Getting to Know Your Emerging Adult College Student

Kids today.  Sometimes we love them.  Sometimes we hate them.  Most of the time we feel we don’t understand them.  If you are the parent of a college student, you may wonder at times whether this person is still an adolescent or whether he is an adult.  Your opinion may change from day to day or even hour to hour.  You are not alone.  Your student is likely entering, or solidly settled into, a phase of life now labeled Emerging Adulthood.  The more you understand about this newly identified stage of life, the more you may feel that you begin to understand your college-age and post-college student.

Emerging Adulthood, as a distinct developmental phase, is most widely known through the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.  Arnett’s book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, was first published in 2004 and has received much attention.  We recommend it to college parents.  According to Dr. Arnett, “kids” today aren’t the “kids” that we were.  Parents need to work to understand how different today’s students are.

According to Dr. Arnett, Emerging Adulthood begins at about the age of 18 and often continues until the age of 25 or 27.  This is much later than many of us might think.  So as your student begins college, she may also be entering this developmental phase. As she graduates from college (and perhaps boomerangs back home) she is in the midst of this stage. She may remain in this stage for several more years.  It is not simply an extended adolescence, but a distinct time of less parental control and more independent exploration.

Consider the following five characteristics of this age and think about your student.  You may be surprised at how accurate the description is.

  • It is the age of identity explorations.  This is a time when your student needs to consider who he is, what he values, what is important to him, what he wants out of life.  He may not consciously realize that this is happening, but he may be asking himself important questions such as, “What am I good at?”  “What kind of person am I?”  “What kind of person do I want to spend the rest of my life with?”  “What kind of work do I find satisfying?”
  • It is the age of instability.  Your student’s best laid plans during this period may need to be revised multiple times.  She may move many times – away to school, into an apartment, back home, back on her own.  She may live with family, friends, roommates, significant others.  She has few roots and few ties to others.  She may have multiple jobs and consider dramatic career redirections.
  • It is the most self-focused age in life.  Although adolescence is also a self-focused age, the difference is that during emerging adulthood, your student may not need to answer to anyone.  He is more independent of you than during adolescence and may not yet have a family of his own for whom he is responsible.  He may be consumed with the decisions that he needs to make at this point in his life.  He needs to work at developing the life-skills that will help him to become self-sufficient – self management, budgeting, financial literacy, and self advocacy.
  • It is the age of feeling in-between and in transition.  One minute your student may feel like an adult and may welcome adult responsibility, and the next minute she feels like a child again – or longs for the safety of childhood.  She may be treated as an adult by you or others and then in the next minute treated like a teenager again.  The pendulum swings drastically back and forth – perhaps day to day or even hour to hour.  Your student may feel that she is headed somewhere, but she hasn’t arrived yet.
  • It is the age of possibilities.  During this time, students may be filled with hopes for the future and feel that they have an “unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.”  Options still remain open, choices abound, and nothing is set in stone. As a parent, you want to encourage their hopes but help them temper them with reality.

As a college parent, you may find it reassuring as you read the description above to know that you, and your college-age student, are not alone.  Understanding this unique phase of development may help you realize what your student is experiencing and what she needs during this time.  Your student may look to you for support one day and then need to be self-sufficient the next.  You will need to encourage her to find ways to deal with the challenges and realities of living through this time – balancing support and letting go.  Knowing that you are not alone in these challenges may help both you and your student.

Related Posts:

How Does Your College Student Feel About His First Job?

Boomerang Kids: When Your College Student or College Graduate Moves Back Home

Is Your College Student Preparing for the World of Work?

Is Your College Student a Member of the “Apathy Generation?”

When Graduation Means a Move Back Home

Helping Your College Student Living at Home: What Are the Issues?


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