a necessary step along the way. As young adults, we are no longer children, and we now have the mental capacity and the responsibility to realize that our choices matter. We make our own decisions with far greater freedom than we have ever had before, and these decisions determine the outcome of many of our future steps in life.
During this period, so many of our choices seem to fly by so fast, as if they are based on some deep hidden guidance system. One of the best things we could do to help ourselves at this or any stage in life is to bring that guidance system out into the open, explore it, and consciously integrate it with our best understanding of what we want to accomplish in life.
Later in life, as we try to understand our journey and what makes us tick, we can learn so much about ourselves by taking a close look at our transition from teen into adult, recognizing the effect that our choices have had in our lives. We can grieve our errors, and once we accept them, try to understand what we can do differently today that can to improve our life journey. Especially valuable is recognizing the key lesson of our young adulthood, that choices matter. Now as older adults, we can continue to extend the power and reach of our choices, take responsibility for the results of our actions, and learn to live the best life within our power.
See also: Aging, Beliefs, Boundaries and Intimacy, Change, Child within, Dating, Decisions, Family, Identity, Rituals, Teenagers
The Changing Family Life Cycle, edited by Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick
Home Coming, Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
Yes, your teen is crazy! Loving your kids without losing your mind by Michael J. Bradley
Seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey