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Turning 20: The Brutal End to the Teenage Dream

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

Through our college careers, we encounter and achieve a multitude of different milestones. Whether they be academic, emotional, or professional, college is full of firsts and lasts and notable in-betweens. One of the more significant milestones, I’ve found, is the last teenage year and the first adult one.

Turning 20 is not a milestone many of us consider to be profound. When you turn 16: you can drive, at 18: you can vote, and at 21: you can (legally) drink, but with 20, it appears as if there is no reward but the looming peril of adulthood. For its seeming lack of compensation, 20 is a milestone that we avoid noting.

Despite the lack of notability surrounding turning 20, there is no doubt that the milestone inspires a lot of difficult feelings and emotions. As your 19th year comes to a close and the 20th begins, it may feel like you’re experiencing the ending of your teenage years, and the beginning of real adulthood, in the matter of a moment. With such significant feelings attached to turning 20, the milestone may be one you’re not quite looking forward to.

With the end of my 19th year rapidly approaching, I’ve spent a great deal of time considering my feelings toward this unusual milestone. One notion I have trouble stomaching is the end of my complicated teenage years.

All throughout our youth, we hear that our teenage years will be the best of our lives. We expect seven perfect years of friendship, romance, parties, and excitement, and picture-perfect memories like those we see on social media and the internet. However, we soon learn that these perfect years are far from reality.

The constant presence of social media and technology in our daily lives makes it especially difficult for teenage girls to ignore the unrealistic expectations set by peers on social media. The practice of comparing and “measuring up” to fellow teenagers has become an all too common practice, says author Rachel Simmons.

Adolescents have become consumed in the idea of attempting to make the impossible expectations of social media their reality, and this inevitable failure only leads to feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.

Social media continues to distort teenagers’ expectations of these crucial years, and it is essential to form more reasonable expectations through self-compassion and purpose-building. Understanding that teenage years are more full of growth, hardship, and learning than “perfect memory-making” is difficult but essential to accepting the complicated experiences of adolescence.

Though the lessons we learn through these struggles are invaluable, sometimes we can’t help but wonder if we spent too much time worrying about the perfection of our teenage years rather than the actual enjoyment of them, and with the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic it’s hard not to imagine how things could have been if we got to experience our final teenage years in a normal time.

It is important to understand that your teenage experience is exactly that – your own – and it is futile to compare it to the perfect snapshots we view on social media. Your teens will have been imperfect, challenging, ridiculous, joyful, and impressionable, and that’s precisely what makes them so valuable and formative.

Your teenage experience will not have lived up to the impossible expectations that social media advertises, and that is more than okay. It is important to remember this as we say goodbye to this complicated period of our lives.

With the death of our teens seems to come the birth of adulthood, which can summon a surplus of uncomfortable feelings about the financial, emotional, and physical stressors of adulthood. Before turning 20 causes you to have a fifth-life crisis, consider another perspective.

Rather than a marker of adulthood, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., suggests that 20 signifies the beginning of a new stage of life dubbed “emerging adulthood.” Emerging adulthood is a continuing stage of growth and development. It is normal to have feelings of instability and a lack of direction; this stage should prioritize identity exploration and self-focus.

Realize that while 20 may seem old, your youth is in no way slipping away. By no means have you lost the ability to make the imperfectly perfect memories of friendship, romance, and excitement.

In fact, turning 20 only means that you’ll pursue these memories more wisely and less recklessly, with a couple more years under your belt – and you’ll probably pursue them more successfully, too! Being 20 is amazing in that you still carry the youth of your teens, but now you know a thing or two.

No matter the complicated feelings you carry about your teenage years, or the worries you hold about approaching adulthood, know that there are no requirements to be 20. Let turning 20 be your own experience, rather than anything you think it has to be.

Kaitlyn Newport

American '24

Kaitlyn is a junior at American University majoring in journalism and political science. She enjoys creative writing, photography, and reading, and she is passionate about mental health and women's rights. Kaitlyn is a section editor and contributing writer for HCAU and currently living in D.C.