Emerging Adulthood in the Context of Family
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines emerging adulthood within the context of family, with emphasis on how emerging adults’ relationships with their parents today compare in the past and how parents help young adults in attaining markers of adulthood such as finishing college, finding a partner, or starting a family. It begins by considering past and recent trends in emerging adults’ relationships with their parents, paying particular attention to three aspects of these relationships: contact, tangible and nontangible support, and coresidence. It then looks at changes in parental involvement with young adults and the factors underlying these changes. The chapter also discusses the roles or aspects of emerging adults’ lives in which parents are most involved and how effective such involvement is in fostering successful transitions in those areas. Finally, it analyzes theories about overparenting and the benefits of parental involvement.
By definition, parents play a key role in emerging adulthood. Indeed, 18- to 25-years-olds experience a high degree of dependency and involvement with parents. Scholars and the public debate whether parental involvement at this stage of life fosters transitions to adulthood or stifles autonomy. The premise of a “helicopter” parent has taken hold due to media attention and some research attention to this premise (Aleccia, 2013; Segrin, Woszidlo, Givertz, Bauer, & Murphy, 2012). Certainly, parental behavior with young adults often stands out as different from prior decades in the eyes of many observers. In academic circles, legends abound of a parent arriving on campus mid-semester or telephoning a professor to demand an extension on an assignment or a grade change. Nonetheless, such intrusive behaviors are anomalous.
Rather, evidence suggests most emerging adults benefit when they have strong ties to parents (Fingerman et al., 2012b). Young people may derive material and emotional support, advice, and knowledge from their parents; this support may allow them to make better decisions and experience successful entry into adult roles. It is worth considering whether these patterns hold true for both genders, for different ethnic and racial groups, and across countries.
As such, this chapter focuses on relationships with parents during emerging adulthood and addresses three key questions: (1) in what ways are emerging adults’ relationships with their parents today different from or similar to young adults’ relationships with parents in the past?; (2) how do parents provide a safety net or assist young adults to reach markers of adulthood such as completion of education, finding a mate, or starting a family?; and (3) what aspects of these relationships vary by family form or ethnic or national origin?
(p. 164) Past and Recent Trends in Emerging Adults’ Relationships with Parents
As other chapters in this volume attest, young adults in industrialized societies experience a more protracted entry into adult roles than in the past. Prolonged education, searching for new opportunities, and delayed entry into more permanent relationships (e.g., marriage) characterize “emerging adulthood” for many young people (Arnett, 2007). Less well-off young people may struggle to find steady employment and jump from job to job less out of choice than necessity. To understand this stage of life, we also need to consider the parental involvement that accompanies these explorations or that buffers against the instability. A grown child may lack employment or fail to find a partner, regardless of whether or how their parents interact with him or her. Yet, for young people to successfully explore options, dependence on some other party is essential. Parents are most likely to fulfill this role.
Nonetheless, the question remains whether young adults today are actually highly involved with parents, and, if so, whether this involvement represents a change from the historical past. Parental involvement may take many forms, ranging from a diffuse sense that the parent cares for the child to direct intrusion in establishing the roles of adulthood, such as selection of a mate and choice of career. Parental involvement in emerging adulthood tends to be marked more by the former, subjective sense of concern, as well as by less forceful support. As we discuss later, in some families, parents may intrude into their grown children’s romantic relationships and educational and workplace activities, but in most families, parents find ways to assist without undermining young people. In particular, researchers have focused on three aspects of emerging adults’ involvement with parents: (a) contact, (b) tangible and nontangible support, and (c) coresidence.
Research has documented an increase in contact between young adults and their parents over the past few decades. Throughout much of human history, contact between adults and parents was a function of geographic proximity. Adult family members who shared a farm or a trade were in daily contact. Generations sharing a household had little private time. Yet, throughout history, some women or men also married into different families, tribal groups, or otherwise migrated away from their parents and family of origin. In those situations, contact may have been extremely rare and primarily by letter once that possibility arose.
By the 20th century, technological advances had eased the difficulties of adults and parents in maintaining contact, even when separated geographically. Telephones and cars, the modern conveniences of that century, facilitated these bonds. Nonetheless, long-distance rates and airfares were prohibitive for many families. Thus, if young adults lived outside the immediate environ of parents, contact might be limited and infrequent. The deregulation of the long-distance telephone market in the 1980s opened a door for cheaper long-distance calls and increased contact from afar. With the advent of email, Skype, cell phones, and texting, the 21st century has rendered contact basically free regardless of geographic proximity.
