How the End of Adolescence (18 - 23) Can Feel Overwhelming

It's important to know how the end of adolescence is hardest, and what to do.

Posted Apr 18, 2016

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Typically, what is the hardest stage of growing up?

Although hard times can occur during any stage of adolescent development, from what I’ve seen, the most challenging period usually occurs at the end (ages 18 - 23), when the job of managing a responsible independence usually begins.

Now the multiplicity and magnitude of life demands can feel overwhelming, perhaps contributing to the average low college retention rate (on average around 50%, according to the Journal of College Retention), and the substantial percentage (maybe 30% - 40%) of young people who boomerang home for a while to recover when independent footing is lost.

While freedom during most of adolescence was often alluring and exciting, freedom on the threshold of young adulthood can be scary and dispiriting. Here is one explanation of why, and some suggestions for what a young person might helpfully do. 

Start by considering some focal challenges in each of four adolescent stages.

In Early Adolescence (ages 9 - 13) a central challenge is separating from childhood and that simpler, sheltered, more secure period of family life. This stage has much to do with letting go and loss.

In Mid Adolescence (ages 13 -15) a central challenge is forming a second family of friends that creates pressures of peer group membership. This stage has much to with fitting in and social belonging.

In Late Adolescence (ages 15 - 18) a central challenge is experimenting with older behaviors and the risks they carry. This stage has much to do with daring to act more grown up.

In Trial Independence (ages 18 - 23) a central challenge is separating from home and managing more independent living. This stage has much to do with assuming adult responsibility.

I believe that this final stage of adolescence tends to be the most demanding and discouraging of all. Most young people are not fully prepared to meet all the expectations needed to support a functional independence right away. This is why this last stage is a “trial” effort, when some degree of parental support is often still in place. It is a ‘trial” too in the sense of having to endure missteps and failures as an “adult in training,” and learn from the errors of one’s ways in a struggle to catch independent hold. Because mistake-based education is order of the day, it can be hard to sustain self-esteem: “I keep messing up!”

At such times, it’s very easy to feel rootless, helpless, useless, aimless, worthless, and even hopeless. The “less” is significant because it means “less than” what one felt “more of” in high school – more connected, competent, directed, useful, valued, and hopeful.

During the trials of this last stage, “I feel stuck” is a common counseling complaint. “I’m not getting anywhere!” But in most cases the young person only feels “stuck.” On closer examination they are growing and learning hard life lessons of great value. They are developing resilience from recovering, they are showing mental toughness by continuing to try, and they are gaining more worldly knowledge and experience. So in fact they are making progress; frustration and discouragement from developmental discomfort just makes it hard to see.

DEVELOPMENTAL DISCOMFORT

If young people are still comfortable during this time of life it often means they may still be depending on old family supports and are not fully engaged in growing up which is now defined as asserting, establishing, and self-managing their functional independence. Some developmental discomfort at this last stage needs to be. Although painful, it shows the young person is engaging in an honorable battle.

What battle? During this final stage of adolescence, they are fighting within themselves for and against taking full self-governing responsibility that part of them isn’t quite ready or able to accept. The battle cry for independence in the entry stage of adolescence is usually against parental authority: “You can’t make me!” But the battle cry in the exit stage of adolescence is often against their own authority: “I can’t make me!” Now procrastination, tempting socializing, escape into electronic entertainment, and substance use can all interfere with active engagement.

The antidote to this discomfort is Self Discipline, particularly three behaviors on which it depends: Completion, Commitment, and Consistency.

To “make” themselves engage with their increased responsibilities they have to be able:

To achieve Completion – to finish what they start;

To meet Commitments – to keep promises to themselves and others;

And to maintain Consistency of effort – to continually take care of ongoing demands that living independently requires.

In the last stage of adolescence, it’s upon these three self-disciplinary supports that functional independence will largely depend. At the same time they must contend with growing self-doubt.

