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Patients struggle in transition from adolescence to adulthood

October 20, 2016
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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A disconnect exists between how clinicians view the life experiences of young adults and what is really happening in those patients’ lives today. And it’s a chasm created largely by a newly defined stage of psychosocial development known as “emerging adulthood,” according to David Verhaagen, PhD, ABPP, co-founder of Southeast Psych, a multistate psychology practice.

Emerging adulthood, as Verghaagen defined for attendees at the Summit for Clinical Excellence event on Thursday in Falls Church, Va., falls between adolescence and young adulthood and hasn’t necessarily been addressed to this point in training for treatment providers.

“There isn’t as clean a break between adolescence and adulthood, and some of the tasks of adolescence are being carried forward,” Verhaagen says. “A lot of times, we’ve been trained to think of teenagers as those dealing with identity and autonomy, and that a young adult is dealing with intimate relationships and careers moving forward. Now what we’re seeing is someone who is 25 years old and dealing with things that historically were being dealt with at 15 or 16 years old.”

Questions about self-identity that often were faced in adolescence in the past now are addressed for the first time in early adulthood. For example, Verhaagen says it is not uncommon for patients in their early 20s to still refer to themselves as “kids.”

How did this happen? Verhaagen attributes much of this phenomenon to a culture of anxiety created by a constant bombardment from a 24-hour news cycle that sensationalizes dangers in society. As a result, parents become overprotective and children do not develop coping skills. Meanwhile, rates of marijuana and opiate abuse, binge drinking and depression are higher for individuals in this age bracket.

Looking at societal trends in previous generations, Verhaagen says he anticipates a shift ahead in the coming years.

“If we look at things historically, there is a trend toward more focus on kids, then too much focus on kids, then a course correction, then too much of a course correction, and then back again,” he says. “We’re in that quarter of too much: too much focus, too much anxiety, too much sense that we have to protect our kids. My guess is this generation as parents is going to begin the course correction when they become parents.”

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