Communication technologies over the past three decades have been accompanied by increased frequency of contact between adults and parents. For example, we examined data from the American Changing Lives survey of adults in United States that asked about contact with grown children, in person, by phone, or by mail in 1986, 1989, and in 1994 (House, 2010). When we compared these rates of contact to data from the Family Exchanges Study collected in 2008, we found a linear increase in contact among adults aged 18–25 and their parents from the mid- 1980s to the 21st century (Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe et al., 2012a). These trends are notable in the proportion of young adults who maintain contact once a week or more often. In 1986, only 52% of young adults did so; in 1989, 54% of young adults did so; and by 1994, 56% of young adults did so. In 2008, we found that 62% of grown children were in touch with parents several times a week. Moreover, a recent national survey found that more than half (55%) of emerging adults reported that they are in touch with their parents via text, email, or phone nearly every day (Arnett & Schwab, 2013).
These trends appear to be similar in many Western countries. A cross-national study examined data from the International Social Survey Programme collected 15 years apart (in 1986 and in 2001) in six European countries (Austria, Germany [western side only], Great Britain, Hungary, Italy), the United States, and Australia (Treas & Gubernskaya, 2012). The study revealed increased contact between adults and their mothers throughout these Western countries during those 15 years, particularly non-face-to-face contact relying on (p. 165) telephone, Internet, or other technology rather than requiring geographic proximity.
Notably, a majority of young people today are in contact with their parents on a frequent basis (Arnett & Schwab, 2013), but it would be overstating the case to assume that all adults have such ties or that such ties represent a seismic shift in the nature of these relationships. In the mid-1980s, many young adults reported weekly contact with parents, and bonds between the generations were typically emotionally close (Umberson, 1992). Variability in ties has been notable over time as well. Even in the 2010s, nearly a fifth of young adults are in contact with parents less frequently than once a week.
Support from Parents
Perhaps the change that attracts the greatest attention pertains to parental support of adults during the transition to adulthood. Popular perceptions suggest that young adults are overly dependent on their parents today. Yet, parental support has been pervasive throughout the centuries. Indeed, historically, young people derived their livelihood and future “careers” from their parents. Today, these trends remain, albeit support is typically provided in monetary and nontangible forms rather than the legacy of a career. Studies conducted in many Western nations—the United States, Norway, England, Germany, Spain, and Israel—find that parents give more to their grown children than the reverse, until parents incur health declines in old age (Fingerman Pitzer et al., 2011; Lowenstein & Daatland, 2006). Even in Asian countries, where Confucian ideals suggest grown children should support parents (rather than the reverse), new norms have resulted in increased downstream support from parents to young adults (Fingerman et al., 2013; Kim, Cheng, Zarit, & Fingerman, in press). Thus, parental support in young adulthood is neither new nor uncommon.
Several studies suggest that parents provide financial assistance to emerging adults and have done so for the past few decades. Research examining financial support of grown offspring has used different metrics in different studies. Some studies have used a metric as to whether help of different types is ever provided (e.g., Lowenstein & Daatland, 2006; Silverstein, Conroy, Wang, Giarrusso, & Bengtson, 2002, at one point in time), whereas other studies examine frequency of support (e.g., Fingerman, Pitzer et al., 2011; Silverstein et al., 2002, in a different wave of data collection), and studies of financial support look at the amount of money given (e.g., Johnson, 2013; Schoeni & Ross, 2005). Although it is difficult to make true comparisons using different metrics, there appears to be a net increase in monetary support parents provide young adults compared to 30–40 years ago.
Using data from the 1980s and 1990s, Schoeni and Ross (2005) reported that 34% of American young adults aged 18–34 received cash assistance from parents. Younger adult children typically receive more frequent support from parents than do older adult children (Fingerman, Miller, Birditt, & Zarit, 2009); thus, the rates for emerging adults were likely higher than reported for the overall sample in Schoeni’s study. Nonetheless, Johnson (2013) presented data from 2001 in which 75% of a national US sample aged 18–28 reported receiving financial assistance in the past year, with a modal amount of $1,000. Our data from the US Family Exchanges Study collected in 2008 found that 85% of offspring aged 18–28 had received financial assistance in the past year, with a modal response of $1,000 a year or more. Given the economic downturn that started in late 2008, financial assistance to young adults may be even more pervasive, particularly because young adults were particularly hard hit by unemployment during the recession. Thus, financial support has been common in young adulthood for several decades but appears to be increasing over time.
Moreover, parents provide other types of support both in tangible forms and in terms of advice and emotional support. The United States also recently formally recognized parental dependency during the period of emerging adulthood via regulations requiring health insurance companies to allow parental provision of insurance to emerging-adult children. Typical health insurance plans in the United States offered the option for parents to include children in a family health insurance plan until the children reached the age of majority at 18 or (in some cases) while continuing to be a student. Beginning in 2010, the Affordable Care Act required health insurance plans in the United States to offer parents the option of paying for grown children aged 18–26 to remain on their health insurance plan, regardless of whether the young adult was a student (US Department of Labor, 2013). This may be one of the first instances of government policy in the United States linking the age period of emerging adulthood to enforce a right to parental support.
