Ep 133: When Does a Teen Become an Adult?

Episode Summary

Julie Lythcott Haims, author of Your Turn and How to Raise an Adult, brings to the show her vast knowledge of the psychology of emerging adults. How can we help our teens and 20somethings turn out well?

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When kids leave the nest, it can be terrifying to see them go. As a parent, you may feel that your whole life has led up to this moment, and you might worry that you haven’t done enough. You want your kid to take on the world and succeed, but you worry they might come home crying and asking for their old bedroom back.

As scared as you might be, the terror of leaving home is even worse for young adults themselves. Life is full of trials and tribulations, and it’s scary without someone there to hold their hand.You probably remember the fear you felt when you first left home, how unpredictable and challenging every minute was. 

Even though adulting is hard, we as parents can start preparing our kids now, in their teen years. If we build a solid foundation of self sufficiency, kids will be able to adapt to the curveballs that life throws their way. Our guest this week is Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. The book is full of personal stories and candid advice for how to be a functional young adult.

In our interview today, Julie and I talk about how it can actually be bad if your teen plans too much for their future. We also discuss why you shouldn’t be afraid to show your kid your imperfections, and how you can raise kids who know how to form healthy relationships.

Why Planning Can Be Problematic

Some kids think they know exactly what college they’ll go to. They assume they’ll get into grad school from there, meet the love of their life at 25, get the job of their dreams. They know where they want to live, what dog they want to have and what they’re going to name their kids. But what if they don’t get into that college? What if they’re halfway through their degree and realize…they don’t want to be there? Then their plan falls apart, and they find themselves wandering in the fog.

We want teens to have goals and ambitions, but we need to make sure they remain adaptable, says Julie. Adulthood is full of unexpected changes, identity crisis and relationship troubles. If teens plan too much for their future, they’ll only find themselves disappointed when things don’t work out how they expected. 

Sometimes kids are so focused on their plan that they miss out on something that could be so much better than what they’ve imagined for themselves. In the episode, Julie tells a fascinating story about a young man who worked for years to get into dental school. One day, right in the middle of an operation, he decided he just wasn’t happy with his choices. This realization sent him on a new journey of self exploration that changed his life. Even though he had it all planned to a T, he found those plans did not satisfy him, and he had to start all over again.

If we really want to help teens survive in the world, we have to guide them towards the realization that things will never be perfect. In doing so, it can be extremely impactful to tell kids about our own mistakes, so they can learn from us.

The Value of Vulnerability

You probably know how hard it is to be a young person just starting out in the world–because you’ve done it. You likely went through plenty of mishaps and tough times before you eventually landed on the right path. Believe it or not, Julie says, teens don’t imagine that we went through any of that. They tend to think we were able to handle everything like a pro with no mistakes. Then, when they find themselves struggling, they feel like they’re the only ones.

Julie suggests sharing all your failures with your teen, to help them see that messing up is not only normal, but educational. Julie and I talk about how much data we gather from making mistakes. It’s at our lowest points, Julie says, that we figure out what makes us truly unhappy. This realization is just as important as realizing what does make us happy, she notes.

We sometimes want their kids to follow a certain path or live their life in a very specific way because it suits our narrative. We want to be able to brag to our friends that they got into Harvard or got hired at Apple, but Julie stresses that their journey is not about us. They have to find themselves, even if it can be hard to watch them diverge from the path we’ve set.

One of the hardest things about being a happy and stable adult is creating healthy relationships with others. In the episode, Julie and I get into how we can look out for ourselves, while also compromising when needed..

Fostering Functional Relationships

One of the lessons parents tend to teach kids is the value of protecting themselves before anyone else. Although Julie stands by the importance of prioritizing oneself, she also wants young people to understand the value of compromising with other people. 

In our interview, Julie talks about how young people often find happiness with a friend or significant other, but drop them at the first disagreement. They feel that if someone isn’t treating them exactly how they expect, then that person needs to go. However, Julie finds this logic problematic. Relationships aren’t perfect and they never will be. If  young adults expect constant harmony, they’ll never find someone who makes them happy.

Julie stresses the value of teaching kids to be happy with themselves, but also navigate the often complicated path of relating to others. Although it’s hard to find that balance, it’s essential to living a stable life. Equipping kids with the ability to set boundaries and resolve conflict with others will do wonders for them as they make their way through adulthood, Julie says.

