Erik Erickson, noted developmental psychologist, described the period of young adulthood as being from age 20-45, and the task of the stage to be “intimacy vs. isolation.” This may seem too broad and simplistic a definition for today’s society. In 1970, Kenneth Keniston, a Yale psychologist, described characteristics of youth as “pervasive ambivalence toward self and society” and “having a feeling of absolute freedom, of living in a world of pure possibilities.” Keninston proposed that young adults have not settled the questions of relationship to existing society, vocation, social role, and lifestyle.
A young adult in today’s society faces issues and challenges that did not exist, or were unacknowledged, in previous generations. In 2000, Jeffrey Arnett coined the term “emergent adult” and identified changes that have occurred over the last several decades for young adults including:
Choices for both genders are more numerous for young adults than they were several decades ago. Expectations are less clear about what a person's next step should be after finishing school (whether it be high school, college, or graduate school). In times past, young adults’ paths were often predetermined by role expectations, family expectations, and clearer gender expectations. The traditional cycle seems to have gone “off course.” Young people remain unattached to romantic partners or permanent homes, are going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing for unpaid internships or temporary public service volunteer jobs--in other words, forestalling the beginning of what many would consider "adult life." Sociologists call it “the changing timetable for adulthood.”
Psychotherapy for young adults may help the client explore their identity, including their values, interests, and questions of who they are in the world. Instability is addressed for clients who may experience a feeling of being “in between” one stage of life and the next, often striving for independence from parents but needing to depend on them for financial or emotional support. Clients tend to be naturally self-focused at this time of their life, but may need help in seeing a bigger picture in terms of how they fit into the world and their relationships with others. Young adults’ sense of possibilities can help to establish hope for the future, but can also hinder progress if the client is overwhelmed by possibilities and may need assistance narrowing down choices. Group therapy can be a powerful intervention for this cohort, as many young adults are feeling isolated and alone, as if everyone else “has it together” except for them. Group therapy helps people to see that this is not the case, and gives them a place to feel less isolated and more supported as they grapple with issues of what their life will be about.
Young adult therapy clients are frequently looking for an encouraging parental figure in a therapist, particularly if they were or are not so well supported by their own parents or family. Other times they are looking for the opposite of a parental figure--someone who sees them as capable and adult. Not an authority, just a wise guide. If they come in with their parents, or are living with their parents, they are sometimes ambivalent about separation from them, and may need some help being launched. Therapy helps to establish where a young adult is in the separation process from their family of origin and how much autonomy he or she is feeling.
Questions that may be explored in therapy:
A NIMH longitudinal study found that children’s brains were not fully mature until at least age 25. Most significant changes after puberty were in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, the regions involved in emotional control and higher-order cognitive functioning. The limbic system explodes during puberty, but the prefrontal cortex keeps maturing for another 10 years. This is the part that allows you to control your impulses, come up with a long-range strategy, and answer the question, “What am I going to do with my life?” Many serious mental illnesses tend to appear in the late teens or early 20’s (bipolar, schizophrenia). Other common problems may include substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. These illnesses and issues complicate the already complex question of life choices and direction.
Jenna, age 29, comes to therapy because her thirtieth birthday is approaching and she feels like she has not fulfilled her potential. She is working as a waitress, though a career in film has been her goal, and she did go to film school and graduated. After graduation, she worked as a production assistant for several different production companies, and found the work very difficult and at times demeaning. However, she hung in for two or three years because this is how you make it in this industry--pay your dues by doing the lowly jobs and working your way up. After a few years, though, she was burnt out and needed a break. This is when she started working as a waitress. She makes much more money as a waitress than she did in the film business. She does not like the work, but it is mindless and a break from what she was doing before. By the time she comes to counseling, she has been working as a waitress for five years. She is depressed, fearful about getting back into the film industry, feeling like her life is lacking meaning and direction, and does not want to be in the same boat in several more years. Additionally, Jenna has never been in a meaningful relationship, and has very limited dating experience. Her lack of experience with relationships adds to her angst about getting older. Therapy helps Jenna understand that the break she took was brought on by feelings of inferiority (which upon further exploration revealed a neglectful childhood). Jenna learned how to “re-parent” herself with the help of the therapist in an encouraging parent role. Her lack of certainty about her life direction was normalized, and other possibilities for her future were explored. She wasn’t ready to let go of her dream, so she needed some confidence-building exercises to get back into the world of film and the job market. She eventually quit her waitressing job, and began to get involved in film jobs again. She wasn’t sure she would stick with film, but she felt she had to give it a good chance before she let go and try something else. Finally, she and the therapist explored her interpersonal relationships, and began to understand what makes it difficult for her to get close to others.
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Last updated: 02-24-2014
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