Entering adulthood: how parents support their children towards independence


The transition between adolescence and adulthood now extends from 18 to 29 years old depending on the path. How are the relationships between young people and their parents redefined then?

Let us ask ourselves this question: what does it mean to be an adult, and what is the event that pushes us into this age of life? In all likelihood, we are thinking of the end of studies, the fact of having entered employment, a stable and independent financial situation, the fact of having left the family home or even the fact of having founded one’s own family. This vision of “being an adult” has remained the same since the beginning of the 20th century  . However, today we are observing an increase in the duration of studies, a decline in the age of first full-time employment, later marriages and the birth of the first child around the age of 30.

In France, the feeling of being an adult is postponed in favor of a phase of exploration and experimentation characterized by years of study and unstable employment . As youth ages, what role do families play today in this access to adulthood? How are the relationships between parents and children redefined then? And how do parents react to young people gaining independence?

The emergence of adulthood, a psychosocial transition

The evolution of our current societies leads us to rethink youth. In order to better understand this period, Jeffrey Arnett, an American researcher, proposes the notion of emerging adulthood . The period of emerging adulthood is distinguished from adolescence and adulthood according to five characteristics:

  • The range of possibilities, choices and opportunities available to young people regarding their future;
  • Instability: all changes initiated by young people such as moving or changing training;
  • Exploration of identity, exploration of different possibilities from a sentimental and professional point of view;
  • Self-centeredness: normative, it allows young people to become self-sufficient, that is to say, to learn to fend for themselves;
  • The in-between, feeling of ambivalence between adolescence and adulthood: feeling neither an adolescent nor an adult.

This period could extend from 18 to 29 years depending on the societies and the life paths of young people (for example, depending on the speed of entry into the job market). This period results in an “age of possibilities” through a gain in autonomy, a relative independence from social rules, and a commitment to numerous exploratory behaviors. These young people will gradually try to find their place within society and in the “adult world” as independent individuals.

In parallel with Arnett’s work, in France, Olivier Galland evokes a new age of life reflecting a lengthening of the period between gaining independence from family authority and the founding of his family. own family . This period would be characterized by a form of ephemeral freedom not constrained by parental authority nor by new family commitments. Entry into adult life would no longer occur in a synchronized manner, at a given age, but would depend on each person’s own experiences.

Youth would thus constitute a phase of preparation for the exercise of adult roles. The feeling of being an adult would therefore be more linked to an accumulation of social experiences and no longer to an identification based on social and family heritage.

The emergence of adulthood, or new age of life, thus constitutes a period of psychosocial transition , that is to say a period accompanied by major, often lasting, changes affecting the representations of the world that people individuals have. This transition is gradual and ambiguous . At the family level, many changes will take place. Defining oneself as an adult will then be more linked to changes occurring within the family than to individual criteria.

Build your independence

“The adult” is thought of by young people as being both autonomous in their behavior and attitudes and also independent of their family and parents. Autonomy and independence, often confused, are two distinct concepts. Autonomy encompasses different constructs such as independence , detachment, self-governance and isolation. To be autonomous means to be able to act according to one’s own will, to experience choice and to self-regulate.

Independence is a facet of autonomy. Being independent means being able to make decisions for yourself, independently of your parents, for example. Autonomy is the expression of one’s own will while independence can be voluntary as well as constrained. For example, after obtaining the baccalaureate, the young person may find themselves in a situation of independence due to having to leave the family home to continue their studies and thus access training that they like.

Within the family, one relationship is particularly decisive in the development of the autonomy and independence of the individual, throughout their life: it is the parent-child relationship. In young people, this relationship is significant , because it will gradually evolve during adolescence and the emergence of adulthood. As the young person becomes an adult, as he begins to take responsibilities, as he has his own experiences outside the family home, a distancing will take place.

The parent-young person relationship will gradually be redefined to move from a hierarchical order to a more symmetrical order , of equals, which implies reciprocity . This transformation will be facilitated by leaving the family home and reflects a process of separation-individualization of the young person. This process involves the young person abandoning their infantile representations of themselves and the world around them to establish new conceptions of themselves as an entity distinct from their parents.

The young person, due to his development, no longer considers himself a child and no longer sees his parents as omniscient and all-powerful figures; there is a de-idealization of parents. Young people thus become aware of the distinction between their parents and themselves and actively seek to individualize themselves. The period of emerging adulthood can be conducive to an ambivalence of feelings between the desire to remain linked and close to one’s parents and the desire to become independent.

Separating while maintaining the bond: adjustments to the parent-child relationship

By gaining independence, the young person expects his parents to treat him no longer as a child, but as an adult. However, some parents may continue to feel the need to help the young person as if they were still a child. The difficulty will be to find a balance between distance and proximity in redefining the parent-young person relationship. The transition to adulthood would therefore result from microtransitions within the family home and macrotransitions outside it. In this sense, parents allow the young person to become a full-fledged adult.

The changes occurring in the parent-young person relationship may be poorly received by the parent who will continue to see the young person as a child and not as an adult in the making. The film My Baby which features Sandrine Kiberlain as a fusion mother seeking to preserve the slightest memory of her daughter who is about to leave the “family nest” is a perfect illustration of this. It demonstrates the difficulty of redefining the parent-young person relationship and the challenges of this period for both the young person and the parent.

The separation-individualization process is normative and allows the young person to have the feeling of their own individuality and therefore to be able to feel like an adult . Independence from one’s family, and more particularly from one’s parents, is at the center of the question of becoming an adult .

Author Bio: Basilie Chevrier is a Lecturer in Psychology at Aix-Marseille University (AMU)