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Young adult identity development: A parent's guide

There is no greater time of identity development than in the years following high school.
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“I am most excited about the freedom that I will have when I graduate from high school. The freedom that I am searching for is not to escape my family or anything of the sorts, but the freedom of going to a college and being myself.” - Lexie, Class of 2017, Summersville, WV

Throughout their lifetime, your kids have been developing a sense of self, of identity, and self-awareness. You may have even noticed they became increasingly self-aware around puberty or around the 13-14 age range. But there is perhaps no greater time of identity development than in the years following high school. Ages 18-25 offer your kids even more opportunities to develop a firm sense of self.

Why now?

For most kids, from the age of 5- 18 they have followed a path that has been laid out for them. They go from elementary school to middle school to high school.

But after high school, there can be many different paths, and for many 18 year-olds, this is their first time heading out on their own. This can lead to a lot of development in their idea of who they are, where they exist in the world, and what their purpose is.

Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist and co-founder of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, likes to use a mirror analogy to explain this time. During childhood, your sense of identity is formed largely by the family and peers surrounding you; they are the mirrors that reflect how you see yourself. But as you move out of your childhood home and enter into the workforce, college, or the military, the mirrors change. Your young adult may have a completely new way of seeing themselves because they are experiencing a completely new life.

When your kid comes home from college for winter break or takes their first vacation from work to visit, you may feel like you don’t even know them. As the years go on, you may notice even more changes. As a parent, it can be an exciting and difficult change to watch. This is a normal and healthy part of development, even if you feel like the person you raised is different from whom they were at 17. Chances are, they are different. But that doesn’t mean your role is gone or that you no longer have a place in their lives.

Yes, they still need you

Regardless of age, you’ll always be their parent, and they’ll always be your kid. Despite their freedom and identity development, your young adult does still need you.

The role you play in their identity development is one of support, by taking an interest in their budding independence and autonomy. They are trying to figure out their career, new and changing relationships, and where they fit in the world. Education consultant Jennifer Miller says this age is full of tests that young adults often use to understand if they are “worthy.” These tests can be a job interview, fraternity acceptance, dating, or building new friendships. All of those tests can be really overwhelming, but they are important for young adults to experiment with their own boundaries and rules. They have been used to rules at school and at home, but as their new adult life emerges, they get to redefine their own rules.

You can help this development by supporting them and being their security. Tanner says it’s the same as when they were learning to walk and they might have taken one or two steps and come back to hold your knee. Then the next time, they took three or four steps. And before you knew it, they were running across the room. You are the key to their security.

“The more you let them go away and come back and go away and come back, the more progress they’re going to make because they’re going to feel secure,” explains Tanner.

Try to find balance

This time of self-development is important for young adults, and they’re likely to feel stressed and overwhelmed at times.

If you continue to have a strong relationship with your young adult, you’re likely to get an occasional phone call or text when they’re feeling at their worst. Your first instinct may be to help, and that’s normal. As parents, we often want to protect and support our kids. But part of developing their adult self is also building their self-reliance and ability.

“Remember when they were babies and they vomited on you? You had to clean up everything,” says Licinia Barrueco Kaliher, Director of First-Year Houses at University of Pennsylvania. She refers to this as the “vomit effect,” meaning that many parents still feel the need to clean up. Her advice for parents is to realize that much of the time your student will be just fine, and that they may be calling at a time of passing distress. “Let them figure it out. Give guidance, then back off,” she says. “Let them make mistakes.”

Instead of cleaning up, Miller recommends helping by reminding them of their resilience. Was there a moment in middle school when they stood up to a bully? How about that time they failed that test, but studied harder for the next one and improved? Pointing out these past points of resilience can help your young adult realize that they are capable, they have overcome obstacles in the past, and they can continue to move forward.

If that balance isn’t found, it can negatively affect a young adult’s identity development and self-efficacy, or their belief that they can do things on their own. Former freshman dean at Stanford University and author Julie Lythcott-Haims says when parents help young adults too much (like by editing their college or workplace projects) or complete tasks their kid should be able to do on their own (like registering them for a class or negotiating with a landlord) it deprives young adults of developing their sense of self.