SELF-DOUBT

Now they have to contend with a host of troubling Adequacy Questions they may never have asked themselves before. What questions? Consider ten.

“Can I make it on my own?”

“Can I motivate myself to work for what I want?”

“Can I cope with the demands of living independently?”

“Can I direct myself toward a successful future?”

“Can I deal with the fallout from bad choices?”

“Can I figure out how to create the life I want?”

“Can I depend on myself to do what I know is right?”

“Can I stay healthy and happy living apart from family?”

“Can I get by on less money?”

“Can I manage taking classes while I have a job?”

Negative responses to these questions sow the seeds of self-doubt in the face of so much uncertainty. Most important, they undermine self-confidence needed to carry on. Young people are at a very important self-management choice point: to doubt themselves or to express confidence in themselves. Attitude has much to do with actions that they take.

Doubt is disabling; confidence is empowering. So shun the first and embrace the second. Doubt pre-maturely forecloses on positive possibility and creates its own sad self-fulfilling prophesy. Doubt is a defeater. Doubt thinks: “I can’t.” Confidence thinks: “I can.” Of course confidence doesn’t guarantee success, but by treating effort as worth a try it treats the person trying as worth investing in. 

This is why the antidote to doubting questions is asking the affirmative action question instead: “If I was not filled with doubt, but confidence, what would I choose to do to advance my best interests?” Then consider trying that. So the young person, instead of not following up on a job application because a call-back was not received, calls up the employer to check on the status of the application. If you want to feel confident, then you must choose to act that way. In addition, confront the reality that you are dealing with massive life change.

DEALING WITH CHANGE

Of the four stages of adolescence, the hardest comes last because the re-definitional changes required by independence are so many and varied. It’s a huge leap from acting older adolescent to acting young adult. Change is the force that upsets and resets the terms of people’s existence all their lives. And now the young person's life can feel in turmoil.

Change can feel scariest when it is most global and least understood. However, by identifying its components one can specify choices for dealing with it, and now the experience becomes less overwhelming and more subject to personal control.

SPECIFYING CHANGES

In general, major life change is actually a compound mix of four changes on one – the first two discontinuous (Start and Stop), the second two continuous (Increase and Decrease.) Break down the change you are experiencing into these for component parts.and you can clarify the challenge ahead 

For the last stage adolescent, the two discontinuous changes are:

There is the experience of STARTING something new and different: beginning to treat education as elective and not compulsory, for example. This creates the challenge of Initiation. “What actions can I take to prepare myself for an occupational path?” 

There is the experience of STOPPING something old and established: like depending on parents to set rules for daily living. This creates the challenge of Loss. “What actions can I take to do without my parents’ directing and supervisory presence?” 

For the last stage adolescent, the two continuous changes are:

There is the experience of INCREASING some degree or amount of life activity, for example: having to assume more responsibility for self-discipline and self-direction. This creates the challenge of Addition. “What actions can I take to organize myself to meet more responsibilities?”

There is the experience of DECREASING some degree or amount of life activity, for example: having to make do with less supervisory and material aid. This creates the challenge of Reduction: “What actions can I take to get by on less parental support?”

To deal with the major changes of Trail Independence, developing action plans to follow can make a positive difference.

In sum, it is normal and okay to go through times of feeling overwhelmed at the end of adolescence. What is not okay is letting “feeling overwhelmed” do your “thinking” for you and decide that delay or avoidance or escape or giving up is what is best to do. Giving up is the enemy of growing up.

Instead, respect how the last stage of adolescence is the most courageous stage – the time to brave low confidence and high uncertainty and chart your path into adulthood. Of course, life won’t get any easier from here on forward, but by engaging with the demands of more independence you will be stronger and more self-assured when confronted by whatever major challenges come next. 

For more about this last stage of adolescence, see my book, “Boomerang Kids,” (Sourcebooks, 2011.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Helping Your Adolescent Manage Increased Emotional Intensity