Ending the 'Endless Adolescence': U.Va. Psychologists Tell How in New Book

November 16, 2009 — Parental nurturing is backfiring, and as a result a generation of teens is growing up less independent, less skilled at common tasks – from doing laundry to choosing college classes – and increasingly unprepared for adulthood, studies show.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Fariss Samarrai:

Even young adults often are highly reliant on their parents; more than 60 percent of 23-year-olds and 30 percent of 25-year olds are still financially supported by their parents.

"We call it 'the Nurture Paradox,'" University of Virginia clinical psychologists Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen write in their new book, "Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How to Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old." "Today's parents are trying so hard to nurture their teens that they end up not preparing them for adulthood."

The Allens say the problem occurs when parents do too much for their teens, effectively stifling their ability to take flight. And often parents try to protect their kids from falling, from facing the failures and disappointments that should naturally come when they test their wings.

"Parents need to teach their teens to do for themselves, so they can build competence, and confidence," Joseph Allen said. "We tell parents they should have an internal alarm bell that should ring anytime they find themselves doing anything that their teen could be learning to do for him or herself."

But the Allens say teens should be doing more than just doing for themselves; they should also be doing for others, and contributing to the family, whether by doing chores, tutoring a younger sibling or even handing over part of a paycheck during difficult financial times.

"We tell parents that as much as you do for your teens, as much as they're doing for themselves, every teenager should be doing something for somebody other than themselves on a regular basis," Claudia Allen said. "Teens need that as a fundamental character-builder."

Joseph Allen recalls one teenager who had been adrift, but found a mooring when he volunteered at a summer camp for disabled children.

"He discovered that he could actually be of some use to someone else, and it was a great revelation to him," he said. "With the right kinds of challenge, even the most sluggish and apathetic teens can come alive."

Teens must also be allowed to make mistakes, to fail at things, and to take responsibility for those failures, Joseph Allen said.

"We tell parents that letting young people make mistakes and learn from their failures is what starts to make them feel like adults; that handling one's own mistakes is one of the things that distinguishes adults from adolescents," he said.

Teens, he said, learn by experience, and parents must allow and encourage those opportunities that will prepare them for the inevitable world of adulthood.

"Nurturance partly means asking something back from them and that's what really makes teens spring to life," he said.

— By Fariss Samarrai