High school senior Marcus Webster looks much closer developmentally to the young man he’s becoming than to the 17-year-old he’s leaving behind. He's a happy mixture of hard work and play, from hours spent doing homework or babysitting to games and pranks with friends and the abandon with which he pursues his passion for dance.
But he’s starting to show the maturity and emotional intelligence of future-man Marcus. He will graduate in two months and he’s trying to line up all the pieces so he can afford college, where he plans to study engineering.
Initially, he will live with his mom, Michelle Smith, and sisters Marcelina, 3, and Meesha, 13, in Salt Lake City. But he’s aiming for a day when he has his own place and job and pays his own bills. That feels like the next step into adulthood.
The National Center for Education Statistics says 3.25 million high school seniors will graduate this year. Millions more are preparing to launch into adulthood from colleges, trade programs and jobs. They are all, to some degree, asking questions Marcus has been pondering: "What do I still need to know? Am I ready to be independent?"
Experts suspect that for many of them, that answer is "no." Tim Elmore, president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps youths develop leadership skills, said conversations with parents, teachers and prospective employers often include a lament: "We are finding these kids are cognitively and biologically ahead, physically bigger and stronger than ever, but emotionally and socially behind."
Young people may be academically prepared, but often they try to move into adulthood without life skills they need, said Marie Schwartz, founder of TeenLife.com, a curated search engine connecting teens with enrichment opportunities. She said surveys show 60 percent of students feel unprepared emotionally for college.
Soon-to-be adults with emotional, social and related deficiencies will have a harder time launching successfully. Decision-making, finding direction and forging a path will be trickier, experts say.
Marcus isn't entirely sure he's ready for the next phase of life; still, he’s probably in better shape than many of his peers. His mom and friends describe him as mature and responsible, with a pretty clear notion of what he wants to do and the steps it will take to get there.
Self-aware and capable
Anxiety often results when students aren’t well prepared emotionally or socially, said Laura Padilla-Walker. She has studied helicopter parenting — parents who “hover” over their offspring to meet every need, answer every question and clear any obstacle — as an associate professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.
She’s not convinced students are adequately prepared academically, either. “However, what I do know is that anxiety problems are one of the biggest reasons students seek help at the counseling center here at BYU, so it is a problem that is on the rise.”
Padilla-Walker believes feeling unprepared academically or socially contributes to emotional problems. “It could be that parents allowing more autonomy during adolescence would facilitate teens developing these skills earlier.”
Schwartz defines emotional preparedness as being able to take care of oneself, from knowing basics like how to eat, sleep and pay bills, to adapting to new environments, controlling negative emotions and behaviors and building positive relationships.
To get there, kids must take the lead more in their lives as they grow. Elmore said many challenges facing emerging adults would be more manageable if, growing up, they had a healthy amount of both autonomy and responsibility. “When a child has autonomy without responsibility, parents build a brat,” he said. A child given only responsibility flails, too.
"I feel like the mentors of this emerging generation need to always remember to distribute those as much as they can equally. 'I've got some independence, but I also have responsibility to make sure I navigate this well and I'm sobered by the responsibility that comes with it,'" Elmore said. "We need to be velvet-covered bricks. 'I am responsive to you. I am demanding of you.’"
Some parents send their children out into the world with just a "don't party too much" warning, said New York City child and adolescent family therapist Darby Fox. "It's really a lot more about giving them an awareness that now they can make some decisions on their own and you are there as someone to bounce ideas off, but they need to see themselves as decisionmakers. To do that, they need to know who they are as people."
Before they're ready for independence, young people need a sense of who they are and what they believe, said family therapist Melody Li, co-founder of the Austin Counseling Collective in Austin, Texas. Knowing one's boundaries and values regarding issues like sex, drugs and alcohol and how to communicate it to others will prove essential when they run their own lives, she said.
Parents need to use their considerable influence not to dictate their children's futures, but to help them develop the muscles to choose wisely for themselves, Li said.
A young person should be able to communicate — in writing, orally and as a public speaker —to achieve objectives: negotiating a relationship, talking to employers and professors, dealing with landlords and others, as well as resolving conflicts, said Schwartz.
