Parenting: From Childhood to Adolescence, to Adulthood
Parenting is difficult, even when things are kept consistent. But that's never the case, as parents learn quickly that their children are continuously developing and changing, which requires adjusting how you act as a parent. Knowing how to adapt effectively isn't obvious, and it's something that many parents struggle with. Here, I want to help provide parents with some insight into what types of adjustments they should expect to make during key transition periods: from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.
First, I want to point out that every child is different. There is no definitive "you should do X with your child the day they turn X years old." Instead, these adjustments are continuous and gradual, and it will require determining the best times to make transitions for your own child. Even though I'm going to be talking about two transition periods, these transitions happen over a long period of time, and at different times for different kids. My intention here is just to raise awareness of some things you may want to pay attention to during these transitions, rather than providing a schedule of what you should be doing at a given time.
Alright, so with that out of the way, let's discuss these transitions!
Childhood to Adolescence
The first major transition that you will encounter with your child (other than the transition to school with kindergarten and first grade) is the transition to adolescence. Despite people typically talking about adolescence in terms of the "teenage years," the transition can happen during a wide range of years, with some children who are "old souls" and begin to transition earlier, while some are "late bloomers" and transition later.
One of the key things to watch for in your child to know when this transition is beginning is the way that they think and reason. During childhood, children tend to be very literal and concrete in their thinking. Abstract thoughts and understanding subtle meanings and intentions is difficult for them, which is why we often suggest parents be very direct when talking to their children (otherwise they may honestly not understand what you're asking of them, rather than them intentionally misbehaving).
However, as children develop they gain the ability to think in more abstract ways, and this can be a little confusing for them at first. Social relationships take on a new dimension as different subtleties become more familiar (such as sarcasm). Adolescents are more aware of what other people are thinking, which is an abstract way of thinking because it involves predicting the thoughts of others, and this can lead to heightened feelings of self-consciousness. In addition, it leads to a heavier emphasis being placed on peers and gaining approval from those peers.
When it comes to peers, there seems to be some disagreement. It was previously popular to think that parents became less important and peers became more important in determining adolescent behavior. However, some recent research I have seen suggests that parents may remain important, and instead peer pressure is just added to the mix.
Finally, adolescence is a time of "personality development." I use quotes because personalities develop throughout life rather than at specific times, but it's useful to be aware of during this transition. While developing into an adolescent, autonomy becomes more important and youth typically begin to experiment a bit more with different types of personality characteristics.
So, what does all of this mean for parents? During this transition, it will be helpful to pay attention to how children are thinking and reasoning. As they begin to handle more abstract thinking, it can be helpful to assist them in learning how to reason and handle the subtleties of social relationships. This can be done simply through talking about ideas, explaining, and making sure your blossoming adolescent knows they can ask you about anything.
This transition also means becoming comfortable with the increasing importance of peers and need for autonomy, while also understanding how you are still needed. Adolescents should be given the opportunity to socialize, practice their social skills, learn how to think about others and realize how they think about them. They should be given some autonomy and flexibility to do this, but parents should also not transition to being completely hands-off. This is a stage where parent input still matters greatly, and it should be provided, but (within reason) the adolescent should have some greater freedom to make decisions.
It's certainly a difficult balance to obtain, and the right balance will depend on the child and his/her needs (e.g., if they have a treatment regimen because of a medical condition, they may need some additional monitoring and help from parents). Ultimately you'll need to discover the right balance for you and your child. All I'm suggesting here is that you pay attention to the fact that this balance exists.
Adolescence to Adulthood
For some parents, the more difficult transition is from adolescence to adulthood. This is (at least stereotypically) related to "empty nester" situations if a child decides to leave home and live elsewhere (such as a college campus or with friends). There's also a sense that the child, now legally an adult, is fully independent and should act on their own.
However, something important to understand is that the transition to 18 and being an adult is purely legal. In terms of development, nothing significant changes the day your child turns 18. In fact, your child is likely to struggle with some of the same difficulties of adolescence well into their mid-twenties, as their brains are still developing and they are still learning how to function independently.
Again, this varies for different kids. Some children become very adept at functioning independently and reasoning appropriately during their teenage years, while others struggle well into their twenties. Here, I'm just talking about a trend, and I'm mainly highlighting the fact that development is continuous despite there being the abrupt legal transition to adulthood.
During this transition, youth are still learning how to handle social relationships properly, they're becoming more familiar with intimate relationships, they may still be experimenting with their identity (especially if they now consider themselves to have more freedom to do so than they did previously), and they're developing their executive functioning skills (e.g., ability to focus and prioritize, to shift between tasks effectively, planning).
What does all of this mean for you as a parent? Even though your child may be an adult, and even though they may want to make a lot of changes to their lifestyle as a result, they are still the same developing child. Peers and partners will likely continue to become increasingly important, but that does not mean that you are being replaced by them. It's important to still provide support, to help them navigate any transitions to college, work, living alone, etc. Over time, you'll likely want to give them more autonomy by being available but requiring them to come to you rather than you going to them automatically. But this transition needs to happen with care, slowly, and well into their twenties (typically).
Again, they should be given some autonomy to make decisions, but your input still matters and can be valuable!
Transitions are never easy, and these two life transitions are some of the most difficult to navigate. In the end, it comes down to being aware of how your child is developing, being conscious of how you are parenting, and adapting appropriately. It can be difficult for some parents to allow their child additional autonomy, and others sometimes give too much autonomy because they fear their child wants space and they don't want to be a "burden." Finding the right balance will take time, and there is never a fixed "right" balance; it can change day-to-day. Just be mindful, be available and supportive, and you'll do well!
Have you gone through these transitions with a child? What were your experiences? Do you have any tips for other parents? Let's hear about it in the comments!