Adolescents transitioning into college face a unique set of challenges. While this new adventure often brings a sense of autonomy and perhaps even invincibility, many young adults also experience unspoken feelings of self-doubt and fear. Having completed high school, many students might feel overwhelmed by questions from parents, teachers and peers alike on what they hope to do with their life now that high school is behind them. As they walk on stage, diploma in hand, even the most prepared graduating seniors often find themselves wondering, “What happens now?”
Similarly, for parents and guardians the question, “What happens now?” may feel daunting. As the reality begins to sink in that the family ecosystem is about to shift, many parents and graduating seniors find themselves at odds with their questions, fears and expectations about how this next chapter should unfold.
Researchers concur that critical markers in developing young adults occur during their transition out of the home. Whether the adolescent enrolls in a four-year university, begins a new first job in the community, or simply decides it’s time to leave the nest, important developmental milestones are taking place.
Identity vs. Role Confusion
Erik Erikson, a popular theorist in the field of psychology, developed eight stages to classify these milestones that individuals must move through in life. With each stage of development, Erikson proposes there is a crisis that must be overcome by the individual in order for the stage to be appropriately mastered.
Erikson’s psychosocial stage for adolescents is known as identity vs. role confusion. During this stage, Erikson suggests adolescents face the task of answering the question: “Who do I want to be in this world?” Hence, the graduating senior begins asking what role he or she might wish to play in society. This is why it is appropriate for peers, teachers and parents to ask students during this stage what they hope to study in college. According to Erikson, the adolescent must begin contemplating these questions and forming a coherent idea (even if he or she changes their mind!) of what occupations or roles they find appealing.
Although many young adults may have an answer ready when asked what they want to do with their lives, they may still experience feelings of nervousness and confusion around these topics. Erikson suggests that adolescents who face tremendous challenge in working through this stage of their development experience what he termed “role confusion.” For some, answering questions of what role in society they should hold, what career they desire, or what major they should choose comes with significant anxiety.
Young adult who experiences role confusion may feel badly when peers seemingly make firm decisions about their futures. They may question how prepared they are for “the real world” and college. Erikson’s theory allows plenty of wiggle room for these individuals, who are still in the process of forming their sense of purpose in this world.
A Prayer of Peace
As Christians, parents may choose to use this time to pray a prayer of peace for their young adult children. By believing that God has a plan for everyone, parents can find their own sense of peace and comfort that God in His faithfulness will use the Holy Spirit to guide the graduating senior in their developing identity.
Erikson suggests that various virtues are acquired during the completion of the aforementioned stages. In the identity vs. role confusion-stage, the virtue acquired is fidelity, which is the sense that someone’s identity (in life) is unmoving—in other words, faithful to his or her role—despite having confronted alternate beliefs and ideologies. They may engage in meaningful discussions with others about ideas that differ from their own, but their fidelity to their belief system and sense of self remains.
For many parents, this aspect of the college transition can feel most daunting. Parents might worry their children will face ideologies—and adopt heretical ideas in their new college setting—that run counter to the faith of their family. And though, it is likely these young adults will be face beliefs that oppose their Christian faith, it is also not a given that they will shun their faith amid new ideas, altogether.
Still, parents and guardians are urged to have an open dialogue with their young-adult children about such concerns without sounding accusatory. One approach might be to discuss ways in which they plan to stay engaged in their faith despite being away from home.
Some examples might include encouraging university students to find a new parish in their college town, becoming a part of a study group with other peers that share a similar faith perspective, or listening to sermons from their home parish, online.
Although any or all of these ideas may be suggested, parents must also remember that it’s important for young adults to work out their own sense of fidelity—as mentioned above.
It’s important to note: If young adults feel beholden to parental ideas (on how to navigate their college journey), they could miss out on critical opportunities integrate their faith in God as they evolve toward becoming more resilient and autonomous.
Again, pray for God’s peace and guidance for all members of the family who are a part of this transitional period and trust that God is in full control. In many cases, even individuals who questioned their faith during their college years often find that this period of inquiry helped to cultivate a deeper, richer and more personalized faith. Parents may take comfort in remembering that God is not intimidated by our doubt, and welcomes us to know Him more fully through our trials and transitions.