It's easy to joke about boomerang kids - until your own offspring comes home from university broke, listless and symptomatic of an imminent failure to launch. For parents in this increasingly common bind, clinical psychologists Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen have a wake-up call: Apathetic teens and twentysomethings are a recent phenomenon. And well-meaning parents tend to make matters worse, they explain in Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old.
On the line from Charlottesville, Va., Dr. Joseph Allen tells us how to prepare teens for lift-off.
Why is 25 the new 15?
Increasingly, young people are not making it out on their own in the way they used to in generations past. Here is a simple statistic: The average [U.S.] college senior is in touch with their parents more than 13 times a week. And it's not because they have such close relationships. It's because they're getting help - from picking courses to editing papers to parents reminding them of deadlines.
Aren't you talking extreme helicopter parents here?
No, this is the norm. We also find that 60 per cent of young people are receiving financial support from their parents at age 23, even after the college years.
Is this what you call the nurture paradox?
Yes. We see parents who are running flat-out to provide everything they can for their teenagers, from lessons to tutors to prep courses to electronic gadgets. And we see teens who in spite of this nurturance seem helpless in the face of everyday tasks. We see bright, educated kids who don't know how to make a doctor's appointment, buy food at the grocery store, change a printer cartridge - even change a light bulb in some cases.
Do today's parents have too much time on their hands?
The nurturing instinct goes back as far as human history. But today's parents have more time and energy for their children, partly because they have smaller families. Increasingly, parents take on their kids as projects, just like they used to take on their careers or their house.
Rates of teen pregnancy, drinking, drug use and suicide are way down, according to recent surveys. So what are you seeing in your clinical practice?
We're seeing high rates of anxiety and depression. The average college student right now is as anxious as the average psychiatric patient was 50 years ago. If you put adolescents in a world where they can't really contribute to anyone in a meaningful way, all they have left is what college they get into or what their grades are. And they get incredibly anxious about it.
Are you saying that teen angst is a modern problem?
Yes. We've lengthened the period of education and that naturally puts kids in a more dependent role. And we don't realize just how much it goes against adolescents' wiring. Adolescents evolved over millions of years to take action, to engage in strenuous physical labour, to be very active participants in communities. Now they can hit [age]15 and have a decade ahead where all they're going to be asked to do is to sit in lectures and take notes and bubble in multiple-choice sheets.
Don't part-time jobs expose teens to the real world?
The problem with a lot of teen jobs is they're what we call a McJob. The workplaces are designed so that they can function well even if the teenagers in them are spaced-out and bored. If you're in those jobs, what you learn is that you can get through in a workplace by barely paying attention. You'd think these kids would learn financial responsibility, but they end up learning the opposite. We work with parents who are sweating bullets to pay their mortgage each month while their kids are buying iPhones and car stereos. They don't have any of the responsibilities that they're going to have as adults.
Should teens be helping with the mortgage then?
Sure. Or they could contribute to the family vacation. I'm not saying we should take all their money and treat kids badly. The point is that kids really feel good when they have a chance to contribute.
Why is it so hard for parents to help teens grow up?
As we turn our teens into adults, they need us less. Parents are afraid that as a result, they're not going to have the same quality of relationship. The parents are insecure. They are also sort of heartbroken. They have this child they've put all this energy into and when he or she is 15, it seems like the relationship is just gone. And it's not gone. Adolescents still want the relationship but they want it to be more like an adult relationship, not one that makes them feel like a child.
But according to your book, most teenagers reject 90 per cent of the approaches parents make.
Yes, but it's not personal. The 90-per-cent rejections are because teens are in the midst of this huge struggle to establish themselves within the larger world. So you take the 10 per cent when you can. Parents just need to suck it up.
How to grow an adult
Three ways to find your adolescent's inner adult:
Insist that teens do more tasks, from buying groceries to filling out college applications.
Why: When parents do things themselves because it's easier than coaching and cajoling, they deprive teens of crucial learning experiences and make them overly dependent.
Expect teens to get involved in meaningful volunteer work.
Why: Adolescents are hardwired for new challenges and they long for immersion in the adult world. When they get a chance to make a real contribution, they develop new skills and self-worth.
Give teens opportunities to screw up - and don't bail them out.
Why: Learning to deal with things like bounced cheques and flat tires helps teens cross over the threshold of adulthood.