 One way parents can do this is through modeling, Julie says. If we’re raising kids with a partner, make it explicit to growing teens that your relationship isn’t perfect. There are pushes and pulls that create friction and tension, but with honest communication and time, there is always a way back to peace with one another. If we can teach teens this lesson, they’ll have more success with romantic and platonic relationships in adult life.

In the Episode…

It was a pleasure to sit down with Julie today and discuss how we can help young adults live their best lives. On top of the topics mentioned above, we talk about:

  • How parents can leave kids with a “tool kit” for adult life
  • What we can do to give kids more autonomy in their teen years
  • How money management is complicated by emotional thinking
  • Why we need to teach kids to have boundaries
  • What we should tell teens in place of “find your passions”

Entering adulthood will always be a challenging process, but Julie has some great tips for us to help prepare our teens for finding their passion, being financially independent, and whatever else comes their way! Grateful to have Julie on the show–thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week!

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen complains about adulting:

“Yep, you’re right. It is scary. Absolutely, and it’s also amazing to be in charge of yourself instead of handled and managed by someone else, making your choices, telling you what you have to do with your life.” 

-Julie Lythcott-Haims

2. Instill the skill of adaptability: (1 of 2)

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3. Instill the skill of adaptability: (2 of 2)

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4. Remind your teen there is great value in trying lots of different things: (1 of 2)

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5. Remind your teen we can learn from the bad as well as the good: (1 of 3)

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6. Remind your teen we can learn from the bad as well as the good: (2 of 3)

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7. Remind your teen we can learn from the bad as well as the good: (3 of 3) 

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8. Let your teen know it’s okay to not know what they want yet: 

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9. Redefine when ‘you do you’ is helpful and when it’s not:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Your previous book was How To Raise An Adult, that was really I felt a big voice in the conversation on helicopter parenting and this over-protective thing that’s happening with parents and young adults, especially as the kids go off to college and all of this. So, why now are we turning the lens to writing a book that’s more geared towards young adults?

Julie: Because Andy too many young adults really feel inadequate at the task of adulting. You hear it in their language, in their media, in their memes. “I don’t want to adult. I can’t adult. Adulting is hard. Adulting is scary.”

Andy: Yeah.

Julie: And I’m here as this older person down the path of saying, “Yep, you’re right. It is scary. Absolutely, and it’s also amazing to be in charge of yourself instead of handled and managed by someone else, making your choices, telling you what you have to do with your life.” There’s actually this delicious feeling when you’re in charge of yourself. It comes with some terror, but on balance, I think it is far preferable to being on the end of someone else’s leash, which is what childhood can feel like. So I wrote this for them.

Andy: And there’s a lot of you in here. There’s a lot of your personal story of how you’re finding yourself in a lot of different ways and dealing with a lot of the issues that you’re talking about in the book. Was that strange to be so vulnerable?

Julie: No, it wasn’t strange. I mean, some people may find it strange that I was so vulnerable. But I have written memoir. My second book was a memoir on being Black and biracial, growing up in White spaces, dealing with racism and microaggressions, and I had to dig deep and I had to decide in publishing that thing that there was benefit in being vulnerable. And I did so for the purpose of helping other humans feel less alone. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book, let me, from my vantage point 53 years out, try to shine a light on this adulting thing by sharing some of my difficult moments, opportunities for learning, struggles, successes with you so that you can see what it looks like. But as you know from having read the book, it’s not just my stories. I’ve got the profiles of close to three dozen other humans in these pages.

Julie: And that’s my way of saying, “My way ain’t the only way, I don’t have the answers, I am here, I think, with a set of questions, a set of topics that I want you to mull over continually, whether it’s about your self-care or your finances or your relationships or your work. Ultimately. You are forging a self, you are creating this adult person, and it’s a very personal and intimate thing. Only you can do it for you, but let me put other humans on the page from all kinds of different walks of life, socioeconomically, racially, genderly, in terms of sexual orientation, mental health situation. I mean, all of it, I’ve tried to put so many different kinds of humans in these pages so that my secret hope, Andy, is that every reader will at some point have cause to say, “I can relate to this,” or even better, “she had me in mind when she wrote this. I feel seen.”

Andy: There’s all kinds of stories throughout the book, and one story that resonated with me earlier in the book is you talk about this kid who I think you’re working in higher education, and this is a student who comes to your office and has this plan all planned out for his entire life. He’s going to go to medical school when he turns this age, and then he’s going to do this. He’s going to meet, I think in the second year of medical school, he’s going to meet his future wife, and then there’s this whole step-by-step roadmap for his future. And I wonder what you thought about that or what you told him about that goal setting and life planning.

