What You Need to Know to Grow Yourself Into an Adult (If Your Parents Didn’t Get You There)

Lots of people had parents who didn’t know how to parent for one reason or another. Perhaps they didn’t have good examples of how to be parents. Maybe they had a mental illness or addiction issues. Or maybe there was only one parent and he or she was too busy providing for survival needs that he or she wasn’t there for emotional needs. 

Whatever the case was, if you’ve got a case of arrested development, there is no point in casting blame or playing woe is me. Now you are an adult. It falls to you to get what you didn’t get then. So where do you start? For a guide, let’s use Eric Erickson’s psychosocial development theory.

Trust vs. Mistrust – 0 to 18 months

Erickson says that children spend the first eighteen months of life figuring out if life is safe. If the primary caregiver (I will call this person “mom” from now on even though this may have been a father or grandparent) is responsive, warm, consistent, and reliable, the child develops a sense of trust that lays the foundation for the rest of life. If the baby’s needs are not consistently met, the child becomes anxious, distrustful, and suspicious. He views the world and people as unsafe and will have less confidence in himself and everything else. In extreme cases, the child’s brain doesn’t develop normally and this leads to significant social and mood issues that are difficult to overcome.

Early childhood is a critical period. If you feel stuck at this stage, trauma counseling may be appropriate. Rebirthing is another therapy that targets early childhood issues. 

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt – 18 months to 3

Toddlers are known for the “terrible twos” because it’s around this time that they start becoming mobile and realizing that they have an impact on the world around them. They have a will and can start exercising it. Their “job” is to begin to develop a sense of independence. As they explore and do things, they begin to feel confident and secure in their ability to survive. If parents are critical, controlling, and don’t give them opportunities to make messes, play, choose their own clothes, or make decisions, children become dependent and develop a sense of low self-worth. They doubt their abilities and can feel shame. 

If you have challenges with self-esteem and shame, learn new things. Practice failing and getting back up again until you can do something with skill and ease. Explore movies, food, careers until you feel that you know what you like. Once you decide, indulge in your pleasures. Practice good self-care (eating healthy, regular meals, practicing good sleep hygiene, exercising, etc). Learn how to cook, clean, pay bills, and other life skills. 

If you have people in your life who like to “help” you, ask them to step back unless and until you ask for help. Don’t ask unless you really need it. Trust that you can do things and pay your own way. Release your dependence. When people grow up and say, “I turned into my mom,” this could be why. They didn’t learn how to be themselves. 

Initiative vs. Guilt – 3 to 5

Children now likely have a wider social circle and play more. They are learning interpersonal skills, how to share, communicate, use imagination, delay gratification, ask for what they want, and deal with frustration. If given the freedom to do these things, they learn that it’s okay to take initiative, lead, make decisions, and deal with disappointment. If they are criticized, controlled, told what to think or do, shut down, or treated like their concerns are unimportant, they can develop guilt. They can hold back from socialization and play.

If you feel stuck here, it may be appropriate to learn social skills, then practice them to gain comfort with initiating conversations and ideas. You could join a group that engages in some type of imaginative activity like role-playing games or writing. 

Industry vs. Inferiority – 5 to 12

Children are now in school and are formally learning knowledge and skills. Erickson says children begin to look at peers for approval and self-esteem. If they have the expected skills and attributes and are encouraged by teachers, peers, and parents, they feel valued and develop a sense of pride. When this doesn’t happen, they can begin to feel inferior. 

If you feel stuck here, it may be beneficial to learn skills relating to communication, emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, boundaries, self-care, and/or professional skills. Additionally, it may also be valuable to learn to look to yourself for esteem rather than outside yourself. Everyone isn’t meant to be like everyone else. You could be an emu surrounded by chickens.

Identity vs. Role Confusion – 12 to 18

Adolescence is another time of rebellion. Parents may come down hard, demanding compliance, control, and conformity. Since this is the age when children are developing their own sense of identity, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s a time for kids to explore their own values, beliefs, and goals. If kids start wearing odd clothes, reading radical political ideas, or checking out really different religions, they are on the right track! 

This might seem really weird to the parents, but it’s their way of differentiating themselves from their parents, fitting in, and being independent. At this age, children start thinking about romance, careers, families, and living independently. They are “rehearsing” their vision of who they will be when they are adults. 

By the end of this stage, Erickson said the person should have a firm idea of what they want to do, what they believe, and their sexual identity. Pressure, lack of support, lack of opportunity to explore, and lack of healthy examples can lead to confusion about who they are, what they are doing, and how they fit in. The inability to commit to something or engage in work can be a sign of this.

If you feel stuck here, talk to your peers. Investigate careers. Get a job. Date. Dare to be different – if just for today. Explore churches. Travel. Talk politics. Engage with life with no expectations. Experience is a great teacher. Having a mentor or therapist during this process can be very valuable as well as this person can help you make sense of the process. 

Intimacy vs. Isolation – 18 to 40

While your parents are no longer responsible for you after adulthood, development doesn’t end there. At this stage of life, we tend to focus on relationships. We search for connection, intimacy, and bonding outside the family. Experience with romantic partners can teach us intimacy. If romantic partnerships are not satisfying, we can learn to avoid intimacy and thus engage in isolation. This can result in loneliness and depression.

If you are stuck here, my suggestion is to look to the previous stages for what could be strengthened and focus there. Each stage builds upon the next. If you get up to Identity vs. Role Confusion knowing who you are, you are pretty well set up for intimacy. If you think you have great skills and a solid foundation and just can’t figure out why the romance piece isn’t clicking, talk to a coach, counselor, or minister to get a neutral outside perspective. Sometimes a second set of eyes is invaluable.

Generativity vs. Stagnation – 40 to 65

Middle age is a time for focusing on your purpose. If you feel you aren’t making your mark on the world or contributing in some way that lives on after you, you could feel stagnant. It could be time to reevaluate what you’re doing with your life. How are you contributing? What are you doing that has value? This is a time for looking beyond yourself and your family and out into the world. If you don’t feel useful, you could feel empty.

So, what do you do? Go back to your values. What matters to you? How do you want to serve? Whom do you want to serve? What excuses are you making?  How can you get beyond them?

Ego Integrity vs. Despair – 65 to death

This is the final stage of development. It starts roughly at retirement age and goes to death. Life is no longer about working, producing something, or contributing something. It’s more about “did I do what I came here to do?” It’s about contemplating regrets. If we have lots of regrets, we can fall into despair. If we feel good about how our lives were spent, we feel whole. This can lead to feeling at peace with our lives ending. 

Erickson’s theory isn’t perfect. It makes a lot of assumptions about what is “normal.” Some people are homeschooled. Some are precocious. Lots of people don’t rebel as teenagers. So there are many exceptions, but generally speaking, it’s a useful model to help you pinpoint a good place to start if you feel you experience arrested development. It’s a good way to see if you’re on track. To get going again, just start where your development was first interrupted and take it from there.

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