The 3 Stage Journey from Childhood to Adulthood

The 3 Stage Journey from Childhood to Adulthood

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

Episode 046 · Duration: 00:24:50

The 3 Stage Journey from Childhood to Adulthood

The 3 Stage Journey from Childhood to AdulthoodIt’s common to view adolescence as one thing and to see some kids as easy to raise while others are harder, but the hope is they will get to their adulthood in good shape; maybe get into a top college, and not have too many problems. Certainly we want all kids to be responsible, not abuse drugs or alcohol, or give us too much to worry about. But it’s important to remember that we can have a strong influence on our adolescents’ development so that when they do reach adulthood, they’re ready to take full responsibility for their own success and happiness.

In order to best support our adolescents to successfully reach adulthood, we need to realize that:


  • Adolescence is not one thing.
  • Parenting adolescents is not one thing.
  • Parenting doesn’t end when kids graduate high school.

Think of it as a journey from childhood to adulthood and think of the journey as having three distinct stages, early adolescence, late adolescence and young adulthood. If we and our kids negotiate each of these stages well together, we’ll set things up best for the next leg of the journey.

Let’s talk about these different stages:

Each stage has its own developmental tasks and our kids will do best if we understand these stages and parent in a way that supports these developmental tasks.

So for starters, let’s think of the journey beginning with early adolescence and ending at adulthood, as just that; a journey. It’s an adventure for them and for us and like a lot of adventures, there will be ups and downs, times that are arduous, and times that are smooth sailing. Sometimes there will be obstacles that we won’t know how to manage but that’s part of the deal. Raising kids is a learning experience for parents and kids alike, so it’s best to resolve that problems are a given, and they offer the opportunity for learning and growing to all of us.

It’s best to resolve that problems are a given, and they offer the opportunity for learning and growing to all of us.Click To Tweet

If you get stuck along the way, get some help.

Today I want to focus on the social emotional learning going on during each of these stages and key parenting objectives, but it’s critical to remember that our teens and young adults are growing physically and neurologically throughout this journey.

Neurological maturation is generally complete between the ages of 22 to 25 with females maturing sooner than males. It’s during this time that the brain goes from being a child’s brain to an adult brain and the transition is quite profound. So while our youth are growing their capacity for abstract thinking and advanced reasoning, they are also neurologically inclined towards impulsivity and risk taking. And once again, growing their advanced reasoning skills is a journey, so we can’t expect to have a highly reasoned conversation with our teens and even our young adults every time.

Early Adolescence

In early adolescence starting in middle school and going to 14 or so, young teens are forming their own social groups for the first time. Prior, children were friends with the kids in their class, their neighborhood, their siblings and extended family, and other adult organized groups such as church or sports leagues. Now kids are choosing certain friends and differentiating themselves from kids with different interests and different friends. There is a lot of focus on who is in and who is out of different social groups. These young teens are very much still children in their appearance and behavior. Some will enter puberty earlier than others so there will be a wide range of looks in this group. As these young teens move from 13 to 14 and 15, they may grieve the simpler life of enjoying the toys, stuffed animals and routines of their childhoods. It’s a time of moving away from parents and wanting and needing to spend more time with and identify with their peers.

  • They are going to want to do things more independently and often want less help and less parental structure.
  • They are going to want the things their friends have and will want to dress and look like the style their friends have.
  • The idea is that they are becoming more peer-identified means less family identified.
  • They can be resistant to doing family activities and want to do peer activities.
  • And they can get pretty surly.

It’s important at this stage for kids to have an area or two of interest and competence; any sport or physical activity, art, music, dance, academics are all good. That way they have an initial identity to enter their teen years with and that can be important to having friends and self-esteem.

This is a time when it becomes harder for parents to know how their teenager is doing in school. It’s now up to the young teen to keep track of their school responsibilities. Some kids can manage their work easily and others, who are challenged organizationally or with Learning Differences, or tend to procrastinate, will still need support and parents and young teens often struggle with the reality of kids still needing parental support and structure.

Parenting Focus:

  • Stay connected and involved.
  • Be sure there are clear limits on Internet devices.
  • This is an age where bullying is most common so be sure to talk with your young teenager about these issues and be sure they know the protocols and let you know if they’re feeling bullied.
  • Include friends in family activities.
  • Support supervised independent activities; activities supervised by other parents and reliable organizations such as extended family, church, school, scouts, athletic league.
  • Support unsupervised independent activity; short duration, specific location and activity, review clear expectations.
  • Discuss the change from completely supervised to unsupervised and introduce concepts of responsibility and trust in your young teen's ability to self manage behavior.
  • Use a tone of collaboration and inclusion in setting up schedules and routines.

