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Preparing for Adulthood

Mother and daughter smiling together
Many parents have difficulty encouraging their children to become more and more independent as they grow older. Perhaps they fear for their children’s safety or are simply reluctant because they always imagine their growing youngster as the tiny baby they initially brought home. Regardless what the reason is, parents of both full-term and premature babies often have this trouble.

Parents of premature babies and parents of children who have had some kind of childhood illness may have more difficulty letting go than most. They imagine their child as fragile and in need of extra protection. For some children, this need for extra protection may in fact be a wise strategy: children who are intellectually impaired in a significant way should probably have certain restrictions put on them for their own protection. In many cases, however, parents are simply overprotecting their child and, as a result, stifling his development. A child who is coddled because his parents are unnecessarily worried about his “fragility” will get less of an opportunity to develop into a responsible independent adult.

All parents must walk a line between protecting their children and allowing them to be challenged into reaching their full potential. Challenges are by nature risky to some extent. At minimum, a child may “fail” a challenge and have to cope with the failure. Or, he may be injured in some way. This is how children learn to become independent and responsible for their own actions.

Parent must remember that while a child’s physical health is important, so is his self esteem and general emotional health, which cannot be developed without some physical risks to the child. A fear of minor physical injury or of failure should not become an excuse for overprotection. Being perfectly healthy is not a guarantee of fulfillment.

For parents who have children with a disability, the fine line between protection and encouraging a child to challenge himself may be difficult. There may in fact be activities that the child should avoid or take extra precautions doing. Parents should approach their family doctor or other professionals at follow-up clinics to get guidance on these matters. As much as any child should be encouraged, the expectations that parents have placed on their child should be grounded in reality. As should a child’s own expectations.

Taking responsibility

Whether parents like it or not, at some point their child will grow up and leave the nest. Part of parenting is preparing a child for the responsibility he must take for his own health and happiness. A child who has been encouraged to face challenges and take on more responsibilities as he grows will be in a much better position as an adult. 

Long-term outcomes into adulthood

There are few longer-term studies on the adult prospects of children born prematurely. This is not a surprise in the least as it has only been in the last generation or so that the survival of premature babies has dramatically improved.

Preliminary data suggests that most premature babies grow to be productive adults almost as frequently and as fully as full-term babies. “Productive” in this sense means having achieved at school and gone on to be employed. 

Despite this, there are several exceptions. Premature babies born with severe disabilities tend to not do as well as adults as other adults born without disabilities. Additionally, babies born extremely premature also tend to have a more difficult time as adults. There are some data to suggest that those in this category are more likely to have personality disorders as adults.   

Andrew James, MBChB, MBI, FRACP, FRCPC