“When we over-help like that, the end result is largely our doing, not instead of mostly theirs,” Lythcott-Haims explains. “The psyche knows that their parents did it for them. It really messes with a human at a psychological level, which is why we're seeing spikes in depression and anxiety in young adults.”

Lythcott-Haims says the proper role is one of helping them think through their options for how to handle something that feels challenging to them. For example, when your young adult calls home with a fairly routine problem (like a missed deadline, a stolen bike, or an argument with a friend) the best thing we can do is empathize and reiterate that we love them, and follow that by saying “Okay honey, how do you think you’re going to handle it?” With this statement you’re signaling a) this isn’t your problem to solve and b) that you believe they have what it takes to handle it. Yes, you can and should help them think through how they’ll handle it, but resist the urge to handle it for them. If you keep handling the stuff of life for them, you’ll be helping in the short term, but in the long term, they will lack both the skill and the confidence that would have come had you let them do it themselves.

They’re still watching you

You can also help support your young adult’s identity development in the same way you helped them eat their vegetables or be a good person: by modeling.

Many parents are midlife when their kids are in the 18-25-year-old age range, which means you’re also likely to be going through a time of change. How you set goals and plan for the next phase of your life sets an important example for your young adult. Maybe you want to eat healthier, try a new hobby, volunteer, or change careers. Talk about your goals and how you’re going to reach them. Talk with them about what you’re enjoying, or what you’re nervous about. Talk about your strengths and your room for growth. By doing so, you’re opening the door for them to talk about their feelings as well. Discovering those feelings can help your young adult understand their motivations and even help ease some of the angst that can come up during this time of exploration. It also shows them that development is a lifelong undertaking and that it’s O.K. to not have all the answers right now.

Not all who wander are lost

As the United States economy has shifted over the last few decades, job paths aren’t as clear cut as they used to be.

Changes in technology have replaced some of the demand for human workers, and many companies are looking for employees who can work with a team, have strong communication skills, and are good at solving problems.

Tanner and her colleagues argue the economy has created a need to recognize the life phase they call “emerging adulthood.” It’s this time of life where 18-25 year-olds explore their options, develop their identity, and gain experience. Tanner believes this phase of life was always available across history for the richer classes, but now that the United States has become a richer country, we see more emerging adults using this time of life to explore rather than settle down, or explore before taking on the full responsibilities of adulthood. But that doesn’t mean identity and exploration are only for those with financial means.

“Some kids go to work at 15 and never stop. That doesn’t preclude them from doing important identity work,” Tanner explains. “If you’re developing well, you want to hit the markers of knowing who you are, and knowing how to secure social resources. There are other markers of success, other than achievement, social class, and income.”

Lythcot-Haims adds, “The students who tended to have their act most together on my campus were from poor or working-class backgrounds. Instead of being accustomed to being rescued by parents, they had a high degree of self-reliance and could chart a course of action when problems arose. They had resilience. Life had toughened them a bit, maybe even a lot, and in their young adult years they were better able to handle situations that their more affluent counterparts would punt to their parents.”

Whether your young adult is still trying to pick a major or is changing jobs more frequently than you did at their age, neurologist Judy Willis says to cut them – and you—some slack.

“Parents need to know they did their best. There was no rulebook for what happened with technology,” Willis says. “Parents need to increase resilience. It takes more time to develop now, and more experience and more parenting.”

Tanner agrees. She urges parents to try and understand that this time of life is about developing an understanding of your place in the world. And just because a young adult may be in between jobs, dating, not dating, or seemingly unsettled, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing anything.

“Understand that they’re doing something positive,” she says. “Investment in their identity and figuring out who they are now helps them make good choices in the future.”

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Judy Willis, Neurologist, Teacher, Author, International Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Julie Lythcott-Haims, Former Dean to Freshman, Stanford University.