When Helen* was twenty years old, freedom was the resounding cry of her generation. Freedom took the form of burning bras, draft cards, and bridges to the older generation. Although it was the 1960s, with the world in crisis (the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the women’s liberation movement), Helen wasn’t scared or anxious to grow up. In fact, she felt empowered to embrace adulthood, to change it all.
Helen’s parents had it pretty easy, too. They watched Helen grow from a kid to a teen to a young woman, sent their girl off to college, battled a bit with the “Empty Nest” syndrome and watched her graduate and become employed. They were proud. Fast forward to today: Helen is now a parent with a son named David, who seems to be a far cry from her younger self.
I’ve met hundreds of Helens before: baby-boomer females who recall growing up quickly to enter the real world, and are now parents with children who remind them nothing of themselves. Below are my observations of how today’s twentysomethings are different from the young adults of some forty years ago … and how this is affecting the “almost adults” and “Helens” of the world.
The new twentysomething is fearful to leave home.
Many children have become extremely anxious growing up post-9/11 and are not eager to grow up and leave the nest. Film footage of the World Trade Center collapse played endlessly for days and weeks after that infamous day. It impacted not only the psyche of the nation but a young generation of children and young adults—who once felt safe on American soil. The entire emotional climate of the country changed from “this could never happen here” to “when will this happen again?”
How it’s affecting parents: Parenting the emerging adult child has drastically changed. Parents are finding themselves dealing with their children’s anxiety from an early age. In my practice I have seen a dramatic increase of children referred because of fears of the dark, fears of being alone, social anxiety, and fears of attending school. Parents are bringing their children for psychotherapy for anxiety disorders more than ever before.
The new twentysomething has a dismal view of the “American Dream.”
Young adults are facing an abysmal economy with terrible job prospects. They not only feel powerless to change the world; they don’t even feel able to enter it. The world of adulthood is fraught with obstacles and dangers and when the American Dream seems to have vanished, there’s a lack of motivation to try to reach for the “stars.”
How it’s affecting parents: Just when parents thought that being mom and dad would be less demanding, they find themselves continuing to be a chauffeur, cook, and maid. Not only does your child’s dependence continue to grow, but at a time when his or her life has become filled with more commitments and activities.
For several reasons, children are opting to attend local colleges while living at home. Others return from college after one or two semesters because of not being able to make it on their own. Recent graduates will also decide to live home, not only because of financial restraints but for the feeling of security.
How it’s affecting parents: At a time when parents are ready to retire and live on a fixed income, they are now taking care of their young adult child. While it’s terrible to admit it, for some parents, this is an additional financial stress that they may have not predicted nor prepared for. Plus, forget about remodeling the extra bedroom into an office or gym. That disposable income to live out your retirement dreams is being drained.
The new twentysomething is over-indulged.
Can your child—regardless of whether they’re twenty or forty years old—accept it when mom says “no”? Probably not. The baby-boomer over-indulgent style of parenting has often been cited as a cause of our children’s difficulty to grow up. Many of the moms I’ve worked with have had a terrible time saying “NO” to their children since they were born. The pattern has been set, and, unfortunately, it may be irreversible.
How it’s affecting parents: We’ve wanted to be close to our children and establish friendships with them sometimes at the expense of setting parental limits. To expect or demand that these children go to college, get a job and move out puts all of our parenting goals at risk, or so we think. We now have anxiety about possibly alienating and “losing” our kids if we push them toward independence.
So what’s a mother to do? How can parents encourage their children to grow up and look forward to adulthood?
- Set a good example: Feel safe and secure and express it to the child. If the adults are worried and anxious, it can’t be expected that the child will feel at ease.
- Allow children to rebel against their parents and society. It will help them form their own identities.
- Set limits, maintain appropriate expectations of children and STOP trying to be friends with your child!
- Encourage self-esteem in children. It helps to build their independence.
How can we help young adults rise above the economic crisis?
Understandably, the new economy has significantly added to the already frightening world that children are facing. However, as a parent to a child entering the scary workforce, we need to egg our children on to help encourage them to set and meet goals. Parents need to help them change their inflated job expectations and be prepared to enter the workforce at entry-level positions.
Give them an ultimatum: If you don’t find yourself a job in six months, you’re cut off financially. Tell them they will no longer have the luxury of remaining dependent children. This sounds harsh and will be very hard to do but it could ultimately be best for the child.
What may come when parents change their actions?
The good news is that we will see a return to having productive twwentysomethings who will face adulthood and not remain adolescents. They will make financial, societal, and emotional contributions.
This may be the silver lining on the cloud of these economic times.
Back to Helen. What happened to Helen and her son David?
David graduated from college with a degree in business and he—like many recent graduates—was unable to land the job of his dreams. After applying for many jobs, he reluctantly accepted a traineeship, which lasted for only three months. He had little patience to grow with the job and felt a certain entitlement to be able to get what he wanted with ease and few restrictions. He no longer felt that he would be able to get a job that would meet his expectations. As David’s dissatisfaction with his job prospects grew, he got further and further involved with playing Online Poker (a habit he discovered in college). He met some other young men who made a great deal of money playing in poker tournaments. The lure of making easy money, doing what he liked, not having to climb the slow corporate ladder to success appealed to him so much that he began to play professionally. This lifestyle fulfilled David’s need to live in the moment, addressing his anxiety and pessimism about the future.
Helen is extremely unhappy about this. She continues to try to instill in David her values of the sixties—of working hard and contributing to society—to no avail.
The tension between them continues to grow.
*The names and identities of the people in this situation have been changed.
By Adrienne Resnick, LCSW, has been a psychotherapist for the past twenty-five years. Originally published on wowowow