Emerging Adulthood: The Struggle Is Real (but Manageable)

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By Denise Ambre, LCSW

Caterpillars emerge from their cocoons and take flight as butterflies — but only when they’re ready. The cocoon phase between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood can span years; what constitutes “readiness” is far more complicated than it is for butterflies … and past generations.

In some cases, the period of “emerging adulthood” can last up to a decade. It’s a period of exploration as young people individuate and become adults on their own terms. Achieving their own identity often involves experimental — and sometimes risky — behaviors well into their 20s.

Becoming an Adult: Then vs. Now

You don’t have to reach too far back into history to see a marked change in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Even as recently as 50 years ago, society provided clear expectations around how life “should” look during early adulthood. Most people had taken on a stable adult role — in marriage and career — by their late teens or early 20s. A relatively low percentage of adults pursued higher education or training behind high school.

 Most young men were full-time workers by the end of their teens, while relatively few women held jobs outside the home. The median marriage age for women in the U.S. (and most other industrialized countries) was around 20. Married couples usually had their first child about a year after they got married.

This well-defined cultural structure provided stability and was widely accepted as convention.

That’s not how it works today. From their teen years throughout their 20s, young people are busy figuring out who they are and what they want out of school, work and love. 

What Is Emerging Adulthood? 

The term “emerging adulthood” was coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, a senior research scholar and professor of Psychology at Clark University. In 1995, he interviewed 300 young people between the ages of 18 and 29 — and was struck by the similarities in their responses. Across social and economic backgrounds, they shared a feeling of being pulled between adolescence and adulthood, struggling to achieve independence and their own identity apart from their parents. In 2004, Arnett published Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties which put the term “emerging adult” on the map and established this stage of life as an accepted phase of development.   

Emerging adulthood differs from other developmental phases. According to Arnett and his body of research, it’s a period marked by:

  • Exploration — The search for adult identity can involve dabbling in different areas of study or possible career paths. Many young adults change their major (more than once) and some choose to go on to graduate school. During this time, it’s common for them to satisfy their desire to travel and “see the world.”Emerging adults engage in many facets of identity exploration, often testing their parents’ values as they decide whether to continue living according to those values or create their own set. Their search for an adult identity also includes pursuing one’s own love interests, an option that wasn’t universally available 50 years ago. 

  • Instability — Unlike past generations, the years following high school graduation are now marked by repeated changes in residence. Emerging adults frequently move away from their hometowns to attend college. They might start their college experience in a dorm and move to an apartment or shared house for their upperclassmen years. Additional changes in residence accompany the acceptance of their first job, followed by even more moves as they change jobs, careers, roommates or budgets. Moving is only part of the picture. The natural penchant to engage in thrill-seeking behaviors between the ages of 18 to 25 (and often beyond) can also create instability.

  • “In-between” — The majority of people in their late teens and early 20s say they feel “in between” childhood and adulthood. Accepting day-to-day responsibility for themselves and working toward achieving financial independence are real concepts that they face every day. Most will say that while they no longer feel like a teenager, they also don't quite feel like an adult.

  • Self-focus — As young people fly the proverbial nest, they embark on a journey of self-discovery, including defining their own views of the world, which may or may not match their family’s perspective. Because people are marrying later in life than ever before (the average age of marriage is now 30), they have the “luxury” of taking the time to determine who they are, where they want to live and who they want to love. 

  • Endless possibility — Optimism reigns for most emerging adults, for whom the possibilities seem infinite and endless. Young adults often feel invincible and unjaded by the harsh realities of life. In college and the years that follow, they find great strength in their friendships and the opportunities the world offers them.

Mental Health Issues in Emerging Adulthood

Despite the pervasive optimism, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.

Many mental health disorders can arise during emerging adulthood, from drug addiction to anxiety and depression. In fact, 75% of people who develop mental health disorders do so in late adolescence and early adulthood. That's an impressive figure.

The increasing challenges of emerging adulthood, combined with the still-developing brain throughout the teens and 20s (even later for males) often creates a perfect storm for mental health issues that present during this transition.

Common mental health issues among emerging adults include:

Attention Deficit (and Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD/ADHD)

Even though ADD/ADHD are commonly diagnosed in childhood, they can continue through the teen years and into adulthood. The challenge can be especially significant for college students who find it difficult to study and pay attention in lectures, particularly if they weren’t diagnosed in elementary or high school. Lacking the structure and support they had at school and/or at home, ADD/ADHD can become an even greater obstacle to performance in college.

Impulse control and self-management become more challenging, both in and out of the classroom, as college students and young adults learn to manage their budgets, do their laundry, grocery shop and manage their time.

