Editor’s note: The following article contains movie spoilers. The films described are platforms for therapeutic discussion.
As I sat down with a new client in her late 20s, I asked if she had been to counseling before. She had not, but remarked that it was now “cool” for people to go to therapy. I said I was biased and of course agreed with her. Many young adults are finding therapy to be an accepted method for processing the uncertainty and longing they experience.
A New York Times article from 2007 speaks to the creation of a new life phase for young adults, the “odyssey years,” where life is improvised, relationships are fluid, and there are more job categories to choose from than ever.
To serve this population of clients who are pushing social scientists to redefine the markers of adulthood, therapists should know these three things that young adult clients want from therapy.
1. They want an ally.
The 2013 film The Way Way Back shows how powerful an ally can be in a young person’s life. The movie opens with a teenager, Duncan, being bullied by his mother’s boyfriend, Trent. While forced to live with Trent over the summer, Duncan secretly takes a job at the local water park where he befriends other quirky employees and is mentored by the water park manager, Owen. He is soon accepted by this misfit bunch and begins to gain confidence in himself.
The big turning point at the end of the film is when Trent, the bully, meets Owen, the ally. Owen physically steps in between Trent and Duncan, blocking Trent’s access to Duncan and forever changing the dynamic in the family. It took just one person to stand up one time in order for Trent, the bully, to lose the power he held over both Duncan and his mother. At the end of the movie, Duncan has more room to step into his own identity and choose his own life path.
Young adult clients may come to therapy for many reasons. They could be battling an internal critical voice and need help staying present with themselves through difficult emotions. Or the struggle may show up on the outside when there is conflict in a relationship with a partner, friend, coworker, or family member. They need an ally who can stand with them and be a buffer between them and the struggle.
The process of therapy itself is an ally because it provides space to name the struggle, step outside the struggle, and discover an identity that is more powerful than the struggle. Young adult clients often feel invalidated by well-intentioned reality checks and may wonder why they aren’t where they thought they’d be by such-and-such age. For these clients, what may have worked for their elders may no longer be viable. They may hold a belief there is something wrong with them that is causing them to have such a hard time. This belief can be painful.
Young adults are looking for an ally who can see them as they are and normalize the challenges they experience. They are looking for an ally who can give them room to voice their own original thoughts and feel their way forward. They want to know they are not damaged or broken because they have challenges, but that life has ups and downs, and it is important to learn to move through them.
Young adults want to find their place in the world and to be themselves while doing it. This longing to have agency and be seen for who they are, although existentially excruciating, can be a catalyst for growth.
2. They want to have a voice in the world.
In Beyond the Lights (2014), the main character, Noni, is a world-renowned superstar. Through her childhood and with the help of her mother, she worked hard to do everything she could to be a famous singer. Her efforts molded her into a household name, but she is unrecognizable to herself and deeply unhappy.
In the beginning of the movie, she holds the world’s attention, and people either desire her or desire to be her. But Noni feels so lost she attempts to take her own life. A young police officer, Kaz, saves her from jumping off a hotel balcony, and they form a friendship. Kaz is not impressed by the trappings of fame, and Noni begins to feel safe enough to take off the masks she has worn all her life. She starts by taking off outer masks such as the provocative clothes, the fake hair, and the makeup, and she begins to reveal her inner beauty by laughing, connecting, and listening to her needs. Noni rediscovers a deep love for singing and performing. The movie ends with Noni on stage, comfortable with herself as she is, singing in her authentic voice.
Like Noni, young adult clients may long for the ability to take off their masks and discover how to use their authentic voice. They may have been wearing a mask so long they don’t even realize it. They may struggle under the weight of negative beliefs and other people’s expectations of them. They may have grown up in a family or culture that silenced their voice and their emotional life. Or they may be aware of their inner truth and want a place where they can express grief, fear, and hope.
Therapy can be a safe place for young adults to be with their inner experience. Some may need a place to identify their needs as people. According to Krista Tippett, founder and CEO of The On Being Project, young adults “have this urgency for what is possible … That urgency is fierce, but it is also fragile.” This quality of urgency is asking to be nurtured.
Young adults want to find their place in the world and to be themselves while doing it. This longing to have agency and be seen for who they are, although existentially excruciating, can be a catalyst for growth. Young adults want therapy that can help them hold and make sense of this tension. They want therapy that values their inner life and their expression thereof, even if it conflicts with cultural conditions.
3. They want a process of initiation.
In the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, humble and quiet Walter daydreams often about saving the day, impressing a female colleague, and clashing with a bullying coworker with superhuman strength. There is a longing inside of Walter for his unlived life because at a young age, he had to take on the responsibility of providing for his family when his father passed away.
Walter’s resiliency and character are put to the test when the negative of a valuable photograph is lost while in his possession. He chooses to embark on a journey around the world to find the seasoned adventure photographer who took the photograph. His journey takes him to dangerous and remote places, allows him to meet interesting people, and requires him to test his wits and courage in unique ways, only to end up where he started. Upon returning from this life-changing quest, he is able to trust himself and his abilities and is finally able to do what he has always longed to do. He stands up to the bully, impresses his crush, finds the treasured photo negative, and uncovers a sense of self.
Similarly, many young adults want to learn to trust their skills and character and to feel the call of their yet-to-be-lived life. They want to test their dreams in the fires of reality and are looking for support and guidance. Young adults who are facing difficult challenges may be able to use these challenges as part of a process of initiation. Whether they are shaking off old beliefs that no longer work, healing trauma, or defining what a successful, meaningful life looks like, they are embarking on an unknown journey. They want to see how their story will be resolved.
The process of therapy can help young adults reframe these challenges as an opportunity for experience, trust, connection, and wisdom to blossom from the fertilizer of strife. If they crave an archetypal task as a rite of passage, therapy can help them define how they will view this journey.
Young adults have an advantage as they connect with their therapist and move forward in therapy. Their range of choices on how to live is greater than it will ever be and greater than it has ever been (Arnett, 2018). However, they are grappling with the task of birthing themselves into the world as adults, and they are coming to therapy to make sense of what is happening.
An awareness of the world and the forces at play for clients in this life stage can help therapists provide the deeply nourishing experience that young adults want from therapy.
- Allain, S., Blythewood, R. R., Kavanaugh, R., & Prince-Blythewood, G. (2014). Beyond the lights. [Motion picture]. USA: Homegrown Pictures.
- Arnett, J. J. (2018). Adolescence and emerging adulthood. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
- Brooks, D. (2007, October 9). The odyssey years. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/opinion/09brooks.html
- Goldwyn, S., Goldwyn, J., Cornfield, S., & Stiller, B. (2013). The secret life of Walter Mitty. [Motion picture]. USA: Samuel Goldwyn Films.
- Rice, T., Walsh, J., Faxon, N., & Rash, J. (2013). The way way back. [Motion picture]. USA: Sycamore Pictures.
- Tippett, K. (2018, July 23). Living the questions #2. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/living-the-questions-2
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