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10 Signs Your Young Adult Is Struggling

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Parent intuition is real. Parents usually have a gut feeling when something isn’t right with their child, even when that child is a young adult who’s not living at home anymore. And those instincts are often accurate. However, because young adulthood is such a tumultuous time, parents sometimes recognize the signs that a young adult is struggling but write it off as typical behavior for this stage of life. Or they might be unsure of how to provide help for young adults with no direction or with other psychological challenges.

To provide parents with a gut check, we’ve summarized below the 10 most common signs that a young adult is struggling. But first, let’s look at what the life stage called young adulthood actually encompasses, and why it can be such a difficult time. 

What Is a Young Adult Exactly?

While the teen years are clearly defined (it’s right there in the words themselves), what constitutes young adulthood is harder to pin down. Legally, teens become adults at 18, but they often don’t think of themselves as adults until age 21. While some definitions of “young adult” include adolescents younger than 18, other models view young adulthood as a stage that lasts into the 30s. In fact, according to psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of human development, young adulthood begins at age 20 and continues until age 39.

However, the most common definition of young adulthood is the phase of maturation that lasts from age 18 up to either 22 or 25. Traditionally, this stage of life is defined by the actions and roles that are typically expected at this stage. These include leaving home, becoming financially independent, finishing school, getting a job, and establishing a long-term romantic relationship. 

But in recent years, the expectations around young adulthood have begun to shift. This is due to a number of different factors, including economics, the impact of the pandemic, and the young adult mental health crisis. Young people don’t necessarily accomplish all or any of the above goals during this stage of life. Moreover, achieving these goals is no longer considered the only way to define success as a young adult. 

Successful young adults are satisfied with the path their lives are on or they are able to do something about improving that path. They are essentially happy people who accept themselves and have adequate levels of self-efficacy to deal with their problems as well as to set and persist in pursuing positive educational, occupational, and relationship goals, including the ability to be ‘mentally tough’ and resilient in the face of disappointments.

Researcher Peter Scales, et al
Applied Developmental Science journal

What Is an Emerging Adult?

The term “emerging adult” is often used interchangeably with “young adult.” But emerging adults, as the phrase suggests, are still in the process of becoming independent, autonomous individuals. They have not yet completed the goals and tasks of becoming full-fledged adults.

In fact, some experts in the field of human development and psychology believe emerging adulthood should be its own additional category, separate from young adulthood. In this “pre-adult” period of four to six years, researchers say, a number of important tasks are underway but not complete, including:

  • Building intimate, authentic relationships outside the family
  • Growing political awareness and ideological beliefs
  • Establishing a strong sense of who they are and who they want to be
  • Brain development that supports enhanced cognitive skills executive functioning
  • Reorienting relationships with parents to reflect a new level of independence and autonomy. 

At What Age Do Young Adults Struggle Most? 

By the time they reach their mid- or late 20s, young adults are typically more established in their life and relationships. But the early period of young adulthood—emerging adulthood—is a life stage when all sorts of change is usually taking place. Young adults may be leaving home for the first time, starting college or entering the workplace, and navigating their first serious romantic relationships. Orienting to a new city, finding new friends, and developing new skills for coping with daily life are all emotionally and mentally challenging. 

Moreover, the brain is still developing in a person’s early 20s. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls behaviors like long-term planning, emotion regulation, and risk assessment, isn’t mature yet in emerging adults. That’s why we often hear from parents, “My 22-year-old son has no direction” or “My daughter just turned 21, but she doesn’t seem like an adult.”

The Top 10 Signs That Your Young Adult Is Struggling

These behaviors and symptoms are usually clear indicators that a young adult needs additional support.

Lack of Motivation and Purpose

It’s not easy to figure out what you want to do in “real life” after high school and/or college. And global problems like climate change, political unrest, and social divisions make it even harder. Young adults often feel hopeless and aimless in the face of these challenges, which can contribute to depressive tendencies. In other cases, depression or anxiety leads to lack of motivation. Feeling numb or feeling intensive anxiety and fear about the future can prevent a young adult from moving forward. 

Doing Poorly in School or at Work

Poor performance in college or the workplace is a clear indicator that a young adult is struggling. This is particularly true if the young person has been a high achiever in the past. The underlying cause might be depression, anxiety, or a traumatic experience. Substance abuse can also negatively impact work and academics. Harassment in the workplace or in school could be another contributing factor. Parents need to dig deeper to understand what’s driving the problem.

Failure to Launch

Failure to launch” is a term used to describe a young adult’s inability to achieve autonomy and independence during this stage of life. Different cultures and families have different ideas of what appropriate independence looks like at this age. However, mental health experts agree that failure to launch is less about outward circumstances and more about what’s happening inside. Hence, living at home with parents does not in itself constitute failure to launch. A young adult can be living at home while working and saving for graduate school. They have motivation, goals, and a purpose. An example of failure to launch would be a young adult living at home because they are too anxious to find a job or don’t feel equipped to function on their own. 

Substance Abuse 

Increased drug or alcohol use is another important sign that a young adult is struggling. They may be using substances to cope with the effects of stress or to self-medicate symptoms of trauma, anxiety, depression, or another disorder. Parents may notice some of these signs of young adult substance abuse:

  • Fatigue
  • Slurred speech
  • Weight loss
  • Avoiding calls from parents 
  • Sleep problems
  • Financial issues; asking for money.

