Adolescence: From Dependence to Independence

Growing up is exhausting work. As a teenager, I remember feeling like my world revolved around my social life. How I looked, what I wore, what friends I had. As I got older, my world revolved around what classes to take at university, what job to pursue, what city I should live in. As we age, we face new and difficult developmental tasks that help us become adults. We learn to talk, walk, socialize, and become a member of our community. Adolescence, typically recognized as ages 10 to 19, is a unique transition that starts with a child and ends with a young adult. 

In early adolescence, children experience changes in their bodies and brains. During puberty, they begin producing more hormones that change the way their bodies look and feel. Their frontal cortex continues to develop, leading to cognitive changes in logic and reasoning. As they age, adolescents begin to observe, measure, and manage their emotions, helping them become aware not only of their own feelings but also that of others. Friends and intimate relationships develop, and adolescents begin exploring their sexual identity with themselves and others. As adolescents age and creep towards early adulthood, a stronger sense of individuality develops and they begin to formulate their own set of values. Conflict with caregivers is common as adolescents navigate their identity from dependent to independent; child to adult. 

Emerging Adulthood: The Age of Possibilities 

Jeffery Jenson Arnett proposed a theory focusing on the years of development between the late teens through the early twenties. Named emerging adulthood, this stage of growing is argued to be distinct in many ways. Arnett believed that this period of time was not simply a brief transition into adulthood, but a unique part of the lifespan where young people, no longer teenagers, slowly settle into more long-term, adult roles. Through their research, Arnett and colleagues found that this transitional period is critical for growing individuals: 

  • Identity Exploration: Emerging adults explore and try on a number of different life possibilities as they move towards long-lasting decisions. 
  • Instability: As emerging adults explore, they are particularly subject to changes in residence. They choose different directions with respect to love, work, and education, often leading to changes in where they live. 
  • Self-Focus: Emerging adults have shifting social obligations, duties, and commitments to others which leads to a great deal of autonomy and independence in steering their lives. 
  • Change and Exploration: As a result of this exploration and instability, emerging adults have many more choices in front of them. While this is often an exciting, enjoyable freedom, it also can lead to challenges. 
  • The In-Between: Emerging adults often say they do not see themselves as adolescents or adults. This age group often feels they have left one stage of development, but not fully merged into the next one, often leaving a feeling of isolation. 

With Unique Growth Comes Unique Challenges 

While adolescence and emerging adulthood is a time of excitement, exploration, and growth, it is also a difficult time fraught with challenges. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, stigma, educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviors, and much more. Adolescents in Western culture are struggling with their identity, particularly how to develop individually outside of their caregivers and family. They are under the stress of peer pressure, media influence, and gender norms which can affect their relationship with themselves and others. 

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 14% of people aged 10 to 19 experience mental health difficulties, though they typically go unrecognized and untreated. Depression, anxiety, and other behavioral concerns are among the leading causes of illness among adolescents. They can often experience panic, excessive worry, and depression that can affect their ability to function in school, work, and in relationships with family and peers.

Resources For Caregivers, Adolescents, and Emerging Adults 

Understanding these risks is imperative for caregivers and clinicians alike to understand. Adolescence and emerging adulthood is an exciting, but isolating time. This time is difficult, but adolescents don’t need to navigate it on their own. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with life transitions faced in adolescence and emerging adulthood, reach out to one of our specialized counselors for individual care, or join a group and share the challenges with others grappling with similar issues. Growing up is exhausting work. Get the support you deserve. 

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