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BYU study: Parents don’t view their college students as adults

A new study reported by researchers at Brigham Young University finds that parents of college students around the country do not consider their 18- to 25-year-old children to be adults – and the students agree.

The findings strengthen the idea that a distinct life stage has emerged between adolescence and adulthood, consequently extending parents’ period of responsibility for their children. The study, which will be published in the new issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, offers a new look at parents’ expectations when children reach their 20s.

“The message parents are sending to their kids is “You may be 18 but that doesn’t magically make you an adult. There are things you first need to develop and that hasn’t happened yet,” said Larry Nelson, associate professor in the School of Family Life at BYU and lead author on the study. “It’s not that their kids refuse to grow up, it’s that they are still in the process of doing that.”

Asked whether their college-age children had reached adulthood, only 16 percent of mothers and 19 percent of fathers in the study said yes. Most parents said “in some ways yes and in some ways no.” The students’ responded to the same question much the same way, with only 16 percent saying they had reached adulthood.

The study included the parents of 392 college students from four campuses: a public university on the West Coast, another in the Midwest, and a liberal arts college and a private religious university in the mid-Atlantic.

The study also showed some disagreements between generations about what it takes to become an adult.

More than their parents, the students focused on traditional milestones of becoming financially independent, having a place of their own and settling into a long-term career.

To the parents, acting like an adult carried a stronger emphasis on responsible behavior when it came to things like driving, drugs, alcohol, sex and language.

The researchers say conflicting views of adulthood may strain family relationships.

“There’s potential for the parent-child relationship to struggle during this time period, especially if there is disagreement about what they should be working on,” Nelson said. “Conversely, it’s possible that if moms, dads and their emerging adult children have the same goals, the relationship is better.”

For both students and parents in the study, the most important steps toward adulthood belong to a category of attributes researchers call relational maturity. Both groups ranked “Accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions” at the top of the list overall.

The study is titled “If You Want Me to Treat You Like an Adult, Start Acting Like One!” BYU family life professors Laura Padilla-Walker and Jason Carroll are co-authors on the study.

Disagreements between college students and their parents about necessary steps to adulthood

Settled into a long-term career

  • 53 percent of emerging adults say it’s necessary
  • 39 percent of moms say it’s necessary
  • 31 percent of dads say it’s necessary

Becoming financially independent from parents

  • 93 percent of emerging adults say it’s necessary
  • 82 percent of moms say it’s necessary
  • 76 percent of dads say it’s necessary

Drive an automobile safely and close to the speed limit

  • 49 percent of emerging adults say it’s necessary
  • 81 percent of moms say it’s necessary
  • 75 percent of dads say it’s necessary

Avoid becoming drunk

  • 43 percent of emerging adults say it’s necessary
  • 70 percent of moms say it’s necessary
  • 60 percent of dads say it’s necessary

Agreement between parents and college students about necessary steps to adulthood:

Accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions

  • 98 percent of emerging adults say it’s necessary
  • 97 percent of moms say it’s necessary
  • 99 percent of dads say it’s necessary

Learn always to have good control of your emotions

  • 76 percent of emerging adults say it’s necessary
  • 73 percent of moms say it’s necessary
  • 79 percent of dads say it’s necessary

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Larry Nelson, associate professor in BYU's School of Family Life
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