What is Emerging Adulthood?

The period of emerging adulthood, or between the ages of 16 – 24 years old, is a critical developmental period marked by a great deal of exciting life changes which are often accompanied by periods of uncertainty. During this time period many changes are occurring in the brain, socially, emotionally, financially, and relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners, leisure activities, and cultural beliefs. Emerging adults are grappling with financial independence, exploring romantic relationships, and making decisions with longer-term consequences. Key points to consider in cognitive development, social development, emotional development, financial challenges, leisure activities, cultural beliefs and physical/mental health are outlined below.

Cognitive Changes:

The ability to think in a complex, sophisticated manner begins to develop and/or undergoes many changes during emerging adulthood. When you think about difficult situations that you encounter there are always many sides to it. Around the age of 16, we start to develop something called cognitive flexibility. This is the ability to look at a situation and see different facets, it also allows us to recognize that things change from one situation to the next and allow us to respond in an effective way.  All the decisions of emerging adults, for example studying for final exams, choosing a college, choosing a gap year, choosing a job, and developing healthy friendships are all tasks which require cognitive flexibility. As these abilities are developing they may result in challenging situations ranging from not attending to class/work up to and including an inability to function. Our program works to support this development in a healthy, effective manner where you have room to try out new things to sort out what behavior is effective for you.

Social/Emotional Development:  

Social development goes hand-in-hand with cognitive development. In contrast to earlier generations, this stage is more complex with the advent of social media, gap years, and remote working. At this stage, the possibilities are truly endless. Emerging adults need to utilize all of their emotional, cognitive, and coping skills to navigate college applications, job applications, or pursuing non-traditional paths. Each of these different choices requires a different, sophisticated, and nuanced skill set to be able to thrive. For example, emails to friends should be written differently than emails to prospective employers. Even when you have cell phone numbers for bosses and teachers, we need to think about how to interact with them appropriately. Social skills developed during this time period, in conjunction with cognitive growth, allow for emerging adults to navigate different situations and adjust their own approach to move them closer to their goal.

Identity Exploration:

There are many changes that are occurring within and around emerging adults. The endless possibilities at this age usually go hand-in-hand with trying to figure out who you are and how you want to live your life. Often this is the stage where you enter into your first, serious, romantic relationship or begin to think about social issues. This is also important because we want to encourage emerging adults healthy exploration in emerging adults. This might mean taking a class you would not otherwise have tried out or exploring new hobbies, jobs or sports to get a sense of what is possible for you!

Mental Health:

Mental health is a necessary part of healthy and adaptive functioning as a human. When we say mental health we mean a “state of well-being in which we have the ability to realize our potential, cope with normal stresses, and be a contributing community member” (Tanner, 2016). From a psychological perspective, this period is characterized by identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling  transitory, and exciting possibility. This is also the time period when psychiatric symptoms often emerge for the first time. In fact, more than 40% of emerging adults meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder in a 12-month period (Kessler, Chiu, Demler, & Walters, 2005); really what this means is that nearly half of emerging adults have difficulties in their psychological functioning at some point during this transition period. In college populations, more than 50% meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. From our perspective at the LAUNCH clinic, we believe that it is important to provide meaningful support before or during periods when symptoms emerge. This looks different for each person, but we do know that early help can make a difference to functioning in the future.