Trial independence (ages 18-23)

Not only do the hardest years of parenting, adolescence, come last, but the hardest period of adolescence, trial independence, also comes last. Now the young person is likely living away from home for the first time (usually with roommates) at a job, pursuing further education, or both. Although equipped with sufficient will for independence, the young person often does not possess sufficient skills. Trial independence demands more responsibility than most young people can handle, at least right away.

Just think about the seemingly simple challenge of having with a roommate Ė a lesson in interdependent living. Now young people have to learn to share expenses and joint use of space, cooperate with each others needs, depend on mutual commitments, tolerate differences, communicate about disagreements, resolve conflicts, and get along with someone whose behaviors one does not always like. And all this is only one challenge among many at this more independent age.

Thereís so much freedom, and it is all the young personís choice. Thereís so much responsibility, and it all depends on the young person. Thereís so much distraction, and all around are people of a similar age out for having a good time. Among her cohort of friends, few seem to have a clear direction in life, and when it comes to finding a firm footing in independence, many are slipping and sliding and breaking commitments to their detriment. There are broken romantic relationships, broken job obligations, broken credit arrangements, broken leases, broken educational programs, and even broken laws.

What young people discover, usually to some degree of cost, is that assuming responsible independence is very diificult. In addition, they may have no clear direction in life, no job path into the future they want to follow. "I donít know what I want to do!" Anxieties abound in the face of challenges that often feel overwhelming, because they often are.

Then, there is lifestyle stress. Many young people at this age do not take good care of themselves as power of want triumphs over power of will, as impulse overrules judgment, and as temptation overcomes restraint. They stress themselves with sleep deprivation, with poor dietary habits, with task procrastination, with indebtedness from credit spending, with nonstop socializing, with maximum availability of alcohol and other drugs, and with low self-esteem from feeling developmentally incompetentóunable to get their lives together at such an advanced age. In consequence, many young people in this last adolescent passage go through periods of despondency, confusion, uncertainty, guilt, shame, anxiety, exhaustion, and may resort to substances to escape their cares.

The three to five years after high school, is a period of extremely heavy and varied substance use, interpersonally and personally disorganizing the lives of many young people at this vulnerable age. Unprotected by family, young people at this age are an open market. So if your child gets into serious difficulty from poor judgment at this time, always assess the role of substance use in the unhappy events unfolding. If there had been no drinking or using, would the same choices have been made?

For parents who are committed, engaged, settled down, and practical, it is hard to empathize with a child in his or her early twenties who is uncommitted, disengaged, unsettled, and unrealistic. But their impatience, criticism, and anger will only make matters worse. Better to express confidence in the childís capacity to learn from mistakes and to support the will to keep on trying.

At this last stage of adolescence, parents must change their role from being MANAGERS (providing supervision and regulation) to becoming MENTORS (providing consultation and adviceówhen asked). Barge in and try to control the adolescentís troubled life at this late stage (when a job has been lost and bills are past due), and parents risk either rescuing their child from learning life lessons that responsibility has to teach or reducing communication with a child who refuses to be managed anymore.

Make themselves available as mentors, however, and parents offer the benefit of their experience and ideas if they can be of service as their last-stage adolescent tries to figure out how to choose her way out of the difficulty she has chosen her way into. To effectively discharge this new parenting role, they must let go of all corrective discipline. They are no longer in the business of making decisions for the young person or bending the conduct of his or her life to their will. Facing real world consequences will provide discipline enough.

To be an effective mentor means that parents are emotionally approachable. They express faith, not doubt ("You can do it"); patience, not anger ("Keep after it"); consultation, not criticism ("You might try this"); understanding, not disappointment ("Itís hard to manage independence"); confidence, not worry ("You have what it takes!").

Many adolescents in this last stage before young adulthood lose their independent footing and must be encouraged to learn after the fact, from sad experience, what they did not learn before, learning the hard way by profiting from mistakes and taking responsibility for recovery. Even the most mature adolescents can lose their footing in trial independence. The job of parents, through mentoring, is to support the will to keep trying, and to be accessible so the young person can avail herself of their understanding and advice.

What about the young person who really loses his footing in life and wants to come home to recover? Thatís fine, and in fact is very common. In response, parents do not rescue from unmet obligations. They simply provide a mutually agreed upon time-limited period at home for the child to regroupóto return to rethink, and then to reenter the world and struggle with the challenge of trying to claim independence again. There is a major self-esteem drop in trial independence, a painful sense of developmental incompetence. "Iím old enough to be adult but I keep messing up!" Tell your son or daughter: "Most young people donít find their independent footing without first making some slips because there are so many new responsibilities to learn."

Do not abandon your adolescent during trial independence. Heís outgrown your corrective discipline, but he still needs your instruction. Remember, the disciplinary power that parents can now provide is mentoring, not managing. You can offer counsel as a mature source of life experience that your young person can freely come to for support, understanding, and advice when the going gets tough.

As mentors, your role is not tell your young person what to do or to "make" him or her do anything. You role is not to bail your child out of difficulty. Your role is not express disappointment, criticism, frustration, anger, worry, or despair. Instead, listen empathetically, advise if asked, let go of any responsibility for fixing whatever is going wrong, and offer faith that your young person, having chosen his or her way into trouble, has what it takes to choose his or her way out. You are non-evaluative, non-interfering, respectful, constant, and loving.

As mentors, experienced with your own trial-and-error education in life, let your son or daughter know that mistakes are one foundation for learning, and the only real failure in life is the failure to keep on trying.

copyright 2005, Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. For permission to use this article, contact the author.