Jesse Viner, MD

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What's Emerging About Emerging Adults?

Jesse Viner, MD
Founder and Executive Medical Director

 

Emerging adulthood is a developmental period of both great risk and potential. Developmental psychologist and researcher Jeffrey Arnett was the first to identify and name the period between ages 16 and 29 as a distinct developmental phase termed Emerging Adulthood; the age of possibilities. Arnett’s decade of research is published and co-authored with Yellowbrick Board of Advisors member and NIMH research scholar Dr. Judith Tanner, in The Emerging Adult; Coming of Age in the 21st Century.  Arnett and Tanner identify 5 primary features in the normal phase of emerging adulthood:

  • the age of identity exploration;
  • the age of instability in all areas of life;
  • the age of feeling in-between adolescence and adulthood;
  • the most self-focused age;
  • the age of possibilities and opportunities to create the future.

As a normal part of this developmental period, the emerging adult is experimenting with everything…from drugs and alcohol, to sexual partners, to lifestyle patterns, to career opportunities, to social and political identities…literally every aspect of their lives is in transition, becoming... Think for a moment about your own path in young adult life… what were you doing? Were any of you with me at Woodstock?! If you say you remember Woodstock, I know you weren’t really there!

Daniel Siegel, M.D. in his comprehensive work The Developing Mind (1999) synthesizes the findings from developmental neuro-scientific research.  This growing body of research shows that the ultimate, organizing purpose of the brain’s formation and growth throughout the lifespan is to evolve an ever more complex, integrated and higher-order representation of the self. In other words, identity formation is a crucial, nuclear process for survival and adaptation. Emerging adulthood is an active and essential window of time in the maturational unfolding of identity.

The emerging adult phase has unique emotional challenges:

  • consolidation of identity and self regulation
  • role transitions within family,
  • peer and intimate relationships,
  • establish oneself as a capable and valued person within society.

During emerging adulthood, a second wave of psychological separation-individuation occurs with a corresponding profusion of brain cell pruning, re-networking and the establishment of neural patterns that correspond to enduring patterns of experience and behavior. Whereas in the first phase of separation-individuation in the 2nd through 4th years of life, where much of identity formation is ironically along the lines of becoming ourselves by becoming like our primary caretakers, identity formation in emerging adulthood takes place along the lines of identifying with peers, extra-parental adults and heroes. The representation of self also derives ever more specifically from the experience of the interface with the world outside the family home. It is important to understand that brain development in the late teens and twenties is still such that action and subsequent experience is the feedback system most relied upon for information as to identity. Freed from the constraints of living within the family home and being subject to its various rules and restrictions, in addition to broader exposure to alternative choices, emerging adults engage with the world in new ways as it offers novel opportunities for self experience and expression. Behavioral exploration and even risk taking are normative, even required actions in the service of learning so as to shape the self; risk taking allows the emerging adult to experience the outer margins of their “comfort zone”, thus defining the self’s boundaries.