Late Adolescence

16, 17, 18-year-olds, essentially high school juniors and seniors are in this category. These older teens should be able to manage their responsibilities pretty independently. They should have some stable friendships and friendship groups as well as interests that they share with peers. This group should pretty much know the rules and be able to follow them. At this point, their focus should be on their post-high school future. Whereas young teens are more motivated by their movement away from family towards the teen world, older teens should be motivated by their vision of the future. Even youth with learning disabilities, ADHD, and shy and sensitive kids can be functioning pretty independently at this point. They should know how to utilize the resources at their disposal fairly independently.

Where kids haven’t mastered their early adolescence, as in, learned to manage responsibilities and to be accountable to parents, older adolescents can in fact have significant issues. When there have been Control Battles that have lingered from early adolescence, this group will indeed struggle.

Parenting Focus:

  • Enjoying your older adolescent’s competence.
  • Get ready to have them beat you at the sport you taught them. This was the age my kids left me behind musically, beat me in tennis, out ran me; you get the point.
  • Ask interested but not probing questions about their lives, friendships, what they’re learning. Discuss it with them.
  • Have key points of inclusion in family life; Regularly cooking a meal together, cleaning the house together, family outings to music, theater, athletic activity, cycling, boating, fishing, hunting.
  • Activities such as working on the car and home maintenance are great. If they have a job, which is a good thing, discuss and even require a financial plan that includes saving for desired expensive items such as a musical instrument, bike, a trip they want to take after high school graduation; even for college or a car. If they aren’t going to go to college, saving can go to future independent living costs.
  • Build relationships with your kid’s friends as well. Enjoy challenging conversations about topics of interest, media, books, politics, world events, life. It’s good for them and for us. They make us explain what we believe and they’ll often find the holes in our logic if we aren’t careful. When they do, don’t defend, validate their thinking and be willing to admit they have a good point.
  • The key during this stage of development is to support your high school Jr. or Sr. with focusing on and preparing for what’s next.
  • For those who are college bound, there is a lot to consider from areas of interest, location, school size, cost, and readiness to move away or stay at home. They can’t possibly weigh all these options and will need your input and support.
  • The college application process is complicated and requires planning and attention to detail and most teens are going to need support here.
  • For those not wanting to go to college, what is their plan? Do they have a plan beyond getting an entry-level job? What job or career interests do they have and whom might they speak with to get some realistic ideas about how to pursue their goals?
  • Keep in mind that the last semester of the senior year is challenging for a lot of families. As kids near the finish line of their high school careers, they get “senioritis” that social-emotional virus that causes seniors to stop doing work, and think they are no longer accountable. They may need to lose a privilege or two to get reeled in and back on track.

In general, late adolescence can be pretty smooth sailing. But don’t get caught asleep at the wheel, they are wired for impulsivity and risk taking, even a responsible teenager can make a very bad decision given the right circumstances.

You might notice I’ve left out 15-year-olds. That’s because they’re hard to pinpoint. I’ve sometimes called it middle adolescence since they are pretty comfortable with being teenagers. Pushing away from family for the sake of pushing away isn’t as much the point anymore, and they can’t really sense the reality of the impending end of high school. It’s pretty much it’s own thing. Some kids do really well and are solid in their identity, their social lives and interests. Others can find some pretty challenging ways to get themselves into trouble and with more independence than they can handle. Parents often make the mistake of thinking that if they should be more independent and responsible, that they’ll back off and expect them to be independently responsible. Only to find out that, Oops! They weren’t ready for that. I’ve worked with many 15-year-olds and their parents who were referred in by their defense attorneys and they’ve had a lot of work to do to unravel a legal mess. So don’t let go too early.

Young Adulthood

Now the final stage of adolescence is what we usually call young adulthood. This group is the post-high school 18 to 24-year-olds. This group is still growing and developing and parents still have a vital role. In fact this group is more like early teens than late teens from a parenting point of view because much like young teens, this group is entering a new phase of life. There is a lot for the young adult to learn about and experience here.
They’ve lost their old routines and the expectations and the flow of life is entirely new. It will involve making new friends and far more responsibility and independent decision making. That’s why it’s important for parents to support and teach independence skills during early and late Adolescence.