Julie: So I was the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University for a decade and I had office hours every Friday, and people would sign up for a half an hour slot with me, or maybe an hour slot depending, and my job was to listen and care and ask good questions. In other words, my job wasn’t to give answers like, “Major in this. Do this with your life.” No, no, no, that was not my approach then.

Julie: And I carry that non-judgemental questioning approach into this book. And so here’s this kid, and he’s so proud to open his laptop and announce to me his plan for his 20s, which included the things you mentioned, med school, meet the woman I’m going to marry, have the first child by this date, have the second. And he’s beaming. He’s so proud that he’s figured it out, as if he’s been handed a set of puzzle pieces for life and he’s managed to place them in the right order. And so I didn’t want to dash his dreams at all, and setting goals for oneself is very important, but there was this hubris, there was that, “This shall happen. I shall make it so,” and I was like, “Wow, this kid, this guy has to learn so much.” His plans involve someone else’s body. His plans assume he just fall in love with the love of his life at a certain point when he’s decided in advance this will be the right time.

Julie: And I wanted to say, “Dude, grow up. Come on. Also, life will throw shit at you and you will duck sometimes, you will get hit by it sometimes. You will catch it and throw it back sometimes, and you need to bring that adaptability.” I was really worried, is he going to feel like a failure if he doesn’t get to this med school or get into this residency or find the person to fall in love with? Is he going to be desperately looking for someone to fall in love with, which by the way, will make him completely unattractive.

Andy: Totally.

Julie: We are attractive to others when we are rooted in our confidence about who we are and what we want. That’s when we become maximally attractive. So if we’re obsessed with meeting the person before I finish year two of my residency, chances are, dude, that isn’t going to happen and you’re going to bewildered like, “What went wrong?” And it’s like you’re so wedded to your life playing out according to this plan, you are forgetting to actually live your life. So I put that story in there in the chapter, You’re Not Perfect: Be Good, as a way to try to just help people unburden themselves from this straight jacket of life must go according to plan. And I actually cite the Yiddish phrase, translated it to English, “We plan, God laughs,” because Lord knows, I can say this 53 years out, yeah, we can make plans and sometimes they do eventuate.

Julie: And as I’ve said, setting goals is important, but very often we will have that curve ball thrown at us and we have to adapt. And that’s a huge piece of adulting, and it actually feels really good when you do figure out your plan B, when you’re like, “All right, it didn’t work out the way I wanted, but I’m still standing. I’m still loved by a few people, I think. I’m going to dust myself off and keep going.”

Andy: And a lot of times that’s actually even one of the best skills you can possibly have.

Julie: Amen.

Andy: And also, if you’re so focused on your plan, then you might miss something that even could have been better for you or that might’ve been a better fit that you just had blinders on and you went right past it without looking for it because you were so focused on already knowing what the next step was going to be.

Julie: That’s right. Running real fast to the life you imagined you want while missing the actual life that’s available beckoning to you like, “Hey, I’m here. What about me?”

Andy: This felt to me like an interesting topic to discuss, because I feel like as parents we want our kids to have a plan for their life and know where they’re going and know what they’re doing, and then that makes us feel good. It’s like, “Oh, okay. Kid’s on track. He’s going to go to medical school. Then he’s going to do this. Yeah, some kids in the future, I can look forward to that. Grandkids coming. Nice.” So as a parent, how do you encourage your kids to have plans and all that, but then also to be open to what life comes their way?

Julie: Well, hopefully a parent would say exactly what you just said in your lovely tone of voice, which is confident and reassuring and kind. You have a beautiful voice, and I imagine a beautiful way of speaking with your kids and with young people. So first of all, we parents have to get really clear within ourselves that this child is a human being whose life path is not ours to dictate. This is not a dog we will forever have on a leash and march down a sidewalk and over to the dog park. This is a human. I mean, let’s have profound respect for the fact that our children are their own being with capabilities and passions that they need to figure out. So we want to be loving the heck out of this human and providing shelter and food, teaching them to work hard, teaching them to set goals.

