The Challenges of Your 20s: High Expectations, Uncertain Independence

Young adult with short hair wearing jeans and button-down sits in chair and works on laptopBeing a 20-something (an age group making up part of the “millennial” category) in today’s society can, at times, contribute to high levels of stress and anxiety. Many of the young people I provide therapy to often speak of a combined sense of unease and anticipation about this period of life. If the couch in my office could speak, in fact, it would say likely say the majority of 20-somethings I work with express feeling as though they are “in limbo.”

Society tends to place high expectations on young adults. Twenty-somethings are expected to finish college and begin navigating their way through a decade filled with goals and deadlines. At times, it may seem as if a new project or life transition appears almost monthly, and people in their 20s must frequently make decisions likely to have a long-lasting impact on life—select an academic major, make decisions about post-graduate education and which school to attend, find a path to a career, find a partner, find a home, settle down, and potentially have children.

As choices made in this stage of life may impact later life, with certain decisions potentially yielding great rewards in the future, the fear of making the wrong decision may increase a person’s sense of anxiety. Living in an era characterized by heavy use of social media may also affect anxiety levels for many individuals. The evolution of bloggers and world travelers who make money while appearing to have fun may contribute to a sense of false hope for many in their twenties. Social media status updates and photos further invite comparison, which often contributes to confusion and discontent.

The Challenges of Living at Home

The sense of being in limbo may be highlighted for some young adults who continue to live at home. Living at home can have its benefits, such as saving money. But living at home as a young adult can also increase anxiety and stress levels, decrease self-esteem, and decrease one’s sense of autonomy. It may also invite a sense of confusion regarding one’s status as an adult.

As choices made in this stage of life may impact later life, with certain decisions potentially yielding great rewards in the future, the fear of making the wrong decision may increase a person’s sense of anxiety.

“I’m not sure if I’m a kid or an adult at this point,” many of the young people I work with report. While they may be legal adults, those who live at home often find the line between respecting one’s parents and honoring one’s sense of freedom to be somewhat blurred. House or family rules may be in effect, and at times these rules may conflict with what a young person feels to be the privileges of adulthood, leading some individuals to clash with their parents.

Another frustrating aspect of living at home may be changes in the expectations young adults have of their parents. Young adults may need their parents to take on the role of a mentor, looking for them to provide guidance more than anything else. Finding the right balance can be challenging for young adults and their parents alike.

Uncertain Independence

Many assume, based on patterns from decades past, a typical 20-something to be someone who has moved out of their parents’ house and is actively practicing independence. In today’s economy, however, it is often challenging, if not outright difficult, for many young adults to move out and start life on their own. Thus, the meaning of the term “independence” has drastically changed over the years, and the concept of “launching children” out of the nest can not only add to parental stress and anxiety levels, but is also likely to increase anxiety among people in their 20s.

Both parents and their adult children may feel, for different reasons, as if they have “failed” for not being able to live up to social norms. Comparison and confusion are two aspects that may particularly affect the new relationship between parent and adult child, especially when parents have clear ideas of their own on what their adult child should and should not do with their life.

Social media has had a powerful impact on this new generation, in part by giving people new ideas for making money. Many young adults follow, or at least know of, people who are able to make money from social media posts—by posting pictures on Instagram, for example. The generational gap between parents and their adult children becomes more visible when young adults attempt to discuss future plans, particularly by introducing more modern ideas of making money or establishing a career. Comparison almost always enters the conversation, with parents tending to defend a more traditional career path, and confusion often joins as adult children attempt to illustrate the merits of their ideas. Conflict may be the result as parents and adult children attempt to see—or find difficult to understand—the perspective of the other.

Often, young adults report an increased sense of sadness and anxiety after discussing their plans for the future with their parents. These feelings may lead some to avoid talking about their goals with their parents altogether. Parents, for their part, often share a sense of increased fear and frustration as they try to understand the future goals of their children.

These conversations, and the “greyness,” or fear and uncertainty, characterizing them, bring many families and/or young adults to therapy. There is great discomfort in sitting in the grey without a definite answer as to which career path may be in one’s best interest, or in the best interest of one’s child.

