Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

How Young Adults Build Executive Functioning Skills

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As adults, we rely on a set of cognitive proficiencies collectively known as executive functioning skills. These capabilities help us to navigate life’s challenges, persevere in the face of stress, and meet our full potential. They dictate our capacity to make healthy choices, allow us to focus on important tasks so that we can complete them in priority order, and manage simultaneous tasks effectively. These are the skills that predict our ability to succeed in the workplace, manage household duties, filter distractions, cope with stress, provide responsive care for children should we decide to parent, contribute to the community, control our impulses, and achieve long-term goals.

Relying on three interrelated brain functions—working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control—the self-regulating skills of executive functioning and stress management are crucial for healthy development. And while not every emerging adult will enter the world with full mastery of these skills, each child is born with the capacity to develop them within the right environment.

How do humans develop executive functioning skills?

The foundation for successful executive functioning lies in communication between the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain in early childhood, especially between ages three and five. During this key developmental stage, children begin to learn simple self-regulatory behaviors like following basic rules and controlling impulses. Crucial for success in the traditional educational setting, these capabilities are imperative for academic success and social-emotional competence.

Know the Facts

The foundation for successful executive functioning lies in communication between the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain in early childhood, especially between ages three and five.

But as the brain continues to change and develop over time, an individual’s full range of executive function continues to expand. During the developmental stage where adolescents age into early adulthood, there is an additional increase in proficiency between the ages of 15 and 23.

How does the impact of trauma affect an emerging adult’s life?

As an individual experiences chronic, ongoing and/or acute stress and adversity, the brain can become “stuck” in a state of hypervigilance or “fight or flight.” This trauma can diminish their capacity to develop and employ the executive functioning skills needed to overcome life’s challenges large and small. When brain development is derailed early on, children become vulnerable to an array of damaging outcomes later in life.

Stress and trauma impact executive function because they overload the brain’s capacity to juggle multiple problems, think clearly about appropriate solutions, set priorities, and move forward with intention. Instead, automatic responses take over, leaving no room for thoughtful, measured reactions. This means that emerging adults who have suffered from trauma can face a variety of challenges, including:

The cycle of trauma and stress catalyzes a lived experience of diminished executive function that takes its toll on one’s mental and emotional states. When an adult struggles with planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility, they cannot manage responsibilities effectively. This sets in motion a damaging pattern that can result in a loss of self-efficacy, mistaken negative core beliefs about oneself, and negative self-concept, all of which can significantly impact mental health.

How can loved ones support someone who is working to develop executive functioning skills?

Although it’s always easier to develop executive functioning skills in childhood, it’s never too late to improve brain function. While treatment providers cannot undo the legacy of trauma in their patient’s lives, specialized treatment for emerging adults can help them learn and strengthen these skills. When executive function is compromised, providers can support young adults in this process by:

  • Making referrals to appropriate community resources
  • Maintaining a strengths-based approach
  • Providing feedback in a positive manner
  • Practicing coping skills in real-life scenarios
  • Supporting the identification of stress triggers
  • Reframing stressors and triggers to reduce black and white thinking
  • Recalling positive experiences and successes
  • Setting small, achievable goals before moving on to larger, long-term goals.

Practicing repeated positive, structured, corrective emotional interactions with treatment providers has been shown to build connections that can alter the brain’s architecture toward greater functionality. But at the most basic level, providers who serve this population can greatly improve outcomes by simplifying the treatment process itself. All too often, accessing treatment services requires a multitude of complicated admission forms, intake calls, and appointments, often within an unfamiliar environment for the patient. So shaping this process to reduce stress wherever possible is critical for this population.

Additionally, it’s helpful to remember that if basic needs aren’t met, it’s nearly impossible to successfully address cognitive function or emotional well-being in the treatment setting. Abraham Maslow taught reducing the burden of stress caused by scarcity in an individual’s life (shelter, food, childcare, transportation, etc.) is essential in allowing them to move forward in achieving long-term goals. Treatment that starts by addressing overall stability and executive functioning will be more successful in healing mental health concerns and helping clients thrive.


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Mental Health / September 16, 2020