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Substance Abuse and Emerging Adulthood, Part II

Substance Abuse and Emerging Adulthood, Part II

The transitional period from adolescence to young adulthood is defined as the stage of life that begins at the conclusion of high school and ends with the acceptance of adult roles such as a career, marriage or parenthood (Arnett, 2000). This discreet developmental period is distinct from adolescence and adulthood in several salient ways: demographically (e.g., changes of residence or work, and freedom from constricting social roles); perceptions of adulthood; and a lengthy period of identity explorations before making lasting decisions about a romantic partner, career, and world view (Arnett, 2007). 


Viewing this period with a clinical lens, it is observed that accompanying the increased demands on emerging adults’ ability to adjust to substantial changes in their lives—such as degree of freedom, parental monitoring, and involvement with academic demands, social settings, peer groups, and greater exposure to increased opportunities to engage in risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use and sexual activity—places the emerging adult under greater risk for stressful reactivity. This developmental period is considered to be from the ages of eighteen to twenty-five. During this time, risk-taking behaviors are sometimes made with the following pronouncements: “I am grown, I can make my own decisions, and I don’t care who likes it.” This statement reflects the emerging adult exercising autonomy in his or her declaration, yet not having utilized or applied consequential alternative means or internalized thinking skills to their dilemma. 


It is important for emerging adults to remember that risk-taking behavior increases the probability of negative consequences including those related to health, social, and legal issues (Perkins, 2002). During emerging adulthood prevalence is highest for most types of drugs (Arnett, 2005, p. 235). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 70 percent of individuals from twenty-one to twenty-five years of age used alcohol in the month prior to completing the 2010 survey—a higher rate than any other age group (SAMHSA, 2011). Binge drinking was highest in individuals from twenty-one to twenty-five years of age (45.5 percent), second highest in individuals from twenty-six to twenty-nine years of age (37 percent), followed by the group eighteen to twenty years of age (33.3 percent). Becoming intoxicated or high has been associated with the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors, such as sexual contact with casual or multiple partners and failure to use protection against sexually transmitting diseases (Cooper, 2002). 


Adolescence and emerging adulthood are developmental periods characterized by the increased importance of peers as individuals, forming an identity, and establishing relationships with peers (Erikson, 1993). According to Bronfenbrenner’s ecology theory (1994), there are five systems that influence an individual’s development:


  • The microsystem, comprised of the immediate environment in individuals’ lives
  • The mesosystem, comprised of relations between home and school, school and workplace
  • The exosystem, comprised of relationships between home and the parent’s workplace for children and school and the neighborhood peer group for adults
  • The macrosystem, comprised of belief systems, bodies of knowledge, customs and lifestyles of the previous systems
  • The chronosystem, comprised of change over time in characteristics of the person and in the environment in which the person resides 


From an ecological perspective, peers are both proximal and distal influences on individuals’ development. Compared to adults, adolescents and emerging adults spend more time in groups, where adolescent risk taking has been shown to be more likely to occur (Steinberg, 2008; Brown, Clasen, & Eicher, 1986). 


Emotional regulation is the ability to self-regulate emotion and behavior and is essential to good psychosocial functioning. Common to most definitions of self-regulation is the ability to regulate attention, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to meet the demands of a particular situation and to adapt in the context of emotionally salient events (Raffaelli & Crockett, 2003; Gratz & Roemer, 2004). It encompasses focusing and shifting attention, monitoring behavior, and considering consequences and alternative actions before acting (Bandura, 1997). 


Emotional regulation has been associated with risk-taking behavior in heavy drinking college students, while self-regulation was inversely related to the amount of initial alcohol-related consequences and rate of change in alcohol-related consequences (Hustad, Carey, Carey, & Maisto, 2009). Quinn and Fromme (2010) found that poorer self-regulation significantly predicted heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems, and unprotected sex with a nonmonogamous partner. 


Emerging adults and adolescents often find themselves in situations where their alcohol and drug use are influenced by peers and social settings, both of which can impact on their ability to self-regulate their emotions and are connected to drinking and drug use. Prevention and treatment must focus on both variables while understanding that emerging adulthood is a special and unique period of life where mistakes will be made and relapses will occur, as well as progress and success. Those of us who have a passion for working with adolescents and emerging adults must remember that just as we once required patience, guidance, feedback, and empathy, they require the same.




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Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological model of human development. In T. Husten and T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education (2nd ed.) (pp. 3–27). Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Brown, B. B., Clasen, D. R., & Eicher, S. A. (1986). Perceptions of peer pressure, peer conformity dispositions, and self-reported behavior among adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 22(4), 521–30.
Cooper, M. L. (2002). Alcohol use and risky sexual behavior among college students and youth: Evaluating the evidence. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, (Suppl. 14), 101–17.
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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author. 
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