(p. 166) Coresidence
In addition to providing support and time to offspring, many parents provide offspring with room and board via coresidence in the same household. In countries that view leaving the parental home as a marker of the entry to adulthood, coresidence may be viewed as a form of support characteristic of delayed independence. Nonetheless, examination of rates of coresidence suggests that such living arrangements often accompany emerging adulthood but do not determine this stage of life.
In many European countries, rates of coresidence between young adults and their parents have declined since the mid-20th century (Treas & Gubernskaya, 2012). Moreover, coresidence is variable across nations. Newman and Aptekar (2006) conducted a study of intergenerational coresidence across six European countries. They found that rates of coresidence were highest in Southern European countries (e.g., Spain, Italy), where up to 60% of grown children reside with parents, and lowest in Scandinavian countries (e.g., Sweden), where only 10% of grown children reside with parents. These patterns reflect government policies, availability of housing, the job market, and cultural values. In northern European countries, government subsidies assist young adult students to pay for housing, and rental apartments are widely available. For example, in the Netherlands, 42% of housing is available for rental. Young adults and parents alike value the young adults’ leaving home. In Spain, subsidies are not widely available, the rental property market is tight, and it is difficult for young adults to obtain a mortgage. Parents and grown children alike also enjoy coresidence and believe something will be lost when the grown child leaves home. It is probably no coincidence that public policies and values go hand-in-hand among modern democracies, where elected officials represent the population values. The net effect, however, is that coresidence patterns are multidetermined.
In the United States, due to the economic downturn during the first decade of the 21st century, a recent study found that nearly 1 in 3 young adults have returned to the parental home (Seltzer, Strohm, & Bianchi, 2011), if only temporarily. In the United States, coresidence also appears to be more closely linked to economic and family structure. When Americans report their attitudes and beliefs about coresidence, they attribute their acceptance of coresidence to the child’s economic and family circumstances. There had been a net increase in coresidence since 1990, but not since the early 20th century, when coresidence was the norm until grown children married. Seltzer and colleagues further found that Americans view such coresidence as an acceptable alternative to separate households when offspring suffer economic problems and are unmarried (Seltzer, Strohm, & Bianchi, 2011). By contrast, in Nordic countries, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, government subsidies play a key role in assisting unemployed young adults (Newman & Aptekar, 2006); thus, economic downturns do not necessarily lead to increased coresidence with parents.
Explanations for Changes in Parental Involvement
These novel patterns of relationships between emerging adults and their parents beg the question: why have relationships between parents and young adults changed? As already discussed, explanations for these changes reflect wider societal changes in technology, economic factors (including the need for prolonged education), family structures, and values.
Economic forces certainly bear the brunt of the responsibility for these changes. The late 20th century saw the demise of the ability to obtain well-paying jobs with little education. During the early and mid-20th century, individuals could obtain relatively high-paying jobs involving skilled labor starting in the teenage years; by the 21st century, higher education became nearly the sole entry to a good career (Furstenberg, 2010). Moreover, in many European countries, a shift from guaranteed long-term employment to temporary short-term contracts has curtailed the ability of young adults to obtain mortgages or to build up savings to afford to leave the parental home (Newman & Aptekar, 2006).
Other economic changes are paradoxical regarding offspring’s delayed independence. For example, women entered the paid workforce in increasing numbers since the middle of the 20th century. These demands on women’s time might be expected to curtail maternal time and investment in grown children, but this was not the case. Economic forces requiring greater skills for employment explain some of the changes in parent–child ties in young adulthood, but other aspects of the economy suggest that this is not the full story.
Prolonged education associated with economic changes also may contribute to the increase in parental contact and support. The past few decades have seen an increase in the proportion of young (p. 167) adults who enter higher education following completion of high school. Students typically require financial support to cover costs of tuition and/or living fees. Government subsidies assist students in Scandinavian countries, but subsidies in other European countries have declined in recent years and/or tuition and fees have increased, requiring parents to assist more. Moreover, students often have greater flexibility in scheduling than do working young adults and thus have greater latitude and flexibility to spend time with parents. As such, research consistently finds that students receive more of many types of support from parents than do nonstudents (Attias-Donfut & Wolff, 2000; Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe et al., 2012a). Furthermore, a study of college students conducted in Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, and the United States found that students in all four countries reported frequent contact and high levels of support from their parents (Fingerman et al., 2013).
Yet when scholarly explanations for parent–child ties focus on extrafamilial factors such as smartphones and poor job opportunities for young people, family structure is often neglected. Scholars have argued that intergenerational ties have strengthened over the past two decades due to a variety of demographic trends (Fingerman & Birditt, 2011; Swartz, 2009). For example, young adults marry later than in the past (Hymowitz, Carroll, Wilcox, & Kaye, 2013), often waiting until their late 20s. Moreover, many young adults have children without a spouse. Being without a partner and/or having a child of one’s own may lead many young adults to turn to their own parents for financial support, companionship, and emotional support.
