Why Reaching Adulthood is Complicated

Why Reaching Adulthood is Complicated

So Your Teen is Now an Adult

Clink the glasses together and celebrate, your children have reached adulthood in the eyes of society.

Maybe.When exactly does adulthood begin?

Society offers conflicting age markers. A 14 year old can be tried as an adult in a court of law, yet can’t leave the parental home without consent until age 16. By 18, a person can vote and join the military, yet can’t typically drink an alcoholic beverage until age 21. At 25, a person can adopt a child, yet can also remain under parental health care plans until age 26, or up to age 29 in some U.S. states. After turning 30 and 35, someone can be elected a U.S. senator or president, respectively, yet will have to wait until age 40 before claiming age discrimination in the workplace, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

So, there it is: 40. Now, your children have definitely reached adulthood, right?


Psychologists and sociologists say that transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is even more complicated than passing the various societal age markers when trying to understand self-perceived adulthood—the point in life when a person looks in the mirror and sees an adult staring back.

In his many popular articles and books, such as Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, the well-known psychologist Jeffery Arnett argues that most Americans have an elongated time period between adolescence and adulthood where they engage in self-exploration. They wrestle with religious and political views. They change jobs and residences. They experiment with love. In the duration, they formulate in their minds the characteristics of an adult. Then, as they achieve these favored characteristics, such as being financially independent or developing personal beliefs, they come to see themselves as an adult.

Sociologists, such as Richard A. Settersten, out of Oregon State University, add to the complexity of understanding self-perceived adulthood with scientific research that finds that the social environment is important. As young people take on more socially-designated adult-roles, such as starting a career, getting married, and having children, they are treated like adults by other people and, in response, come to think of themselves as adults. At the same time, they note that social context matters. Settersten and his colleagues discuss in the book, Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, “Young people are more likely to report feeling like adults when they are at work, with romantic partners or spouses, or with children, but they are less likely to report feeling like adults when they are with their parents and some of their friends, depending on the activity.”

So, there it is. Your children are adults when they meet their own qualifications for adulthood, fulfill the socially recognized roles of an adult, and are in the right place at the right time with the right people to feel like an adult. 

It’s that simple, except if they were born after 1994 and wanted to wet their whistle at the local watering hole. Then, it’s a Shirley Temple for them.

Justin A. Berg About Justin –  Justin Allen Berg is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Dakota. He teaches courses on aging and gets real life experience at home with three energetic kids.

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