Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Early Adulthood (19–40)

What does separating from parents entail?

Early adulthood is a less tumultuous period than adolescence. Nonetheless, it has its own share of challenges and gratifications. At this point, the individual is clearly an adult. He or she is biologically, cognitively, and socially prepared to take on an adult role within society. This movement toward greater independence and responsibility entails several steps. Young adults must achieve some degree of emotional and financial individuation from parents. This does not mean that they need to cut ties with their parents, only that the nature of their relationship should change from that of dependency to greater equality.

Young adults need to achieve some degree of financial independence. Many young adults are still in school, even in their mid to late twenties, and thus are hampered from earning a full living. Nonetheless, they are working toward financial independence and often have an independent source of income, even if they cannot work full time. Additionally, they should be learning to budget, pay bills, pay taxes, and otherwise handle their money independently.

This is also a time of embarking on new intimate attachments. Long-term romantic relationships are established, and most people get married during this period. Many people also become parents in early adulthood, and thus undertake enormous responsibility for the lives and development of their dependent children.

Finally, this is a time of establishing a career path. Although social roles in Western society have become much more flexible in recent decades and young adults typically make multiple changes in their work and romantic life, choices still need to be made that have far-reaching consequences. For example, the choice to marry and have children with a particular partner will have lifelong implications, even if the marriage ends in divorce. Likewise, the choice to pursue higher education or a particular career path has extensive influence on later life.

The separation from parents is a focal aspect of early adulthood. This may take different forms in different cultures and subcultures. In cultures that emphasize independence and self sufficiency, there may be less contact with parents and less dependence on them for advice, guidance and determination of values and beliefs. In cultures that emphasize family ties and traditional relationships, there is less expectation of physical separation and greater respect for parental opinions.

However, in any culture, a young adult is expected to engage with parents on a more egalitarian basis. Young adults must take on more responsibility for the support of themselves and others, and they are more capable of independent decisions. In Western society, young adults are expected to differentiate their own desires, beliefs, values, and goals from those of their parents. Often this is a complicated process, as many parental attitudes are not explicit and have been unconsciously absorbed over time.

Young adults adjust best when they can maintain close relationships with parents but also retain the ability to evaluate parental opinions critically but fairly, accepting what is helpful and disregarding what is not. Ultimately, an important psychological task of this period is to achieve an understanding of parents as three-dimensional humans, limited and flawed but precious for their unconditional love.


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