Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Helping Young Adults Be On Their Own

June 16, 2008

Why do some young people have trouble leaving the nest? What do parents do that interferes with their children's readiness for life? What kind of preparation is necessary to promote a healthy transition to independent living?

Paradoxically, strong attachment bonds are a key. The best preparation for leaving is a history of emotional closeness between the child and his or her parents. This closeness is the base young adults use to explore the world. They know they can count on support from home if they need it.

Besides loving relationships with parents, children need to form bonds with other adult role models. Visiting relatives and forming bonds with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins broadens their support base. As young adults, they are accustomed to access help, guidance and needed resources in their new environment.

While giving love and acceptance, parents consistently encourage and support independent decision-making, growth, responsibility and mature self-direction throughout childhood and adolescence. Children develop self-confidence in their own decision-making as they meet the challenges of life.

Maintaining a balance between nurturing and protecting teens while regulating their push toward independence is a major source of conflict. One hidden blessing of normal parent/teen clashes over autonomy is that by the time young adults are ready to go, parents are usually happy to see them go.

Parenting for independence. What makes children ready to leave? Children raised with values know who they are and what they stand for. They don't need to depend on peers or adult authority for important decisions. They've had successful experiences and a track record for managing stress and problems. This kind of readiness comes from years of committed parenting that helped them learn responsibility and emotional self-sufficiency.

Parenting that is too permissive and lacking in guidance doesn't provide the self-discipline or values needed for adult living. Detached parenting that lacks emotional warmth leads to difficulties in forming relationships. Parenting that is too strict and controlling discourages thinking, expression of feelings and independent judgment.

Friendships are important. Childhood and adolescent friendships are a part of the package. Through their friendships, children learn how to form and maintain rewarding relationships.

The more experiences children have in going to summer camps, participating in supervised youth activities and going on school trips, the better. These activities help them become comfortable being away from Mom and Dad, learn to make and enjoy new friendships, and cope in new environments.

As young adults, they put this experience to use in establishing relationships and emotional support away from home. Relationships with parents become less intense and needy after they have put their own network of support in place.

Being away from home for the first time is hard. Homesickness is normal. But with a little time, they do adjust. They find out that they don't need Mom and Dad to help them run their lives. However, it is a boost to their confidence to know that Mom and Dad are still there, waiting in the wings to help with a big crisis if they really are needed.

Parental marriage problems are a drawback. Problems occur when an adolescent thinks that their leaving directly threatens their parent’s marriage. If parents give overt or covert messages about the shakiness of their marriage, the young adult may be burdened by guilt over abandoning and hurting his or her parents.

Even if children are away, they are emotionally caught up in worries about what is happening at home. They have difficulty concentrating on their own lives and challenges. Involving children as confidants in parental marriage problems pulls them back into the family when their interests should be elsewhere.

Parents can help the separation process by responding to the challenge of renewing and nourishing their marital bond without parenting being the principal focus of their marriage. If marital conflicts are chronic and not likely to be resolved, then young adults should be encouraged to let go of their unrealistic expectations, anger or guilt for a situation that is beyond their control and responsibility.

Gender differences. Males and females handle separation differently. Young women are generally more connected with their mothers. The process of becoming emotionally independent unfolds gradually with time.

Young women are able to separate easier when there have been close family ties. In less close families, young women are more tuned into problems in the parental marriage and are more likely to get caught by dysfunctional family dynamics. Their unfulfilled longings for a happy childhood and being a part of a close knit family are incentives for staying involved.

Young women with high conflict parental relationships may thrust themselves toward independence. They are vulnerable to their own needs for nurturing others and being nurtured in return. Young women who are too dependent are frequently disappointed in relationships and have problems asserting themselves appropriately. Those who have the easiest transition to adult life combine achievement and self-orientation with their already strong relationship focus to life.

With young men, being emotionally independent is important. Part of establishing male identity is working through a separation from their mothers. Young men have problems in relationships when they have been insufficiently nurtured by or have been too attached to their mothers.

For young men, the transition to adult life is easier if they have developed friendships and have relationship skills to balance their achievement focus toward life.