Ask a Therapist: Facing the Challenges of Emerging Adulthood
One of the more complex, but rarely highlighted periods of personal development occurs during our transition to adulthood. You might think I am referring to that lovely phase called adolescence, but in fact our transition from "child" to "adult" occurs far beyond the bounds of the ages of eleven to eighteen. Our culture places the label "legal adult" on anyone who is eighteen or older, but there is mounting evidence that individuals in their late teens and early twenties are not in fact cognitively or socially developed to the level of a full adult. To complicate matters further, there are many more expectations of adults than of children or adolescents, but not always a defined roadmap on how emerging adults can learn the skills they need to navigate adulthood challenges.
Whereas the age range for emerging adulthood can be debated, I tend to consider this particular stage as occurring from around sixteen years old up through one's early thirties. There are tremendous changes occurring physiologically, socially, and vocationally during this stretch of development, and all of this creates a prime window for identity formation. Many emerging adults begin new experiences that are unfamiliar to them, and might not always have the awareness or guidance needed to overcome new challenges. These experiences can include pursuing education beyond high school, entering into the adult workforce, developing serious romantic relationships, and learning how to live independently (e.g. budgeting finances, maintaining living space). It can be even more difficult when you as an emerging adult look around yourself and perceive that your peers "have it all together" with regard to finances, employment, social life, and romance. You can feel left behind, lost, and apprehensive about what the future holds.
One young person in their early twenties once said to me, "I knew after middle school, I'd go to high school. Then I'd probably do college, meet a partner, get a job, get married, have kids, and work until I retired. But once I left college, it's like someone hid the map of where I was supposed to be going or how I was supposed to get there." This experience is like so many others I hear. Individuals struggle to adapt to work schedules, financial responsibilities, and even finding (or sustaining) intimate relationships. Believe it or not, you continue to explore and refine your identity for many years after becoming a legal adult. You are determining your professional vocation, lifestyle choices, personal values, relationship priorities, and also understanding how you fit into a complex (and sometimes cold) world. These are important areas of exploration, but many feel they should already know where they stand on such topics. I argue there is no rule that says you must know these things by any particular age, and how are you supposed to when you don't take time to explore them adequately.
There are many individuals who feel they are unprepared for the real world and this can be quite distressing. For this reason, among others mentioned above, I feel that emerging adulthood is a prime opportunity to enter therapy. Many of the questions we seek to answer about ourselves, our relationships, and our futures can be overwhelming to engage without positive, encouraging, and relatable support. One of the first experiences of relief for emerging adults I work with comes when they can truly recognize they are not alone in their transitional struggles. Moreover, there is true empowerment that comes from the knowledge that there is no single correct way to navigate this transition. Honest reflection in a supportive therapeutic relationship can help individuals more clearly define their values and goals. Therapy can then help you apply this knowledge to your life choices, habits, and pursuits while receiving feedback from an objective person who is there to support your personal goals. It is easier to overcome embarrassment when you know you are not being judged. It is easier to know you are not alone when you have someone who is connected, engaged, and interested in navigating these complex issues with you. Making time for therapy at this stage is your life can effectively set you up for a far more satisfying experience for the next five decades. You can proceed with more confidence, clarity, and direction toward your personal goals, ultimately achieving what you hoped you could in your life.