The family itself has transformed over the past 50 years in ways that may facilitate strong bonds between young adults and parents. Family size has declined over the past 50 years. For example, in the United States, the baby boomers came of age in families with an average of three children or more. These patterns are common across European countries with a post World War II baby boom and recent declines in fertility. Parents in the middle of the 20th century divided scant attention among broods of offspring. By contrast, emerging adults in the 21st century had parents who were able to invest time and effort specifically in them. Indeed, studies of time use document that in the late 1990s, baby boomer parents of today’s emerging adults spent considerably more time engaging with them than their own parents invested in childrearing during the 1960s (Sayer, Bianchi, & Robinson, 2004). Baby boomers came of age reared by siblings in early life and peer groups in young adulthood. Today’s emerging adults come of age after being reared by strong parental investment. Parental involvement with young adults may represent a continuation of parental investments that began earlier in life.
Indeed, parental evaluations of how their children are faring in young adulthood may help explain the overall increase in support to young adults. Our prior work has shown that parents provide more support to grown children whom they view as successful, investing in their future success as well (Fingerman et al., 2009). Thus, the family structural variables that foster greater parental investment in each child may play a role in extending the period of exploration and freedom from responsibilities. Likewise, however, our work is consistent with contingency theory in finding that parents also provide more support to grown children who suffer problems (Fingerman et al., 2009). These findings suggest that economic factors that inhibit young people from easily entering the job market and the volatility of potential serial romantic partners incumbent to delayed marriage also play a role in extending dependence on parents. In sum, grown children in need or grown children who are successful (typically not the same children) receive the most parental support.
Moreover, marital patterns have changed dramatically in ways that may enhance intergenerational ties in many families while leaving some emerging adults less attached to parents. Rates of divorce rose through the 1960s and 1970s, then remained at a rate of approximately 40–50% into the 21st century (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2007). Thus, parents, and mothers in particular, may be unmarried with a grown child as their closest relationship contact. Parental divorce also affects proximity to children. Seltzer, Yahirun, and Bianchi (in press) find that stepmothers are less likely to have any children (their own biological children or stepchildren) living nearby compared to biological mothers. This finding has implications for contact with children, given that proximity is often highly correlated with contact. It is notable that divorced fathers and remarried parents also are less likely to be invested in emerging adults (Aquilino, 2005, 2006), presenting another paradox for the trends in emerging adulthood. Some young adults may have very frequent contact and high parental investment, whereas other young adults may lack contact with one or both parents.
(p. 168) Family structure has also changed for young adults, with an increase in marital age and a decrease in likelihood of marriage. During the first decade and a half of the 21st century, well-educated young adults are marrying at later ages than was the case in the mid-20th century, and less-educated young adults desire marriage but appear to opt for cohabitation instead (Cherlin, 2010; Hymowitz et al., 2013). Indeed, as mentioned previously, many young adults have children outside of wedlock; more than half of 25-year-olds today have had a child, with the majority of those pregnancies occurring outside marriage (Hymowitz et al., 2013). These young parents are likely to turn to their own parents in raising their children and meeting their own emotional and material needs due to unstable romantic partnerships. The period of nonmarriage may allow young adults to retain ties to parents even when they do not have children of their own. Research suggests that marriage, as an institution, pulls young adults away from their parents (Gerstel & Sarkisian, 2006). In the absence of a lifelong commitment to a partner, young adults may retain stronger ties to their parents.
The changes in contact between young adults and their parents also reflect broader cultural values—trends that new technologies enhanced but did not set in motion. We note that our analysis of the American Changing Lives survey found a linear trend beginning in the early 1990s involving increased contact (Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe et al., 2012a). That is, the increase in contact between young adults and their parents began before email and cell phones saturated the population in the early 2000s. Although the United States saw deregulation and declines in long-distance fees in the 1990s that made calling across distance more economical, the “free” long-distance communication available via cell phone and the Internet was not pervasive until the turn of the century. Thus, the shift toward increased involvements with parents began 20 years ago.
Yet public awareness and beliefs have not kept pace with these widespread changes and strengthening of ties. In one study, we asked parents and grown children to report on parental support patterns and also to rate whether these patterns were normal, too much, or too little. Although intense parental support was normative, parents and emerging adults alike rated intense parental involvement as too much (Fingerman, Cheng, Wesselman et al., 2012b). As we discuss later, the problem with intense parental support in young adulthood may lie in believing the support is too much, rather than in the support itself.
