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Substance Abuse and Emerging Adulthood, Part I

Substance Abuse and Emerging Adulthood, Part I

My purpose in writing this article is twofold. Firstly, I would like to bring attention to this important time of a young person’s life. An analysis and review of the addiction literature and numerous interactions with colleagues has revealed to me an absence, albeit unintentional, of a focus on emerging adulthood in both addictions and mental health programming. Jeffrey Arnett (2000) posits that this period of one’s life, which he has discovered from his studies to be between the ages of eighteen through the twenties, is neither adolescence nor young adulthood but is theoretically and empirically distinct from both and is a time when young adults explore their life directions and world views. 


Arnett defines emerging adulthood as comprising the following:


  • The age of identity exploration
  • The age of instability
  • The age of self-focus
  • The age of feeling in-between
  • The age of possibilities


A component of this period of life, according to Arnett, is the desire for new experiences and intense sensations before settling into the responsibilities of adulthood. This desire is often manifest by the risky behaviors prominent among emerging adults. One such risky behavior, unfortunately, is the use, often in excess, of alcohol and the exploration of drugs.


My second motive is the continuing focus on adolescents ages twelve to seventeen, with the joys, ups and downs, discovery of new thinking skills, and challenges during this important transitional period. Michael Basch, MD, in Doing Psychotherapy (1980) offers five areas of assessment in an individual’s life, which serve as important and provide indications of possible challenges in his or her current functioning:


  • Attachments, relating to intimacy, and in this construct, intimacy deals with expectations and requirements.
  • Autonomy, which addresses the question, “Am I able to make my way in the world on my own?”
  • Psychosexuality, which refers to the messages a child receives from parents about sex, marriage, drugs, alcohol, and careers.
  • Cognition/affect, which refers to cognitive schemas—that is, a cognitive running commentary—used to govern behavior. The affect is emotion (e.g., “I think I am not able, thus, I feel I am not able”). 
  • Creativity, or what’s next in each juncture of the emerging adult’s life (e.g., graduation from high school, turning twenty-one, smoking weed, embarking on a career, and handling emotions accompanying each phase). While facilitating group therapy in an extended consultation, I observed where the census was anywhere between eight and fourteen males and females whose ages ranged eighteen to twenty-five. I remembered something my former professor, Dr. Cindy Gilmore, Illinois School of Professional Psychology, said in my group psychotherapy class in 1997, “Be aware of themes throughout the group process.” In my group therapy experience I observed that the many of the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds had no creativity or a “what’s next.” Not having creativity can lead to boredom, which can lead to at-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drugs. Further, brain maturation is not complete until age twenty-six, and the final part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal lobe. 


For those of us who work with adolescents and the emerging adult, it is clear that they need our attention in understanding them and providing them with guidance in figuring out “what’s next” and helping them make sense of life and the world at this stage. The study of emerging adulthood in the addictions field must be an expectation if we are going to properly provide services and programming to this population.





Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–80. 
Basch, M. F. (1980). Doing psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.