A Quick Guide to Life’s Developmental Challenges
Our lives move in chucks of stability and transition. Here's how to navigate.
Posted Jun 27, 2020
It can hit you at 30 or 40 or 50 or 90—that dreaded developmental crisis where you are feeling restless or empowered or struggling to make a big decision. Research shows that adults move through six to seven years of stability and then two to three years of instability where all these issues come to the surface. For some, it is about the state of the marriage, for others, about having children or quitting your job and dedicating yourself to being an artist in New Mexico, and still others about accomplishing what's on top of that bucket list before time runs out.
The topics at any given point will vary depending on your age and your current concerns. What’s more important is the process of navigating these difficult times. Here’s a rundown of the biggest, most common ones:
We’re starting here because for many adults it is a pivotal point in their overall development. Here is where hormones kick in, attraction to the opposite sex kicks in, where you totally begin to compare yourself in 100 different ways to your peers. Lots angst and worry about where and how you can fit in, and early questions about what your future adult life might be like.
Obstacles: You don’t get the support you need to deal with daily struggles, to answer the questions that trouble you; you are too self-critical and walk out with low self-esteem; you struggle with peers and have ongoing social anxiety.
Challenges: Learning to navigate your life in a bigger world, finding support from adults and friends. Beginning steps towards putting things in perspective.
The next step up. Here you are pulling away from parents and trying to define yourself by what you are not. Ideally, this is a time of exploration—with the support from your peer group you try on different hats, take on different roles, discover what you like and don’t like based on experience.
Obstacles: You have social anxiety or are temperamentally cautious, are the "good kid" who sticks to the rules and don’t do the exploring. You become the A student, do well, but don’t discover what you like.
Challenges: Standing up for yourself without totally acting out or collapsing into being the good child. Finding the experiences and support you need to discover yourself.
This is about higher education, getting an adult job, learning to be independent, dating, and maybe finding a mate.
Obstacles: You never really broke out in your teens, you’re still socially shy, you’re drifting through jobs and careers but can’t settle, gain traction, become fully independent.
Challenges: Breaking out of all the above and being an even wobbly adult.
Suicide rates come way up for those in mid-to-late 20s. Why? For a few reasons: Often your support group from high school or college has scattered—moved away, gone in different directions—and you are more on your own, and now having to take on the day-day life of paying electric bills, dealing with car repair and home maintenance, and nailing that career. All this can feel overwhelming. And for those who weren’t able to overcome the obstacles of the earlier developmental challenges, their struggle feels even more difficult—they look at where they, compare themselves to those around them, and often feel like failures.
Obstacles: Struggling with making these big adult decisions and getting traction.
Challenge: Learning the skills to be an independent adult.
Early- to mid-30s
By now you’ve settled—the career, the partnership, maybe even kids are underway. The big decisions behind you, you have a few years of level ground. But with this lull comes unexpected new sources of problems—the job or marriage isn't working out the way you imagined; from you more settled place you start reviewing your childhood and realize how you were mistreated and wounded. Old wounds and/or a new restlessness rise up.
Obstacles: Getting stuck in the past and unable to heal those old wounds; reconciling yourself to your job/career or impulsively breaking out; distracting yourself from problems in your relationship and sweeping them under the rug.
Challenge: Having to courage to step back and take stock of your life and correct real problems.
This is a broader time span because it affects individuals differently. The central themes here are empowerment and mid-life crisis. Actually, they go hand-in-hand because the mid-life crisis is often about empowerment.
For some, this crisis is relatively mild, largely because they have done a good job of successfully moving all the other stages and challenges. But for many others, this one hits them like a ton of bricks. It may be circumstantial—they stayed in the decaying marriage for the kids and now the kids are launched and it’s time to go. Or the empowerment is about realizing how much their lives have been swept under the rug or compromised away, how much of themselves they have lost, and now need to reclaim.
And for all, even those with the milder version, there is a realization that they have 20 good years left and time is running out. Here comes the sports car or the quitting of the job and becoming an organic farmer, or the divorce and starting a new chapter.
Obstacles: Going to the extreme—either by impulsively quitting the relationship or job—or failing to listen to those voices and needs.
Challenge: As with the others, having the courage to move forward in a proactive, planful way that respects your values.
For some late bloomers, their midlife crisis starts now—maybe they married later in life and had kids later or simply held back for other reasons. They divorce or quit their jobs and start something new. But for many, the transition years here about some form of retirement—pulling away from lifelong careers, or seriously making the transition from raising children to shifting to grandchildren. This is the time for bucket lists—what do they want to do while they are still physically and mentally capable of doing it.
It can also be a time of reflection and reconciliation—with themselves—that have a good-enough life, or they did the best they could—with others that they may have hurt, become estranged from, taken for granted.
Obstacles: The downshift leaves them with shell-shock and they become depressed. Regrets about the past haunt them. Literally being around their partner all day creates struggles over turf and lifestyle. Relationship problems that were managed through distance come to the fore. Or they over-react and do a radical busting out which they later regret.
Challenge: Adjusting to the transition and finding a sense of purpose. Attacking that bucket-list in some planful way. Having the courage to tackle any relationship problems rather than moving into ever-distance parallel lives or becoming totally grandchild-centered.
At some point you wonder how long you are going to live—likely this has been coming up periodically all along, but now it is very real. Here you worry about the what-ifs—of medical problems, running out of money, struggling to remain independent, or how to cope after your partner passes away. Another time of reflection about the past, about death, about creating a good enough life with the time you have left.
Obstacles: You haven’t found a sense of purpose or the ability to repair relationships. You feel you are treading water, marking time, trying to fill days. You are depressed.
Challenge: Seeing this chapter as a chapter with its own opportunities. To create and step up, though you often wonder why or feel you lack the energy to do so. To make peace with yourself and others, and appreciate the small things in life that you so often missed.
To arrive at that place where your life was your life, a life that you're proud of.