Miley Cyrus: Is She Lost in Transition from Child to Adult?

By Dr. Kate Roberts

From the Editor: Today’s post on Miley Cyrus’s bumpy transition to the adult years comes from Dr. Kate Roberts, a Boston-area psychologist who’s worked with parents and families for 25 years.

Miley Cyrus’s recent behavior has been making the headlines lately, with many parents understandably up in arms over her complete image change — and her recent over-sexualized performances in her videos and at the VMAs. On the one hand, people understand her desire to distance herself from the squeaky-clean, Disney-controlled, typecast life she has led for a decade. On the other hand, Miley went overboard, similar to the way rebellious teens, tweens and even pre-teens do when in a reckless attempts to escape parental control. (Hint to Miley: these attempts usually backfire.)

One conversation about her behavior that you can have with your teen is that extremism in any form does not truly help to shape and define an identity: instead, it’s a quick fix for avoiding the challenging and tumultuous life stage between teen years and becoming an adult. Young adults need to recognize that the age-old answer of “Who am I?” doesn’t come in a flash, and that a part of growing up is tolerating the uncertainly of this stage of life.

Related: Is your child hanging out with “the wrong crowd”?

Extreme actions as a way of prematurely establishing an identity and a place outside of home is not the answer and in fact, it only creates more problems. Miley is only 20, and at this life stage, young people need to tread lightly as they separate from authority and the parents that raised them. As parents, it’s important to recognize and accept that adult brains are not fully formed until the mid-twenties, and therefore ongoing guidance is appropriate and necessary.

There appears to be more and more at stake for teens and young adults as freedom of expression and channels for that expression have increased though social media and technology. Parents can use Miley’s performance as a way to generate discussion about the importance of expectations and being cautious decision-makers. They need to send a message that it is not easy going from high school to adulthood, and that finding their own unique path takes time and patience and some guidance. Parents need to emphasize that although the decisions are their child’s when they leave the house as adults, the wrong choices can lead to exploitation, and less freedom to be who they are in the end.

Related: Is your good kid making bad choices?

Teen girls can benefit from viewing this episode of Miley’s as information they can learn from. One thing they can learn is that when they want to change their image, they need to consider how to do this effectively and with self-respect, not just as a reaction to someone or something. Reactive behavior often results in more stressful problems than the original problem of establishing independence and an adult identity.

Even though Miley doesn’t quite see it yet, over-sexualization doesn’t free girls from adult control. It only solidifies stereotypes that females then have to grapple with as they enter adulthood. The choices your teen makes can make it easier or harder to make this transition. True freedom is obtained through using free will to make choices and act responsibly. It takes some time for a typical teen to know what that is, and to manage adult freedom, as well. Miley’s superficial promotion of sexuality communicates sexual exploitation — and what could possibly be less freeing than that?

About Dr. Kate Roberts

Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a Boston-area licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist who has coached parents and families for more than 25 years. She offers parents practical strategies in her bi-weekly parenting column; Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap in the Salem News and in her Savvy Parenting blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Roberts has worked as a consulting psychologist to school districts throughout New England and works with parents and children through Massachusetts General Hospital. You can check out Dr. Kate's website at and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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