Trial Independence (Ages 18–23)
The last phase of adolescence, trial independence (from after high school through the mid-twenties), is in some ways the most challenging for both young person and parents. A young person faces considerable demands while finding his or her footing as a more independent person in a large and complex world.
Living away from home for the first time, getting a job or going to college, sharing living space with a roommate, and being accountable for managing expenses all add up to more social freedom and responsibility than he or she has probably had before.
Parents are often still supplying some support but having less influence over, and more ignorance about, their young person than they had before. “Letting go” may make parents feel helpless and scared. And their fears are not unfounded.
The Risks of Trial Independence
Most young people in trial independence do not find their independent footing right away. Lacking sufficient experience and responsibility, they slip and slide, breaking all kinds of commitments — financial, rental, legal, occupational, educational, and personal, among others — driving down self-esteem in the process. “What's the matter with me? I'm 20 years old, I keep messing up, and I can't get my life together!”
In addition, they may have no clear direction in life; no job path into the future they want to follow. “I don't know what I want to do!” Anxieties abound in the face of challenges posed by independence.
To make matters worse, they are surrounded by a cohort of peers who are mostly feeling and acting the same, often escaping frustration and sense of failure by partying. As this period of maximum alcohol and drug use begins, more dangerous drugs appear.
Lifestyle stress is common at this age. Your college-age child faces:
Sleep deprivation from late-night living.
Lack of adequate nutrition from a snack-food diet.
Debt from overspending.
Deadline pressure from leaving demands to the last minute.
Social loneliness when alone and insecurity in groups.
Aimlessness from lack of goals.
Alcohol and drug use to self-medicate discomfort and escape cares.
Lowered self-esteem from feeling developmentally incompetent at an age when competence is expected.
It's no wonder that at this age, some young people are susceptible to despondency, anxiety, exhaustion, and substance abuse.
From Managing to Mentoring
A disciplinary shift is now required of parents if they want to help their son or daughter navigate this final and most challenging period of adolescence. They must give up the management strategies (with the exception of acceptance and affirmation) described so far in this book. 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.
The disciplinary power that parents can now provide is mentoring, not managing. You can offer counsel and instruction 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.
Do not abandon your adolescent during trial independence. He's outgrown your corrective discipline, but he still needs your instruction. He needs you as a mentor.
As mentors, you should not tell your young person what to do or “make” him or her do anything. You should no longer bail your child out of difficulty. You should 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.
If your young person, having failed to find independent footing out in the larger world, needs to come back home for a short while to stay, support this decision on a mutually agreed upon, limited-time basis. You should agree to this return so that your son or daughter can have a safe place and a simplified time to rethink, recover, and then re-enter the world to try independence again.
As mentors, experienced with your own trial-and-error education in life, you help the young person sort out what went well, what went awry, and what might work better next time. 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.