Adolescence, now twice as long

They have been called “twixters” “adult-escents” or the “boomerang generation,” young adults of the upper and middle class who are just not growing up. They’ve been featured in TV shows, movies and multi-page New York Times articles. The trend may no longer be a media novelty, but these young people remain a reality for weary parents and, increasingly, mental health professionals.

It says it right on the cover of Laurence Steinberg’s new book, “You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 – 25,” which is a much longer time span than ever before.

Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, is a guru on adolescents and their brains. He has received many honors, most recently a million-dollar research prize, one of the largest prizes ever awarded to a social scientist. He says puberty hits at younger ages these days, so adolescence begins earlier; in many cases, it also lasts longer.

“Young people stay financially dependent on their parents for a longer period of time which then creates a number of psychological issues that are associated with adolescence,” he says.

Steinberg decided to include “late adolescence” in his book because he gets so many questions from parents who are not quite sure how to parent a kid who’s not really a kid anymore.


A day in the life

Take for example Pete Uzelac. The divorced software developer lives in Exton, a suburb of Philadelphia. His 21-year-old son has dropped out of college and moved home. They argue constantly, most recently over a dirty blender Pete found in the sink.

“He was downstairs playing games and I told him I wanted him to go up there and clean it, and he said he would get to it, and I said when,” recalled Uzelac. “He said I will get to it, and I said no I want it done now, he wouldn’t do it, so I pulled the plug on his video games. He gave me the f-word, and I said I want you out by this weekend.”

This is the stuff of many a therapy session in Michelle Jackson’s office at Philadelphia’s Council for Relationships. Census data show that more people are waiting long to hit the markers of adulthood–a steady job, a place of one’s own, marriage, kids. This, Jackson says, creates plenty of friction in families:

“It requires some very clear, very intentional negotiating about what’s expected, what’s appreciated, what’s appropriate,” she says.

Steinberg says the recession has played a role in pushing older kids back into their parents’ home, but this trend precedes the bad economy. In addition to societal factors, scientists are looking to new brain research to understand prolonged adolescence. He says the recognition that brain development is still ongoing during the early part of the 20s has led scientists to rethink what this age period is all about.

Imaging studies show that the brain keeps maturing well into the 20s, especially the areas responsible for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and balancing risk and reward.

On the brink of adulthood – and holding

Temple University senior Amanda McGrath admits that she doesn’t feel like an adult at all–and she struggles with some basic tasks of adult life.

“I don’t know how to manage money, I don’t know anything about taxes, half the time when I get a job I don’t ask about how much I make, it just doesn’t enter into my mind,” she said.

Even though she is aware of her shortcomings, McGrath is in no hurry to change. “I have the best of both worlds right now,” she said. “I don’t have to answer to anyone, and yet my life is completely funded.”

She says her parents help her out with whatever she needs. Parents do that a lot these days, observes therapist Jackson. “Actually, sometimes they are, perhaps from this field’s point of view, a bit too happy to contribute. A temptation to do for them, as opposed to support them while they learn,” she said.

McGrath admits she’s putting off learning important tasks because she doesn’t really have to. She and most of her friends dread graduation day because they don’t want to leave college, or the way of life they have right now.

Steinberg hopes his new book will help parents and kids navigate this new phase in their relationship. He encourages parents not to compare their kids to their peers, or to themselves at that age, but just to check on whether their young adult has a plan for the future that makes sense

Meanwhile, weary parents like Pete Uzelac, whose son is still living in his basement, can dream about forming a national organization called “moveout-dot-org.”

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