Anxiety and Depression

Some anxiety is a normal response to life events, from anticipating a grade on an important test to being separated from your family and striving to fit while acclimating to a new physical (and social) environment, and the list goes on … While they’re all valid, “normal” reasons for feeling anxious, persistent anxiety can be an overwhelming mental struggle and become a disorder.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), and the National Allegiance on Mental Health and Mental Illness:  

  • 40 million adults suffer from anxiety and 75 percent of them experienced their first episode by the age of 22.

  • 85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do at some point during the year. And 41% listed anxiety is a top presenting concern among college students.

  • One in four have a diagnosable illness but 40% of those do not seek help.

College depression is a widespread affliction, fed by feelings of loneliness, stress and isolation. Exploring and reshaping can be confusing and disorienting. For some, it becomes overwhelming. Suicide rates continue to increase among college students, and it is the second leading cause of death on college campuses. (Accidental injury being the first.)

Social media impacts young adults as much as teens; the desire to appear effortlessly perfect (and popular) takes a toll on self-esteem. The constant comparison to peers, even into adulthood, can fuel depression. Countless studies show that taking a social media break almost immediately boosts self-esteem.  

During a period when some young adults feel unbridled potential, others struggle to stay afloat. The dark side of feeling on top of the world is the feeling of being crushed by its weight. 

Some parents report that their children are stuck in a failure-to-launch rut, which is becoming increasingly prevalent among emerging adults, even into their 30s. Parents feel helpless as they watch their young adults struggle to take on real-life responsibilities and create their own path to a career and life of their own. This rut is often a sign of depression.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

College life is glorified with the image of parties, including free-flowing alcohol, drugs and sex. At a particularly vulnerable stage in their development, college students are exposed to a variety of drugs at parties, in the dorms and/or around new groups of friends. In the absence of parental supervision, drugs ranging from stimulants (e.g., Adderall, cocaine) to depressants (“escape drugs” like alcohol, marijuana, heroin, opioids) flow freely.

Young adults often jump at the chance to experiment with — and use — drugs once they leave home (and their parents’ watchful eyes). Some turn to drugs and alcohol in their desire to “have fun,” one of the hallmarks of this development phase. Especially as they expand their social circles, they want to fit in; for some, peer pressure is a driving force through emerging adulthood.

Others rely on substances to cope with the stress of college and/or emerging independence.

Sexual assault and violent crime are closely tied to alcohol abuse on college campuses.

Related: The Rise of Vicarious Trauma (and How to Manage It)

Unfortunately, the average college freshman doesn't realize that binge drinking can quickly lead to a type of alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder is a serious medical condition that often arises during university life. Studies are finding more and more younger people with liver cirrhosis linked to binge drinking during college – and beyond.  

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Alcohol binges in emerging adulthood can be triggered by a romantic breakup (and resulting trauma of rejection), loss of job (and resulting blow to self-esteem) and a variety of other traumatic events or transitions.

Many emerging adults turn to drugs and alcohol to attempt to alleviate their anxiety and depression. But because substance abuse only masks the underlying issues, it can worsen their condition and exacerbate their problems.

Real-Life Advice for Emerging Adults

If you’re an emerging adult, you may be feeling a mixed bag of emotions as you traverse the bridge into adulthood. For starters, know that a) you’re not alone; and b) this mixed bag is normal. 

Emerging adulthood is a time to explore who you are and what you aspire to be – in your work, romantic partnerships and worldview. Nothing is set in stone at this point. Because most of your life decisions still lie in front of you, take advantage of the myriad opportunities to “try things on for size.”

It’s not selfish to focus on yourself – it’s an integral part of wading through this phase in your life. The decade of your 20s is typically one where your main obligation is to yourself. (Of course there are real obligations to others, including your boss, landlord, etc. – don’t ignore those!) Use this time to discover what brings meaning to your life. Your brain is primed for growth and new experiences. What things spark your curiosity? What activities bring you joy?

As a child, you were surrounded by other kids in your neighborhood or school. You made friends based on who was in your class, on your sports team or in other extracurricular activities. As an emerging adult, you get to seek out friendships based on common interests. Pay attention to the type of people you’re drawn toward. Build support systems where others are there for you – and you can also be there for others.

The first job or opportunity you get right out of college is not your last chance, it's your first chance to explore what you want to do with the rest of your life. Despite the pressures you may feel, you actually have the rest of your life to figure out what you want to do.

Avoid comparing yourself to your peers. This is your life — not anyone else’s!

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Remember to take a breath, reflect on (and learn from) your experiences, and make proactive choices about what to do next. Build healthy habits that will help you build the future you envision. Adjust your course along the way, as you learn more about the type of person you want to become. Remember, you are not behind in life. There is no set timetable we all must follow. It’s YOUR schedule and everything is right on time!


It’s OK to ask for help. 

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

If you’re interested in learning more about psychotherapy for emerging adults — or parenting support for yourself — please contact us by submitting this form or calling us at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.


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