by Elizabeth Klaers, MSW, LSW

If you have a son or daughter that is between the ages of 18 years old and twenty-something this question may feel familiar: What is happening…?

Although the specifics vary from family to family, the question often follows some behavior, choice, or thought process your son or daughter shares, which leaves you feeling completely baffled, frustrated, concerned, or any combination of the three. I have heard lots of parents ask this question, and I have asked it too.

As both a therapist and parent of two sons, both in their 20’s, I have been very interested in research that looks at human development and family relationships. I know firsthand that parents need to understand what is happening, but they also need practical strategies that will make a difference. So, first we’ll look at,

What is happening?

Yes, they are emerging into adulthood. It is a slow and steady process of unfolding.

Emerging adulthood is a term coined by Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a leading researcher in the field of human development. The term references the developmental stage between late teens to late twenties and provides a framework understanding this time of transformation from being adolescent to being adult. Arnett does a great service to families by outlining five features that distinguish this stage from adolescence and adulthood.

Emerging adulthood is a time of:

Identity exploration.

“Who am I?” Emerging adults have the task of trying many different things as they explore who they are, how they will live, and who they will love. By human design our mind defines everything by identifying it and giving it a name. For emerging adults the traditional adult titles associated with marriage, parenting, and professional careers will often not come until their late twenties and early thirties.


“Can I make my own way?” Following high school emerging adults often change living places as they move in with roommates, go to college, or live with a romantic partner. Often a move back into their parents’ house occurs, which can feel simultaneously nurturing and undesirable. Several big areas of life are unknown as they bounce around from place to place.


“How will I live?” No longer required to follow the parent- and society-directed routine of school, young people are fine tuning their own inner compass as they turn inward. They are getting to know the person they are becoming and clarifying where they belong and how they will fit in this changing world.

Feeling in between.

“When will I arrive?” While emerging adults are no longer bound by the rules and structure of adolescence, they are not yet standing fully on their own two feet. Despite being physically adult, many emerging adults will not experience the culturally acceptable or traditional markers of adulthood such as marriage, stable career, and having children until they are well into their twenties or even thirties. They may vacillate between dependence and autonomy much like they did when they were very young and transitioning from crawling to walking.

Age of possibilities.

“I can do anything!” Hope flourishes and the possibilities are endless. So many of the areas of life, profession, love, and hobbies are wide open and these young people often believe they will have a better quality of life than their parents.

Are any of these characteristics familiar to you? If yes, how are they showing up?

Stay tuned for Part Two, Emerging Adults: Six Parenting Tips That will Change Everything.

Elizabeth M. Klaers, MSW, LSW, is a parent and therapist who specializes in counseling individuals and families, both adults (emerging or otherwise) and young children. In addition to her private practice in Boulder, Elizabeth is a ProBono Therapist and Development Manager at Maria Droste Counseling Center.