Parental Involvement in Acquiring Adult Roles
Given the heavy involvement of parents in children’s lives today, we next ask whether parental involvement assists young adults to transition into adult roles. Indeed, this issue may come down to two questions: (1) What roles or aspects of emerging adults’ lives are parents most involved in? (2) How effective is parental involvement in fostering successful transitions in those domains?
How Parents Assist in Obtaining Adult Roles
Much research has been devoted to understanding how parents help children transition into adult roles. Parents’ own socioeconomic backgrounds, including their education, income, and occupations, are all highly predictive of the type of education children receive and their eventual roles in the workforce. Early research on intergenerational transmission of social class revealed that parents with more education and income and who work in more occupationally prestigious positions are more likely to have children who themselves become well-educated, high-income earners and who also work in prestigious jobs (Blau & Duncan, 1967; Glass & Berent, 1954; Goldthorpe, Llewellyn, & Payne, 1979). Parental education affects these outcomes through role modeling and socialization.
Well-off parents may help children succeed by setting high expectations. Early research found that parental aspirations and expectations for children’s educational attainment were significant predictors of young adults’ academic success (Sewell & Shah, 1968). When children are young, parents with greater academic expectations are more likely to interact with teachers and other school officials, to provide learning opportunities for children outside of school, and to motivate children more generally (Yamamoto & Holloway, 2010). Parental involvement in adolescence and young adulthood increases children’s grade point average (GPA) and the likelihood of entering into a 2- or 4-year college (Conklin & Dailey, 1981; Davis-Kean, 2005; Fan & Chen, 2001).
In recent years, several studies have shown that at the upper end of the economic distribution, the link between parents’ resources and children’s outcomes has increased in strength. Young adults who have wealthier parents are more likely to remain well-off, and children whose parents have fewer resources are (p. 169) more likely to remain poor due to the resources they receive in young adulthood (Johnson, 2013; Swartz, 2009). Indeed, recent analyses across 10 different countries reveal that the tenacity of social class across generations is now widespread (Corcoran & Matsudaira, 2005; Ermisch, Jäntti, & Smeeding, 2012). Studies also suggest that rates of intergenerational mobility may differ by where a child is born, with children born in certain parts of the United States more likely to escape poverty than others (Chetty, Hendren, Kline, & Saez, 2013). The stickiness of intergenerational mobility has implications for the ways in which social policies are constructed to help socioeconomically disadvantaged youth.
In addition to socioeconomic attainment, many cultures consider family formation to be an important marker of reaching adulthood (Badger, Nelson, & Barry, 2006). As mentioned earlier, young adults today face more choices and diversity in how they wish to start a family than in past. In the United States, well-educated young adults often marry their partners in their late 20s and delay having children until after marriage; whereas less-educated young adults are more likely to have children first, outside of a marital union, but perhaps with a cohabiting partner (Cherlin, 2010). Still others may choose not to have children at all, and many young adults are single and unattached. Although the proliferation of romantic relationship patterns represents a shift from previous cohorts, parents may shape the timing of when children enter into romantic relationships, the type of union they enter into, and the type of partner their children choose.
In the mid-20th century, children whose parents had higher levels of education tended to delay marriage (Waite & Spitze, 1981). These patterns persisted and intensified to some extent into the 21st century, with well-educated young adults marrying at later ages (Cherlin, 2010). Highly educated parents may convey greater aspirations for the amount of education their children receive before marrying. Thus, children’s own pursuit of education tends to delay finding a partner (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Thornton, Axinn, & Xie, 2007). Other studies also find a deterring effect of high parental income and assets on early entry into marriage (Axinn & Thornton, 1992). Although there is less direct evidence that parental education has an effect on whether children choose to cohabit before or in lieu of marriage rather than marry directly, prior work suggests that highly educated parents may indirectly decrease the likelihood of entering into a cohabiting union because parents with more education have more income, which itself has a negative effect on cohabitation (Thornton et al., 2007).
By contrast, less-educated young adults are more likely to cohabit and to potentially delay marriage indefinitely (Cherlin, 2010; Furstenberg, 2011; Hymowitz et al., 2013). It is not clear how parental beliefs and values contribute to these decisions. Yet research also finds that less well-off young adults who cohabit desire to marry but cite the inability to afford a lavish wedding as a reason for putting off the marriage (Trail & Karney, 2012). Thus, less well-off parents may contribute to their grown children’s decision to cohabit rather than marry due to their inability to help defray the costs of a wedding. Well-off parents may be able to contribute to the costs of a wedding or even pay for the entire affair. This issue warrants additional research attention.
Education and family socioeconomic resources also play an important role in whom offspring marry. Previous research highlights a strong educational gradient in the likelihood of marrying someone of a different race/ethnicity than one’s own. (Kalmijn, 1998; King & Bratter, 2007; Qian & Lichter, 2007). Highly educated individuals tend to be less prejudiced, possess more positive attitudes about diversity, and be more tolerant of immigration (Kalmijn, 2012). Thus, highly educated parents may be more tolerant when children choose to marry interracially or interethnically.
