Leaving Home

Our thoughts turn this time of year to the 18-year-olds leaving home—for college, for military service, for career beginnings. September is the time for adolescents to part from home. Is there any evidence that these ventures merit special attention from family and loved ones? Yes.

Just this morning I studied the results of our SchoolPlace Big Five Profile™. This personality assessment presents trait scores for young people from ages 12 to 22. One of the scales—Need for Stability (“N”; sometimes called Neuroticism)—describes a young person’s level of worry (or anxiety), temper (or anger), outlook (or pessimism/optimism), and coping level (or resilience), or their ability to bounce back after a crisis. This morning’s review comprised 2,722 young people from all over the United States. I was particularly interested in looking at the trend of their scores as they approach departure from home around age 18 and what happens afterwards. Here is a graph of the result:

What does it mean? In other “Big Five” research, I had noted that the overall supertrait called Need for Stability increased slightly around age 18, then returned to normal. Keep in mind that a score of 50 is the average score for the norm group (these are “standard scores” with a standard deviation of 10, where 2/3 of the population score between 45 and 55). I was interested in looking at the subtraits (or facets) of this supertrait to see if the components of Need for Stability could explain the overall trend. In fact, it clarifies things very nicely. Of the four components of “N,” only one appears to be affected by leaving home—Anxiety. The graph above shows that teens’ anger, pessimism, and resilience all gradually decrease from ages 12 to 22. Teens’ tempers soften, they become gradually more optimistic, and they require increasingly less time to overcome crises. However, anxiety is the exception to this trend. There is something about leaving home that elevates anxiety levels: fear of being able to satisfy the demands of professors, fear of being able to outlast the rigors of military training, and fear of doing well in one’s chosen first major job out of high school. Clearly not all young people exhibit such fear, but enough do to make it worthy of notice.

So what practical difference does this make? Now is the time for you to provide special comforts, special reassurances, to your 18- and 19-year-olds:

  • Handwritten notes and letters
  • Send photos of kid brother/sister
  • Send a gift certificate for pizza, subs
  • Send college/military/job “survival kits” with gum, Life Savers, and so forth
  • Provide for appropriate visits, either at their site or at home
  • Tickets to a favorite concert group or sports event
  • Whether through phone calls, visits, letters, or emails, keeping the information flowing—they have been used to knowing how parents and siblings are faring on daily basis, and this sudden lack of daily information is a huge drop in social support.
  • Above all, plenty of “attaboys/girls” and “proud of you” messages, whether electronic or paper

I remember my Davidson College freshman dormitory with fondness as we boys got chocolate chip cookies from home and were proud to share with the rest of our friends. Not only were we getting a serotonin hit, but we were getting a status boost in the eyes of our peers! Plus, we all enjoyed the competition of whose cookies were best, or different. “All right! Mrs. Peery has sent another batch of those chewy chocolate chip cookies. You go, Charlie!”

Do keep in mind that not all 18-year-olds experience an increase in anxiety upon leaving home. Those who have been calm, at ease, slow to anger, and relatively stress-free during their teen years are likely to stay that way upon leaving home. Those with a tendency to worry while at home are those most likely to experience an increase in worry when on their own.

For more about the adolescent personality and how to enjoy it to the maximum, I suggest you take a look at the book that my wife, Jane, and I recently published: The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22 (CentACS Press, 2011). It is available in paperback from Amazon or from the authors (request our signature, if you like!), and in ePub version from iTunes.

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