That's hard for tech-immersed teens, who Elmore calls "screenagers." Fox emphasized those who don't put phones away and learn to talk directly to others will struggle to have real relationships. Technology has "interrupted an important adolescent phase" in which young people should develop the skills for intimate relationships. Instead, they are learning to be "alone together."
Back to basics
A great deal of interplay exists between emotional and practical life skills. Maturity alone won’t ensure success without knowing the nuts and bolts of living.
“One of the primary skills that I see high school students struggle with is the problem-solving associated with daily life,” said college admissions consultant Jodi Rosenshein Atkin of Rochester, New York. “If you go to college and don’t have a car, how will you buy laundry detergent? If you have never made your own medical appointment, being sick on campus will be more challenging because not only do you have to take care of yourself, you have to know how to call and make the appointment with health services.
"If you are not comfortable speaking with unfamiliar adults, how will you approach a professor when a class is listed as ‘full’ but you still need or want to take it THIS term? Parents would be doing their kids a favor if over the course of the last two years of high school they seize the teaching moments ordinary life presents” and ask kids how they'd handle it.
Because college is a tough transition, Padilla-Walker said parents should remain involved, but “strike a balance between being supportive, while still allowing one’s child the freedom needed to develop adult autonomy. That includes sometimes letting them face negative consequences, “but providing the emotional support as a parent to aid them in making mistakes a learning experience.”
Author-educator Leslie Maloney of Palm Bay, Florida, tells parents as they map strategies for success to make sure kids understand the role of physical needs like exercise, nutrition and getting enough sleep. Caring for the body strengthens coping ability.
"Transitions are difficult, especially when it's your first big transition. Managing stress is the center point of that move," she said.
She advocates breathing techniques to alleviate stress and anxiety, which can derail attempts at independence. Kids who can calm themselves and practice mindfulness, who can be quiet amid life's chaotic moments, will better handle challenges, said Maloney, author of "Things to Remember as You Fly From the Nest."
Financial worries are often part of that chaos, closely related to ability to communicate, to know one’s own skills, to be responsible. "Money is a piece that's very stressful for any kid leaving high school and going on in life, whether they're managing their own money or just trying to figure it out," said Fox.
Young people need to know how to work — and that work is not always going to be fun, said Fox. "We each need to find something that we enjoy doing, but we are not looking for something that's really fun on a daily basis. Nothing you do from whatever time each day is going to be fun all the time. It's more about thinking, again, where are you going, what are you learning from this and how do you see yourself in the future?"
Nurturing what brings joy is important, too, said Li. "Find something life-giving. It could be a passion, a hobby, an opportunity to volunteer."
Making time for pleasure, Schwartz said, is basic to taking care of mind, body, social life, spirituality and intellectual life in a well-rounded way. "They need something that takes them outside of themselves, maybe spirituality or art. I remind them not to lose that as they're focusing on becoming an adult."
Talking and prioritizing
His finances will determine some of Marcus' immediate plans, his mom said. He will attend the college he can best afford.
Smith and her son have talked at length about freshman college drop-out rate and how important it is to get through that first year. They've talked about picking a major he'll like and stick with but that will also yield a job. They’ve talked about student debt. She hopes he can avoid too much in student loans.
He's recently had his own credit card to manage, with a small line of credit. He's had important conversations with his dad about responsibility and honesty and doing things right.
It took Smith a while to complete college, so she has emphasized prioritizing getting a degree. He arrived at West High School in seventh grade as part of the program for gifted students. He is a popular kid who giggles when you mention he was homecoming king.Comment on this story
His mom has also emphasized the practical: cooking and cleaning — which they tackle together on weekends when she gets home from her job driving light rail trains for the local transit authority. While she works, he's responsible for his sisters. Smith figures caring for the baby has given Marcus a step up on parenting — and realization there are many things he'd like to do before taking that step in life.
Recently, Marcus considered whether he's ready to launch. "I guess I do already know that you need to be responsible for not only your own actions, but basically everything else that would have to come with your life up to that point. You have to know exactly where you need to put your time, how you need to manage all those things that you have to get done. I guess it comes down to owning up to your responsibility and action. I think I do have a general understanding of what that needs to be."
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