That said, differences in parental preferences for same-race partners depend on several other factors, including the family’s own race/ethnic background and immigrant status. In one study of intermarried couples, researchers found that African-American and Hispanic family members were more supportive and accepting of biracial marriages, whereas whites were seen as less supportive of these unions (Lewis & Yancey, 1995). Parents from white families are more likely to deter interracial marriages compared to parents from non-white families, in part because whites lose more race/caste status when intermarrying (Root, 2001; Rosenblatt, Karis, & Powell, 1995).
Similarly, immigrant parents may shape emerging adults’ decisions about romantic partners. Although immigrants leave behind the “old country” to improve their lives and those of their children, there is immense fear and worry of cultural loss that is inherent in the migrant experience. Immigrant parents who are afraid that children are too rapidly “becoming American” may place greater pressure on children to marry someone of the same ethnic or linguistic origin as one way to maintain (p. 170) cultural continuity over generations (Foner & Kasinitz, 2007; Kalmijn & van Tubergen, 2010; Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, & Holdaway, 2008; Lee & Bean, 2010; Zantvliet, Kalmijn, & Verbakel, 2012). Such emphasis is common in South-Asian families, where parents emphasize the importance of marrying into a “good family” where potential in-laws are matched on economic status, religion, and often caste. In the United States, this modified form of arranged marriage often includes parents introducing children to potential mates, although children ultimately have the final veto power (Khandelwal, 2002; Kibria, 2009).
Recent literature also reveals several studies that focus on the premise of overparenting, or parents who are too involved in college students’ lives (Munich & Munich, 2009; Segrin et al., 2012). These studies are steeped in a variety of intellectual traditions, including the concept of “enmeshment” from family systems theory (Olson, 2000; Segrin et al., 2012). The premise is that parents are too involved in their grown children’s lives, smother the child, and prevent the child from making independent (and presumably beneficial) decisions or experiencing the consequences of his or her actions.
Theorists have further argued that overparenting is steeped in the parents’ own narcissism and the parent’s need to see the child achieve in external forums (Munich & Munich, 2009). Furthermore, it is likely that, in some families, parental overinvolvement stems from parental anxiety about real or imagined dangers the grown child may incur. Parents who contact a professor about a grade may worry that the child’s failure to turn in one assignment will result in a poor overall grade that undermines the child’s job prospects and long-term future.
Undoubtedly, there are families in which extreme parental involvement undermines the child’s efforts by inhibiting autonomous efforts. Media reports include anecdotal evidence of parents who send their child’s resume or show up for job interviews with their 20-something child (Halpert, 2013; Ludden, 2012). Yet, empirical studies of overparenting are unclear regarding the prevalence of such extreme situations. The few studies of overparenting in young adulthood rely on subjective ratings of a sense of a controlling style of parenting (e.g., foreseeing problems the child might encounter; Segrin et al., 2012) or enmeshment (“we spend too much time together”; Givertz & Segrin, 2012), rather than an actual quantification of overinvolvement. That is, the studies do not report the exact proportion of participants who actually experience these extreme behaviors.
Moreover, studies describing overparenting are based solely on American college students enrolled in 4-year universities, not emerging adults in the United States in general and certainly not steeped in a global perspective regarding family ties. College students may be at a stage of life where parental involvement remains high in general, and the boundary to inappropriate control is less clear. Also, as we described earlier, many societies value heavy parental involvement and view it as normative and desirable. For example, in Japan, behaviors associated with “enmeshment” are viewed as adaptive and indicative of a close bond (Rothbaum, Rosen, Ujie, & Uchida, 2002).
In sum, it is likely that parents who overstep normal boundaries for their young adult offspring may undermine their ability to accept responsibility and take on adult roles. A small research literature examining college students in the United States has linked subjective reports of parental intrusiveness to decreased efficacy and increased narcissism (e.g., Munich & Munich, 2009). Yet this evidence should be viewed with caution; studies have not documented how common such parental behavior is or what it entails beyond subjective perceptions of overinvolvement. For the general population of emerging adults, parental involvement may be beneficial for attaining adult roles successfully.
Benefits of Parental Involvement
Another way to frame the debate regarding parental involvement is not whether young adults should be involved with parents or should coreside, but to consider what happens when young adults do not have parental support. Take, for example, two young adults suffering crises, such as a job loss or a divorce. If one grown child receives advice, tangible help, and emotional support from parents and the other does not, which child is likely to fare best?
