Worried about your child reaching his 18th birthday – a milestone into adulthood? This article helps you understand them better and provide the right support.
By Aparna Samuel Balasundaram
You are the bows from which your children, as living arrows, are sent forth
- Kahlil Gibran
The struggle that most parents experience is that while their18-year-olds have gained a huge jump in their legal status, their social, emotional and cognitive growth may not have seen a proportionate jump.
Research in developmental psychology clearly shows that most 18-year-olds transitioning into early adulthood are ready to fly the nest! However, research also demonstrates that they still need parental guidance and support to help them manoeuvre through the challenges they face in important areas such as career choices, relationships, regulating emotions and dealing with social realities.
The best way to understand an 18-year old is by taking a deeper look at the four dimensions of biopsychosocial development. This approach is designed to offer a holistic perspective of your older teen’s growth process.
By this age, most 18-year-olds ‘look’like adults, having reached their adult height and body proportions. They have moved past the challenges of their earlier awkward teen years. However, if they are not content with their height or body proportions (for example, the size of their chest, genital organs, etc.) they might still struggle with body image issues.
By this age, the larger peer group has less of a pull and impact. They now make fewer friends, but these relationships run deeper and longer. So,while they are not looking to be voted Mr Popular by a large group of peers, they will be more influenced by this closer and smaller group of friends they associate with. As they experience more freedom and move from a school to a college environment, they might also start exploring intimate relationships.
Most 18-year-olds are poised to take on the world and establish their place under the sun! They are moving towards being more independent, making important decisions, fending for themselves,taking risks and developing a sense of self-identity. Some of them might be idealistic and enthusiastic in their world viewpoints, and take on social causes or engage in social advocacy. There will be the group of extreme thrill seekers [as they experiment with drugs or their sexuality] who take risks and push societal boundaries. Most of them, however, would be focussed on next steps with regards to their career [especially in the Indian context].
As discussed earlier, most 18-year-olds look like adults on the outside and have reached most of the physical milestones. However, what is interesting to note is that their brain has still not fully matured! Recent neuroscience research shows that the rational or the ‘executive suite’ of the brain reaches full maturation only in themid-20s. The executive suite helps in skills related to better judgement, problem-solving, planning ahead, self-evaluation, decision-making and regulation of impulses and emotions. This explains why an 18-year-old still requires parental or other adult mentoring and support (but not supervision!)
Now that we have a better understanding of the inner workings of an 18-year-old, let’s look at how we can support him. As concerned caregivers and parents, our basic instinct is to protect, nurture and ‘take over’! However, this would be working against the psychosocial needs of our 18-year-old. As parents, we have mixed emotions- the world sees our 18-year-old as a recognised legal adult, but as a parent, we still see our 18-year-old as needing protection and find it hard to cut that emotional umbilical cord!
Appropriate support of your older teen will require you to first pause and even take a step back. This creates a space for your 18-year-old to try out their new wings as they learn to flap and get ready to take their first flight away from the nest!
Here are three things you can do to support them as they start out on their own worldly quest:
Whether you realise it not, you are your child’s first role model, and you have the choice to be her best or worst role model! As she gets ready to step into adulthood herself,all that she has been absorbing over the years will start taking concrete shape. Remember, your older teen is going to push the boundaries, so, your role as a parent is to gently guide and lend her direction, without stepping on her need for independence. It’s a fine line! The best way to do this is not by merely ‘telling’ but by ‘doing’ yourself. More than ever you teach by demonstrating - be the role model in true sense.
As your teen grows older, you will see that there is a shift in the relationship dynamics. You can no longer use the methods you used before to discipline or connect with your younger teen. While you are still the parent, you now take on the role of being an adult friend too. Remember, your role is not to be his ‘best buddy’; rather it is to be a non-judgemental friend, who can also be his emotional and moral compass. As most of the activities you shared earlier will not exist now, you will have to make a conscious effort to focus on looking for new ways to connect. Your 18-year-old is now ready for college and he may even leave home to attend an out of state or country university.
You were used to raising your child, but the focus now is to help your older teen ‘raise herself! You will see that she will have an inherent desire to make decisions, and some of these decisions might not turn out good! Remember, you have to be non-judgemental, as your teen has to learn to get up by herself when she falls.This does not mean that you are emotionally absent from her life. You have to be present, cheer her on with your reassurance and warmth, and if she reaches out, lend a helping hand. I liken it to a boxing match. Like the boxer, your child has to wear gloves and get into the arena of life and fight her own battles. But, you are the coach that steps in, encourages her with words, strengthens her with a strategy and a game plan, nourishes her with water and even helps relax her with a massage. But you cannot wear the gloves and fight for her. It’s her match. Even if she stumbles or fails in one match, she will have many more chances to succeed.
As parents of 18-year-olds, this should ring loud and clear - you are the bows that transfer strength and energy to your children, and they absorb that power to set meaningful targets and direction to shape their own destinies. Kahlil Gibran really understood this! His poem below captures this truth of parenting aptly:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
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Aparna Samuel Balasundaram