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Let's Talk About Emerging Adulthood (and why it's important)

The life span approach to development has given us plenty of developmental stages to understand how individuals go through life. Of particular interest in recent years is the developmental stage of emerging adulthood which is unique to industrialized societies where there is a more pronounced separation between adolescence and adulthood. This developmental stage is characterized by role exploration and instability which mirrors the psychosocial crisis developed by Erik Erikson, identity versus identity confusion. The temporal and thematic overlap of these stages makes them quite comparable. They are both invaluable to the individual because of the skills they develop while finding themselves and exercising their independence. From a social justice perspective, this independence comes with risks related to mental health and maladaptive social behaviours. Adults in the community can play a role in minimizing the risk of pathology and supporting youth as they establish a sense of self, while educators can be pivotal in presenting appropriate role models.


Erikson's Identity vs Role Confusion

Erik Erikson developed the psychosocial stages of development, a life span developmental theory in the middle of the 20th century. This theory presented 8 stages which one can expect to pass through from birth to death which involve crises to be resolved by the individual (Read more about it here). The identity versus identity or role confusion stage is significant because this is when the individual is tasked with finding themselves. At this point in development adolescents will have multiple roles and will experience new things. Here we have the major transition into high school where teens are often being introduced to a new system, new opportunities to get involved, part-time jobs, all while undergoing the biological change that is puberty. It is through these experiences that they are expected to figure out which roles seem best suited to them and their future goals. A healthy exploration of these roles would likely lead to the individual finding a productive life path which they can follow. This role exploration, however, is largely contingent upon those around them. An environment that does not allow or support healthy role exploration can be harmful to identity development. That said, this stage is largely dependent on peers and positive role models.

Emerging Adulthood

Emerging adulthood is similar to Erikson’s stage of identity versus identity confusion in the sense that it is also a time of role exploration and establishing oneself for the future, although there are no crises to solve. This developmental period was identified by a researcher by the name of J.J. Arnett who witnessed the way existing developmental roles did not apply to individuals living in industrialized societies in their late adolescence and early adulthood. Instead of being married and starting families in their early 20s, it was more common for individuals to go through a period of instability while they pursued further education, tried different jobs, and even began dating, which is a fairly new phenomenon that impacts the individual and their consequent development. Arnett attributed five characteristics to this life stage and emphasized the fact that it is largely heterogeneous: age of identity explorations, age of instability, self-focused age, age of feeling in-between, and the age of possibilities. This life stage is important because it presents an opportunity for individuals to take advantage of the freedoms typically reserved for adulthood before stepping into the more prescriptive and at times, rigid, roles that come with this life stage as well. This time serves as a transition period between two larger times in our lives which are childhood and adulthood.

The Importance of These Stages and Supporting Emerging Adults

Given the age overlap between this developmental period and the psychosocial developmental stage, I feel they are similar enough to consider together. The focus on self-exploration and identity development are what draw me to each of these stages. I believe that individuals change over time in spite of some enduring traits or beliefs they may have. That said, having the opportunity to, and successfully engaging in self-exploration and subsequent identity development are critical skills that help us not only between the ages of 18 to 25, but also beyond this time when we feel we are outgrowing a life situation. Considering this is the first time for many to truly take ownership over their lives, a significant challenge will be shifting from being relying on the guidance of older, more experienced others to trying to make larger decisions for oneself. Like Sprouts mentioned, a facilitating environment can enable an individual to really step into new roles without feeling the need to question oneself.

In another light, these two developmental stages are extremely important due to the likelihood of emotional distress and possible pathology which may arise. The pressure of finding oneself and establishing their identity can be extremely anxiety inducing for individuals. Anxiety and mood disorders are common in emerging adulthood, and it can be hard for practitioners to identify whether or not these are things that will be resolved once the individual reaches about 30 years of age, or if it will have a lasting effect on their daily functioning. Professionals who focus on adverse childhood experiences and resilience building make the claim that we cannot assume a certain population is at-risk, rather we should assume the entire population to be at risk so everyone is getting preventative treatment and opportunities for growth. It is important that meaningful relationships are formed between emerging adults and more experienced “full” adults, so they have some form of guidance in spite of entering this new stage of independence. I may go even as far as saying, that adults in the community should make a point to offer support to emerging adults whenever possible because they may elucidate the path towards adulthood.

There is an added need for community members to find ways to connect with this population because of the possibility of choosing a path that is not conducive to the wellbeing of the larger society. Erikson’s focus in the identity versus identity confusion stage is the idea of role exploration. Erikson’s stage begins long before emerging adulthood begins which is important because traditional education is still a large part of the individual’s life. Educators can play a critical role in identity development by providing students with examples of positive role models, and more generally, constructive behavioural archetypes. By engaging in positive role modeling early on, teenagers will have enough time to internalize these positive behaviours and adopt them into their own goals for themselves. That said, it is important to let the power stay in the hands of the individual, as forcing or prescribing an identity to youth may result in rebellion which commonly results in undesirable or maladaptive behaviour. It is important that those who engage with youth regularly, grant them the independence to explore roles and aim to guide rather than control or coerce them into following an alternate path. Fostering autonomy is key for optimizing the development of those going through this stage.

Simple Ways to Promote Autonomy in Teens

  • Giving them choices in matters that are meaningful for them

  • Allowing them to explore with their identity and individuality (in safe ways)

  • Encouraging problem solving

  • Using supportive language and asking questions instead of controlling language and using directives

  • Providing opportunities for more age-appropriate responsibility

  • Empathetic listening and validation of their feelings

I hope you enjoyed this article about emerging adulthood. I encourage you to reflect on your own time at this stage and think about what could have helped you. Additionally, consider the ways you can help those going through this stage.


Adedoyin, A. C. A., Outlaw, K., & Jackson, M. S. (2018). Substance Use Disorders Among Adolescents: Rethinking addiction interventions. The Open Journal of Criminology and Sociology, 1(1), 47-53.

Arnett, J. J. (2007). Emerging adulthood: What is it, and what is it good for?. Child development perspectives, 1(2), 68-73.

Arnett, J. J., Žukauskienė, R., & Sugimura, K. (2014). The new life stage of emerging adulthood at ages 18–29 years: Implications for mental health. The Lancet Psychiatry, 1(7), 569-576.

KPJR Films. (2016). Facilitators Guide to Resilience: Paper Tigers.

Orenstein GA, Lewis L. Eriksons Stages of Psychosocial Development. [Updated 2021 Nov 14]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from:

Quinn, B. L., El Ghaziri, M., & Knight, M. (2019). Incorporating social justice, community partnerships, and student engagement in community health nursing courses. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 14(3), 183-185.

Sprouts. (2017, April 23). 8 Stages of Development by Erik Erikson [Video]. YouTube.

Santrock, J.W. (2018). A Topical Approach to Lifespan Development (9th ed). McGraw Hill Education.


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