Julie: Also, teaching them to be a good person. The goal of parenting is, “My kid can fend without me,” that’s when we’ve succeeded. I’ve succeeded as a parent if my kid can fend without me when I’m dead and gone. I mean, that’s the biological mammalian imperative. It’s not, “I need to get my kid to this medical school.” It’s, I need to know that I’ve raised someone who can fend for themselves and look after themselves and pay their bills, however they choose to do so. So if we struggle with that as parents, often it’s because there’s a psychological unwellness, unease within us where we feel our own ego needs our kid to go to med school for us.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Julie: And so that’s worth dwelling on, how can I distance myself from my kids’ existence enough so that they can actually have their life and I can have my life too, and we’d love each other, but I’m not the director of their life. It’s so arrogant. None of us wants to be arrogant. But if you think about it, if we can’t get out of our kids’ way, we basically decided, “I know Beth. I will handle it. I will tell you what you need to do with your life so that I love you, so that I can feel good about myself and brag about you to my friends.” It’s really kind of messed up, which is not to say that we don’t all do it. I’ve certainly done it, and maybe I still am doing it. I have a 21 year old and a 19 year old, and I’m trying to work that out. So it’s about wanting our kids to make forward progress and emulating what that looks like, modeling that looks like. We try things, we fail, we try again.

Julie: We’re all imperfect. It is fine. You will find your path. It will take time. And I think for a parent to develop the empathy necessary to coach a teenager well, I would encourage that parent, dip back into your own memory of yourself at 14 or 17 or 21 or 25 or whatever the years are, when you took a right-hand turn, when something bad happened and you didn’t get what you wanted and you had to go with plan B, but it turned out to be okay or even more than okay, it turned out to be really cool, see if you can summon empathy for your own kid’s right to have an imperfect path forward by reminding yourself of the imperfections associated with your own path. Our kids need to know those stories.

Julie: My colleague Madeline Levine in the parenting space, psychologist here in the Bay Area, writes, “Our kids look at us, we’re their parents, they look up to us, and they think our life path has been this really smooth trajectory. Just up, up, up, up, up, up, up. They don’t see the stumbles, the pitfalls, the screw ups, the things we did we’re ashamed of or really regret, or just the really bad decisions we made. They don’t know about that. That line just seems smooth.” So if we can share, “Hey, I didn’t know what I was going to major in either. And some people did, but I didn’t and I just went off and took classes that seemed interesting. And you know what? That’s when I realized anthropology is my jam and I never would have known about anthropology if I’d been so fixated on pre-med,” because what kid comes out of high school learning about anthropology?

Julie: So to be open to the vast, vast openness of adult life and all the myriad things a human can study and all the myriad of jobs a person can have and listening to that inkling within the self like, “Hey, this sounds fascinating.” “Really? All right, take a step further, learn a little bit more.” “Ooh, this sounds intriguing.” “All right, go in that direction.” “Oh, I really, really don’t like that.” “Okay, valid. You just learned something really important. See if you can figure out why you hate it.” “Oh, I hate working with people.” “All right. Noted. Write that down.” “Oh, I hate being behind the scenes. I want to be the person out in front.” “That’s valid. Note that.” “Oh, I love working with money.” “Okay, write that down.” Every bad experience, every turn, that seems to be the mistake somehow, boy, that’s offering us great data.

Julie: And often in the space of the discomfort, the disappointment, is when we give ourselves permission to say, “You know what? I hate this. I actually want to do this instead.” It’s sometimes our misery, it’s misery that’s required in order for us to give ourselves permission to say, “I don’t actually want to be in dental school, Mom. I know I’m at Harvard Dental School,” as one of the people in my book is, just push, push, push, so successful, Johns Hopkins undergrad, Harvard Dental School and he’s standing there with his hands in a patient’s mouth and he realizes, “I don’t love this. I’m in dental school. Why am I in dental school? Everybody told me this was success. And it looks like success, but I am desperately unhappy.” And he summoned the courage to say to his mom, “I don’t want this.”

Julie: And she argued and he argued back, and finally she said, “What do you want?” And he said, “I don’t know.” And he took two years off to figure it out and went backpacking and did a TaeKwonDo tournament and was an extra in Hollywood, and just got out of that straight jacket comfort zone of, “Well, at least I’ve got a path. I’m on a plan. I’m going to be a graduate of Harvard Dental School in no time.” He took himself off track to learn more about himself and then chose a track that was right for him. That was a long answer. But I hope parents can see in that how imperative it is that our kids be given the time and the latitude, not to lounge about and flounder and not do anything—no. Make some choices, get a job, try it out, pursue this path. More power to you. Listen to your inner voice. Learn from the bad things as much as you learn from the good, if not more.

Julie: We want to be rooting for our kids to have these journeys rather than somehow thinking we’ve given them a successful life by telling them precisely what to do with it. That is not how a human becomes successful. They have to walk this path on their own.

Andy: You write that parents are a little bit like sandpaper. Parenting is like taking sandpaper and sanding off whatever rough edges our kids are born with so they can go out into the world and interact kindly and effectively with other humans.

