But there's a downside as well. Some emerging adults feel overwhelmed by the challenges of this life stage and drift along aimlessly, waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. Sometimes parents are surprised and dismayed to find that the emotional and financial responsibilities of parenting last for many years longer than they had anticipated.
So, what should parents do? We think it's wise to be patient with emerging adults, as long as they seem to have a Plan with a capital P and are trying to move it along. Try to put aside the timetable that applied decades ago and respect the longer road to adulthood they are traveling today. Encourage them and provide support when they seem open to it, but learn when to step back and let them make their way — including their mistakes — on their own. It's a delicate balance.
Above all, parents, it can help to realize that the winding road to adulthood is the new normal. You may be relieved to learn that nearly everyone grows out of emerging adulthood and, by about age 30, takes on the roles of young adulthood — marriage, parenthood and a stable job. Seeing emerging adulthood as a normal stage of life today can help ease our anxiety and maybe even allow us to celebrate our emerging adults' energy, optimism and appetite for life.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties. Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer on family issues and the author of four nonfiction books, including Sisters and Reunion. They are working on a parents' guide to emerging adulthood, to be published by Workman in 2012.