Reducing Anxiety and Stress

Young adults who are finding certain aspects of life, independence, or a lack of independence or future prospects to be daunting or are otherwise having difficulty navigating the road of their 20s may find the following tips to be helpful:

  • Meet yourself where you are emotionally. Get to know yourself by spending quality time with yourself. Journaling, sketching (or other forms of artistic expression), and meditation are simple ways to reflect on thoughts and feelings. In general, the more you learn about yourself, the easier the decision-making process will be.
  • Recognize your 20s will likely be filled with challenges. It is perfectly all right (and normal) to feel overwhelmed from time to time, or confused about your path and sense of direction. Imagine you are building a house and these years are the foundation of the house.
  • Be kind to yourself. Have faith in your ability to navigate challenges and find the path that’s right for you. Move at your own pace, and try not to worry about being “left behind.”
  • Understand you do not have to figure everything out in one day. Everyone is on a different path, and comparing yourself to your peers will not leave you in a healthy headspace. Some people make decisions more easily than others. If you’re faced with a decision you are finding particularly difficult, try creating a list of pros and cons. This strategy might be especially helpful when picking an academic major or deciding which school to attend.
  • Remind yourself that setbacks are only temporary and will pass in time. Say you had to move back in with your parents for a few months or a year. Instead of looking at this as a failure, try practicing gratitude and focusing on the positives of returning home. Develop a plan (with a schedule) to move out, and start making progress on this plan by saving money.
  • Be mindful of your intentions. The rewards of this era of life are often delayed, which can make it easy to be impulsive at times. Before you make a decision, try asking yourself how it might impact you five or 10 years in the future.
  • Develop a support network. Reach out to peers and anyone else who can offer you support during times of stress. Be a friend to others who seek your support.
  • Welcome advice from those who you respect. You do not have to take all—or any—of the advice you are given, but you can always listen, holding on to what you identify with and letting go of what you do not agree with.

These tips are just a starting place. If you find yourself struggling, consider seeking out a trained therapist or counselor to help you address and explore any challenges your 20s may have brought.

References: 

  1. Horowitz, E. (2017, February 23). Millenials may never get out of their parents’ homes. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/02/23/millennials-may-never-get-out-their-parents-homes/vSFNGdn4hjwu5bsMTnu0yK/story.html
  2. Rattner, S. (2015, July 31). We’re making life too hard for millennials. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/opinion/sunday/were-making-life-too-hard-for-millennials.html

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ida Khamesy, M.A., LMFT, therapist in Irvine, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tessa

    Tessa

    August 28th, 2017 at 7:50 AM

    I so miss being in my twenties! I know that at the time I hated living at home with my parents but I look back on that life of no bills and very few real responsibilities and it feels like I would just like to live that way again, at least for a little while. I have to tell my own kids to savor these moments because after graduation hits you will start feeling all of those responsibilities that you think that you are ready for but then realize nope, just kidding, once they hit you like a ton of bricks.

  • Sven

    Sven

    August 28th, 2017 at 3:13 PM

    I wanted a lot more independence than what my parents were willing to give so I moved out way earlier than most of my friends did. Got a job, paid the bills, they couldn’t say anything anymore.

  • ellen j

    ellen j

    August 29th, 2017 at 3:09 PM

    I knew when I went out on my own that I was not emotionally or financially prepared to do it but I went out and did it anyway.
    And then I really knew deep down inside that I wasn’t ready for that when I tried to find any reason under the sun to blame my mom and dad for me failing at my first attempt on my own.
    I wasn’t ready to strike out on my own mainly because I wasn’t ready to accept any kind of responsibility for pretty much anything. I was sill of the mindset that if I messed up then my parents could help me out.
    That is one line of thinking that you definitely have to be beyond when you move out and try to make it on your own.
    Your parents should not always and forever have to be your safety net.

  • kassidy

    kassidy

    September 4th, 2017 at 6:34 AM

    I knew that graduating would be hard but I guess in my mind it would have never taken this long to get a real job. And I honestly did not anticipate how expensive it would be to be out and living on my own. My parents have been really great about helping me get started but still, I think I am gonna need a roommate to be able to pay most of my bills. It wasn’t anything that I had planned on, but this has really been an eye opener for me.

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