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When Your Teen is Almost Grown-Up: How to Parent During Late Adolescence

A lot of terms are used to cover the span of years between childhood and adulthood, from “tween” to “teen” to “adolescent.” The term “adolescence” covers the years between 10 and 24 years old and generally refers to this time of significant change in physical and emotional development. 

It goes without saying that the difference between a 10 year old and a 24 year old makes it seem impossible that they could both be considered an “adolescent,” but both ages fit into this special category that refers primarily to the neurological, physical, and emotional transition from childhood to adulthood. 

To help better differentiate developmental stages, adolescence is typically broken down into 3 sub-phases: “early adolescence” (10-13), middle adolescence” (14-17), and “late adolescence” (18-24). 

This article focuses on late adolescence specifically, and will help to:

  • Understand the unique physical, neurological, and emotional development of this stage
  • Ways parents can support their late adolescent
  • How late adolescents can support themselves
  • How to connect and spend time with your late adolescent
  • When to consider professional mental health services during late adolescence

Late Adolescence vs. Other Stages

“Early adolescence” spans from 10-14 years. During this time, you may notice the beginning of  the physical onset of puberty, changes in the intensity and suddenness of moods, and an increase in their desire for privacy and/or new experiences. 

“Middle adolescence” spans from 14-17 years. You’ll likely notice rapid physical changes from the full onset of puberty, some elements of more “mature” or adult-like thinking and perspectives at times, increased argumentativeness and desire for separation, and more interest in new friendships and romantic relationships.

What to expect in Late Adolescence

Even though the 18-year mark is when teens are legally considered adults, technically your child is still an adolescent until their neurological development is complete around age 24. While you may notice physical and emotional changes slowing during this time, this can be the period of the largest changes in your family when your teen embarks on a college or work journey outside of your family for the first time. 

Physical

Your teenager will have finished their physical development by this time, and you’ll see them settle into their adult physical form. Remaining positive about body changes is essential as they navigate romantic relationships and find independence from the family. While you will likely have much less involvement in your now-adult child’s medical life, remaining a source of positive support for them emotionally will continue to help their developing worldview and relationships.

Neurological

Your teen may surprise you by demonstrating mature and complex thinking all of the sudden. Usually these moments are warmly emotional and relieving for parents, when you watch your teen making calmer and more forward-thinking choices. At the same time, new found freedom may bring riskier choices and the toughest challenges in your relationship yet. For most parents, it’s a mixture of both. 

Emotional

The unpredictability of your teen’s moods may seem to abate as they move through late adolescence. You may notice a calmer approach in relationships as well, but these years can also contain first heartbreaks and endings of friendships as they explore a larger social world. Large changes continue to be the norm into your child’s 20s. Encourage them to lean into their developing values as they navigate ever more complex relationships.

Ways parents can support their late adolescent

It may feel that your child has become an adult “all of the sudden,” and you may experience a moment where it feels like you’ve finished the task of parenting them - this can come with a big mix of emotion for parents ranging from pride to anxiety. There may also be times when your late adolescent feels distinctly like a teen still, and you may wonder if you’ll ever be “done.” The answer, like with all parenting, lies somewhere in the middle. Parenting a late adolescent will be a balance of allowing them the most freedom and space they’ve ever had, while still putting in conscious effort to remain connected in new ways.

If your late-adolescent is going to be leaving home for the first time, it’s important to establish expectations and routines for remaining connected before they leave home. Frequently, parents want more communication than their late adolescent does - this is normal. Talk with them about what they’d like staying in touch to look like, and any flexibility around this. Just as with the younger years, your involvement in their life continues to be important as they grow. But now that they are an adult, they should have an equal say in the boundaries of communication.

The big transitions that accompany moving to college or living apart from family for the first time can be when mental health concerns emerge. A routine of remaining connected with your child can help with connecting to support if they are struggling with feelings of anxiety or isolation. Substance use can also emerge as an issue for the first time when a late-adolescent is living away from home. Demonstrate that you can accept and discuss difficult topics, and have regular conversations about safety and what to do in unsafe situations.

5 Quick Ideas for Connecting with your Late Adolescent

1. “Thought of You” or “Tried Something New” 

If living apart for the first time, keep a phone-note of moments when you thought of each other during a time period like a week or a month. Alternatively, you can keep a note of new experiences you had or things you learned. Keep a balance to your responses with your child - if they share one thing, you share one or two things. 

2. “Looking Forward to It” 

Plan for the next time you’ll see each other, and share excitement over that time. If a physical visit is impractical, plan a phone or video event. Expect to meet a slightly (or very) different person when your late adolescent returns home, and show positivity and warm curiosity about this. Make plans for the next time before your time together ends.

3. “Best thing/Worst Thing” 

Start a conversation by asking and sharing what was the best part of the month/week/day - it can be as simple as the best thing you ate, or a larger conversation about something you’ve both learned. If appropriate, you can pair it with the “worst” thing that happened. Listen and try to remember previous things your late adolescent told you

4. “You Taught Me” 

Late adolescents like to feel like they have knowledge and expertise to share - most people do in general, but late adolescents in particular. Try seeking advice from your late adolescent for something in your life, and then describe how it’s helped you. The best topics are “middle ground” - something important enough that your child feels invested, but not so big that you’re blurring your parental role. A small conflict at work, making plans with family, or community happenings can all be good starting points.

5. “I admire…” 

Helping your late adolescent shape their own values can feel like a big task. One way to build toward this in small ways is labeling things that you “admire” about them, such as “I love that you are considerate of your friends” or “I love that you make time for sports.” As you repeat these things, it gives your late adolescent a way to communicate and reinforce who they are.

When to consider professional mental health services during late adolescence

While parents and friends can certainly help a late adolescent navigate many challenges, there are times when a professional therapist can bring needed expertise and support. When in doubt, it never hurts to explore options for therapy, and the right counselor will help answer questions about how much, if any, intervention is required. Here are a few signals that your late adolescent’s stress may be overwhelming their coping capacity:

  • Anxious, depressed, or irritable mood that is consistent and lasts 2 weeks or more
  • Oversleeping or insomnia
  • Missing work or school
  • Social isolation
  • Self-critical thoughts and trouble concentrating
  • Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, or fatigue

If you discover that your late adolescent is struggling with more significant symptoms of a mental health concern, connecting to a professional counselor and/or medical professional may be more urgent. Here are some signals that more urgent mental health intervention should be considered:

  • Panic attacks that may look like a medical emergency
  • Self-harm and suicidality
  • Disordered eating and body image concerns that affect behavior
  • Sudden, significant sleep disruption
  • Intense conflict or relationship violence
  • Concerning substance use, like “blacking out” or substance use requiring medical intervention
  • Refusing to go out, or hearing or seeing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)

If you’re preparing to talk to your late adolescent about contacting a mental health professional, you can do some work ahead of time to find resources and referrals that are local, affordable, and accessible to them.

The late adolescent years are full of meaningful change for both you and your child. They can bring a mixture of joy and uncertainty, but bonding with your child into their adult years brings a lot to look forward to. If you or your late adolescent could benefit from more support, consider therapy at Joon Care, where every provider is a trained expert in adolescents. We’d love to support you.

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May 17, 2023
Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

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