A separate literature has documented how parental involvement may benefit young adults. Our prior work examined intense support involving multiple types of parental help (e.g., advice, lending a listening ear, financial, practical help) at least once a week (Fingerman, Cheng, Wessleman et al., 2012b). Young adults who received such intense parental support reported higher life satisfaction and better adjustment than young adults who did not receive such support, particularly if they were (p. 171) students. By contrast, their parents’ well-being was not associated with the amount of support they provided the young adults, but parents who perceived their grown children as needing more support than others their age reported less life satisfaction. In other words, parents who give intense support to grown children do not seem to suffer from doing so, but they do suffer if they believe the support is abnormal.
Johnson (2013) also found offspring benefited from receiving financial support. She used data from a national sample representative of the United States, the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (Add Health). Young adults who received more financial support from parents showed increased closeness to their parents over time but also showed a slight elevation in depressive symptoms, particularly for nonstudents. In other words, students appear to have neutral or beneficial effects from parental help, but nonstudents may incur a slight elevation in depressive symptoms when they receive financial help from parents. Nonstudents may need parental financial support, but, given American norms for autonomy, they feel bad about accepting it.
Another study looked at the opposite pole of parental support—namely, parental rejection and poor psychological and physical health outcomes. The authors asked gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults to indicate the extent to which their parents had engaged in 51 potential rejecting behaviors such as “How often did your parents/caregivers blame you for any anti-gay mistreatment that you experienced?” (Ryan, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2009). Young adults whose parents were more rejecting fared worse on indicators of depression, substance use, and high-risk sexual behavior. The flip side of these findings—young adults whose parents were less rejecting or more supportive—fared better. Thus, parental emotional involvement may have positive or negative consequences, depending on whether that involvement signals approval or disapproval of the offspring.
In sum, parents may be a key source of support for emerging adults. Human adults are innately social creatures who seek information and support from social partners in unexpected and demanding situations. For mid-20th-century young adults in the United States, intergenerational ties waned, and peers were of primary importance. This is not to say that young adults in the middle of the 20th century did not seek advice or support, but rather these young adults were seeking information from other 19-year-olds who had little experience regarding the best ways of handling problems. On the whole, turning to parents may be viewed as an adaptive strategy for many young adults to take advantage of years of accumulated experience from someone who has known them and been invested in their entire lives.
Indeed, universities and many well-established companies are taking advantage of emerging adults’ willingness to consider parental input. Many universities now include parent orientation meetings and activities when freshmen arrive on campus. Companies seeking to recruit new college graduates to work for them also have been innovative in seeking parents’ input. For example, Enterprise car rental company is happy to send parents a copy of the recruitment package it sends the child (Ludden, 2012).
Ethnic and National Differences in Emerging Adults’ Relationships with Parents
This broad-brush depiction of emerging adults’ relationships with parents may be more accurate for some groups compared to others. In the United States, young adults’ relationships with parents vary greatly by race, ethnicity, and nativity status. Context and culture act together to shape both expectations and resources available to parents and emerging adults, which in turn affect behaviors and attitudes about the family.
Family obligation, defined as the extent to which family members feel a sense of duty to assist one another and to take into account the needs and wishes of the family when making decisions, plays an important role in the lives of many young adults. In the United States, family obligation varies greatly by race, ethnicity, and nativity. Previous scholars have written extensively about the role of familismo in Hispanic families (see Landale & Oropesa, 2007, for a review) and filial obligation or filial piety in East-Asian families (Uba, 1994; Kim et al., in press; Zhou & Bankston, 1998).
Three dimensions of familism are frequently mentioned (Valenzuela & Dornbush, 1994) and may be relevant to understanding emerging adults’ relationships with their parents. The structural/demographic dimension is illustrated by differences in living arrangements and marriage and fertility patterns. The behavioral dimension includes activities that individuals do to fulfill family obligations, including the provision of economic and social support and instrumental assistance. Finally, the (p. 172) attitudinal dimension gauges values and attitudes about family loyalty, collectivism, and solidarity.
One example of structural/demographic differences across groups is differences in coresidence rates. Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics are all more likely to live with parents as young adults compared to non-Hispanic whites (Britton, 2013; Kreider, 2007). A common explanation is the lack of access to socioeconomic resources among race-ethnic minorities that motivates coresidence as a cost-saving technique and a way to pool scarce resources. However, these rates are also affected by differences in attitudes about when children should leave home. Studies of Asian and Hispanic young adults suggest behavioral attitudinal differences: these groups are more likely to live at home while attending college and to believe that it is appropriate to live at home until marriage (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002). Youth from immigrant families, which constitute a large share of Hispanics and Asians, are also more likely to live with parents well into adulthood (Rumbaut & Komaie, 2010). This is again due in part to more positive attitudes about the value intergenerational coresidence compared to children of US-born parents (Kasinitz et al., 2008).