Julie: I wrote that, that was my approach, Andy. I’ve got a 21 year old and a 19 year old. When they were babies and I was pregnant with the first one, I think I thought, “Okay, my job is to shelter them and love them and feed them and smooth off the rough edges.” In other words, to make them capable of saying please and thank you, so that they could interact with humans and be well-received. I was raised by a strict British mother who was all about manners and propriety. And I think I saw that was my job, finishing school, make sure they know how to not wipe their nose with the back of their hand while they’re in conversation with like. And I chuckle in the book that I thought my job was to sand them down, like they will be imperfect and I need to smooth them out.

Julie: I do believe manners are really, really important. They are the red carpet that opens life’s door to you. But I see the more apt metaphor, the more respectful metaphor being, let me teach them things they can have in their toolkit so that they can take these tools with them out into the world. Just a different way of thinking about it.

Andy: Yeah, like equipping them so that it makes them feel like they have more agency too.

Julie: Yeah. There’s a big word. That’s a huge theme of the book, agency. And too often when we’re parenting, we’re robbing our kids of having agency, because we’re doing it all for them to make it easier and to get them on their way.

Andy: So what do you think about the attitude, you do you and they do them and everyone just be themselves and be accepting of all people.

Julie: I love the attitude, be accepting of all people. I love the attitude, you do you, I do me, and you’re good, I’m good. I’m not here to judge you or make you do things differently. We all come from very different walks of life. I love that, that’s something that young folks would say today that people my generation did not grow up saying, or people older.

Andy: Mm-hmm.

Julie: However, there is a concern, as I say in the book, addressed really by Lori Gottlieb, Who’s an amazing psychotherapist in L.A. She wrote an amazing book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, about being a therapist and having a therapist and all the conversations she has in this therapeutic environment. And she says too many 20-somethings, and I want parents raising teens to really hear this, too many 20-somethings are in her therapy practice saying things like this, “I had this amazing boyfriend. You’ve heard me talk about him for weeks, but we had a fight and I gave up on him. I’m done.” And she’ll say, “You had your first fight, what do you mean you’re done?” She’s like, the client says, “He wasn’t 100% there for me so I dropped him,” and Lori’s sitting there going, “You dropped him?” “Well, he wasn’t 100% there for me. If he can’t be 100% there for me, then I don’t want to be with him.”

Julie: This, “You do you,” and “you’re all good,” works when we’re talking about our identities like “I’m queer”, “I’m straight”, “I’m Latinx”, “I’m an immigrant”, but you also have to be someone who’s capable of communicating with other humans across differences, of compromising when you are in a relationship or a family or a workplace and you don’t necessarily come from the same perspective or agree. You’ve got to be able to be interested in the other person’s feelings and reality. So Lori the therapist has said when kids are raised with, “You’re good. Everything about you is good. It’s all good. You do you,” if they haven’t also been taught, “But hey, other people also matter,” then they come out into the world, and particularly parents that have dropped everything to caretake this child whom they said, “It’s all good. You do you. I will just support you in being you and serve your needs and bring you anything you’ve forgotten and argue with your teachers, you’re good and I’m going to protect that truth.”

Julie: Then these young people can become young people in their 20s who are trying to be in a relationship, they’re seeing somebody, they’re kind of serious, they have a fight, this person is not there for them, is not dropping everything to meet their needs, and this young person feels they don’t love me because they’re not meeting my needs because the parenting style has taught this young person to be loved is the other person just cares about your needs. They’ve failed to teach their kid, “Hey, I’m your parent. I also matter. I have some needs. I have time limitations. I’ve got work I need to do. I’ve got other kids. I’ve got my partner. I can’t just drop everything and meet your needs.”

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About Dr. Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims believes in humans and is deeply interested in what gets in our way. She is the New York Times bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult which gave rise to a TED Talk that has more than 5 million views. Her second book is the critically-acclaimed and award-winning prose poetry memoir Real American, which illustrates her experience as a Black and biracial person in white spaces. A third book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, is slated for release on April 16, 2021.  

Julie is a former corporate lawyer and Stanford dean, and she holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard, and an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. She serves on the board of Common Sense Media, and on the advisory board of LeanIn.Org, and she is a former board member at Foundation for a College Education, Global Citizen Year, The Writers Grotto, and Challenge Success. She volunteers with the hospital program No One Dies Alone.

She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner of over thirty years, their itinerant young adults, and her mother. 

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