Young Adults in College vs. Staying Home

If the Young Adult goes off to college, what exactly are the expectations about school performance, managing money, and communication home?
How can parents support their Young Adult, particularly in the early stages of being away? They will need support and to know that we understand that it’s a challenging transition. In the age of cell phones and social media, kids often stay connected to their old friends, which makes connecting and making new college friends more challenging than it used to be. Some parents make the mistake of micro-managing their Young Adult with “find my phone” and other technologies. The emphasis should be on support, not control. Parents can talk with their Young Adult about how they’re feeling, who they’re meeting, what their classes are like, and what social activities are available.

In general, there is a lot of opportunity for alcohol and drug use and abuse and parents should talk openly about this as well as about sexual behavior and sexual risks. It’s really important for kids in this stage to have a strong sense of their own values and personal boundaries. In high school and at home, they had a fairly consistent culture to rely on. Now away at school, in a new culture, they can be easily influenced to take risks they wouldn’t have previously. And because they still are developing neurologically, they are wired for risk taking.

Many kids in their first year of college experience issues with anxiety and depression and parents can assist with finding resources to help them through it. Parental support can help them through it as well.

For Young Adults staying at home, what are the rules now that they are legal adults and not in high school? Young Adults often assume there will be none and that is an assumption that needs clarification. Parents do need to have some order in their home and often don’t want their Young Adult child coming and going and banging around in the kitchen late into the night. On the other hand, parents need to support their Young Adult’s new level of responsibility and independence.

Parenting Focus:

Here is the challenging part for parents of Young Adult children. They clearly need parental support to take their first steps away from high school and towards their futures. That is for sure. What parents must be sure of, is that their support is in fact supporting them in moving forward. Not, supporting them while they play and socialize or languish, either away from home or while living at home.

What are the productive behaviors kids are demonstrating that will in fact move them forward? And what are the behaviors parents might be concerned are keeping them from moving forward? Are they drinking heavily, socializing recklessly? What if they’re living at home, have a low paying job, paying parents either no rent or minimal rent, and not doing much else? Does this qualify as helping your Young Adult move forward?
In most cases not, but in some cases where a youth has a disability of some kind, this might represent progress. But that’s the critical question; are they making progress and are they working out the living at home arrangements so that they contribute to the home, and are respectful and reasonable with their parents?

So don’t be shocked when you discover that you still need to actively parent with this group. There may be fewer limits, but limits still need to be in place.

For those Young Adults who do go away to college, what happens after graduation? It can be tough to figure out next steps for many young college grads and here parents may need to help kids establish goals and plans for moving forward, often while living back at home. But living at home should include goals, plans, and daily implementation of a strategy while being a contributing member of the household.

Living at home should include goals, plans, and daily implementation of a strategy.Click To Tweet

My Challenge to You

So, let’s remember, that helping our kids grow from childhood to adulthood goes best when we understand what they’re working on and have a strategy to support it. If we allow ourselves to be caught off guard when our kids make mistakes we’re more inclined to react poorly. Our kids and our relationship with our kids will go best when we anticipate their needs and are proactive in supporting them. There are always surprises, but if we know that life is an adventure, one that we and they are on together, and the tough parts are just part of the journey, we can have faith that smooth will come next.

Our kids and our relationship with our kids will go best when we anticipate their needs and are proactive in supporting them.Click To Tweet

Here is my challenge to all of us. If you have a young adolescent, an older adolescent, or a young adult child making mistakes, or if you know or are working with any teens and young adults who are struggling, suspend judgment and help them feel worthwhile and important. Even when we’re setting limits, or taking away privileges, we can let them know that it’s a journey and that we want to support them in making it a successful one.

Thanks for tuning in today everyone! In support of parents looking to find a more empowered parenting approach, an approach that is clear, confident, and yet supportive and validating, come on over to my website and sign up for my new 6 week online Empowered Parenting Workshop.

While you’re there, sign up for my weekly email where you will receive my weekly blog or podcast. I’d love to have a chance to answer your questions that you can submit there as well.

The holidays are right around the corner. Do you know someone who might benefit from reading my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle? It’s readily available, inexpensive, and could make a big difference in their life.

And please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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