In truth, limited socioeconomic resources and cultural preferences may be mutually reinforcing forces that shape outcomes related to coresidence. For instance, given less economic and financial stability among immigrants and race/ethnic minorities—due to disparities in income and education throughout the life course—young adults from these families may feel especially obligated to assist family members in the future (Gassoumis et al., 2010). Parents who are aware of such realities directly and indirectly socialize children into such values (Knight et al., 2011). This may partially explain why rates of coresidence and geographic proximity are higher among non-whites and immigrants in later life as well (Burr & Mutchler, 1999; Sarkisian, Gerena, & Gerstel, 2007; Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2004).
Young adults also vary in the support and perceived level of support they should provide to parents both during young adulthood and later life. During adolescence, studies report that Filipino-American, Mexican-American, and Chinese-American adolescents spend more time providing care for siblings, helping around the house, running errands, and spending time with family members on the weekends than do whites (Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999; Telzer & Fuligni, 2009). In young adulthood, differences across groups tended to narrow, although family assistance remained more salient in the lives of Mexican Americans, for example, compared to whites (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002).
Finally, beliefs about future family obligations also differ among young adults. Again, members of race-ethnic minority groups are more likely to agree to help parents and siblings financially in the future, to live with parents in the future, or spend time with family members as they age (Fuligni et al., 1999).
Differences also exist by nativity status. In general, first-generation children of immigrants who are born abroad possess cultural values that are more closely aligned to those of their parents than to their peers who are born in the new country. This makes foreign-born young adults more likely to assist parents than those who are born in the United States (Phinney, Ong, & Madden, 2000; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Sabogal, Marin, Oterosabogal, Marin, & Pereztable, 1987).
Variation in emerging adult’s relationships with parents by race, ethnicity, and immigrant status underscore even larger cross-national differences. For instance, attitudes of who is responsible for parents in later life vary widely across countries. In some European countries, the government plays an active role in providing living and housing subsidies for older adults (Daatland & Lowenstein, 2005). In North America and Western Europe, where parental resources are greater in part due to government support, parents tend to provide more financial support to offspring than they receive, beginning in early adulthood and continuing until the end of life when offspring may begin to provide more support to parents (Albertini, Kohli, & Vogel, 2007; Fingerman et al., 2011).
Yet in non-Western cultures, public support may take a back seat to the private safety net because children often arrange to care for parents themselves. In developing country contexts, for example, intergenerational transfers tend to flow from adult children to parents rather than the reverse (Frankenburg, Lillard, & Willis, 2002; Wong & Higgins, 2007). Once again, these differences may reflect variation in cultural norms as well. In Asia, although filial piety remains an integral part of family life, new family forms, migration, and urbanization are slowly eroding well-established norms (Abas et al., 2009; Fuligni & Zhang, 2004; Kim et al., in press). In Latin America, as well as in other developing countries, scholars cite fears of parents being abandoned in rural areas as young adults move away to more economically prosperous urban areas (Das, Do, (p. 173) Friedman, McKenzie, Scott, 2007; Kanaiaupuni, 2000). However, we know little about patterns of return migration, new technologies for communication, or the way in which financial remittances, an important motivation behind migration, bind parents and their children together and potentially ameliorate some of the negative effects of migration.
In sum, the new stage of emerging adulthood is predicated on strong connections to parents and continuing parental support. Young people today are able to explore more options and to remain unattached romantically due to their parents’ willingness to provide financial and nontangible support in the form of advice, companionship, and emotional support. Young adults who are not well off may not engage in career explorations to the same extent as well-off young adults (Furstenberg, 2010). Nonetheless, for less well-off youth, parental support may be instrumental in dealing with sporadic employment, difficult job schedules, or housing needs.
Extant evidence suggests that shifts in parental involvement with young adults have evolved slowly over the past two decades, with increased contact and parental involvement beginning in the mid-1990s, perhaps due to declining family sizes and increased parental investment in fewer children. Over the past decade, these changes in parental involvement have intensified, perhaps due to technological advances (e.g., cell phones) and changes in the economy that necessitate prolonged education for entry-level jobs.
Despite popular media attention to the idea of overparenting in young adulthood, empirical data disproportionately suggest that parental support is beneficial to young people in gaining a foothold in adulthood. Most young adults benefit from contact and support from their parents. Cultural conceptions of parental involvement have not kept pace with these changes, however, and many parents and grown children in the United States cling to an out-of-date idea regarding filial autonomy (Fingerman, Cheng et al., 2012b).
These patterns may vary by cultural group, however, with some cultures valuing parental involvement more than others. Moreover, in many countries and cultural groups within the United States, young adults are expected to help support parents as well; parental involvement is a two-way street. The reciprocal involvement of young adults with their parents represents a form of commitment to family of origin that typically persists throughout adulthood. In these families, emerging adulthood may bridge a continuity of high family involvement and support of parents that starts in adolescence and persists through midlife. Nonetheless, in the United States, Western, and technologically advanced Asian countries, emerging adulthood remains a phase when parents assist young people to find their way into adult roles.
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