Mood, Personality, and Behavior Changes

Changes in a young adult’s mood and behaviors may indicate a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Because many mental health disorders begin or peak in young adulthood, it’s important for parents to follow up on these warning flags. Watch irritability and aggression, signs of self-harm, extreme mood swings, or extended periods of sadness and worrying.

Know the Facts

In a study of 1,600 men and women in their 20s over 12 months, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men developed a mental health disorder. (BMC Psychiatry, March 2018)

Engaging in Unhealthy Relationships 

Young adults are still developing their relationship skills. So it’s natural for them to have more volatile and intense friendships and romantic relationships than older adults. But there’s a difference between immature relationships and truly unhealthy and dangerous ones. Engaging in codependent relationships or abusive relationships may indicate underlying trauma, low self-esteem, difficulty forming authentic connections, and other psychological issues. 

Self-Imposed Social Isolation

Adolescence and young adulthood are periods of intense social interaction, when young people are forming relationships outside their immediate family members. Of course, some young people are extroverted and like to be out all the time, while others are introverted and have just a few close friends. But withdrawing from friendships, romantic relationships, and social activities usually indicates a problem—especially if their level of socializing has dramatically decreased in a short period of time. 

Device Dysfunction

Overusing technology can be a warning sign that a young adult is struggling. Video gaming disorder and social media addiction are now recognized as behavioral symptoms of mental health issues. Young adults use them as a way to cope with or distract from distressing emotions and life challenges. However, both gaming disorder and social media overuse actually make existing issues worse, by reducing young adults’ real-world activities and face-to-face connection. In addition, social media can lower self-esteem and increase body image issues.

Poor Self-Care

When young adults stop paying attention to grooming and self-care, an underlying mental health issue may be the cause. Watch for the following red flags:

  • Insomnia at night, sleeping all day
  • Poor eating habits
  • Lack of physical activity 
  • Not showering
  • Feeling generally unwell. 

Conflict with Parents

There are lots of reasons why parents and kids may disagree or experience conflict. And sometimes conflict is a natural part of the process of separation between parents and young adult children. However, if a formerly positive and loving relationship between parents and emerging adult children becomes a source of conflict, it may be because the young adult is struggling. They might be dealing with unresolved childhood trauma and blaming parents for the past. Or conflict with parents could be a sign of one of the issues listed above, such as substance abuse or an abusive relationship. Rather than taking it personally, parents need to help their kids figure out what’s underneath the conflict and how to address it.

How to Help Troubled Young Adults

Young adults may not always be open to what parents have to say. But parents can be an incredibly supportive resource for their young adult children. However, parents need to recognize that people in their 20s cannot be treated like kids or teens—even if they sometimes act younger than their age. Here are some ways parents and other family members can help emerging adults on their journey:

Offer support, not judgment. 

Maintain ongoing communication, whether your young adult is living at home or on their own. Ask how they’re doing, listen with compassion, and let them do most of the talking. In fact, consider asking permission before giving advice: “Is it okay if I tell you how I might do that?” If they say no, respect that. Most important, offer unconditional support. Let them know that you are there for them no matter what. 

Don’t impose your values on them. 

You may have lots of ideas about how your young adult child could manage their finances better, keep their apartment cleaner, eat healthier food, etc. But imposing your standards and values on them isn’t helpful. Over time, they will establish their own ways of doing things that is hopefully more balanced and healthier than what they’re doing now. Parents need to accept that the process of getting there might include a phase in which your young adult child needs to do things completely differently than you do.

Let go of societal expectations.

Parents sometimes feel embarrassed and guilty if their emerging adults aren’t following the traditional track: going to college after high school, getting a job, having a long-term relationship, etc. Resist the urge to compare your young adult’s progress with others of the same age. They may need more time to build the life skills required for taking the next step. Or they may still be figuring out what that next step should be. Developing the attributes of a successful young adult, as described earlier in this article—self-efficacy, sense of purpose, resilience, etc.—does not require hitting all the typical goals and milestones. 

Encourage them to find a therapist or treatment program. 

The most important help for young adults with no direction may come from a mental health professional. When a young adult is struggling, underlying trauma, anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition may be the source. A young adult must choose on their own whether or not to get treatment. However, as a parent, you can encourage them to seek help and assure them you don’t view going into therapy, a treatment program, or a sober living program as a failure or a sign of weakness. 

On the contrary, making the decision to address a mental health challenge is a sign of strength and a willingness to change and grow. And parents can provide practical help, such as researching options and insurance coverage, since many young adults are still on their parents’ health plan. Just make sure you don’t take over. While parents can offer an extra push, young adults should take an active part in seeking and arranging care, as long as they are physically and psychologically able to do so. 

Treatment at Newport Institute When a Young Adult Is Struggling 

Our program for struggling young adults addresses underlying mental health challenges through a variety of clinical and experiential modalities, alongside robust life skills programming. Young adults expand their understanding of themselves, their thought patterns, and how their past experience is impacting their present. 

Located around the country, our residential and outpatient therapeutic programs provide a safe and structured environment for troubled young adults. Our clinical team is highly experienced in guiding young adults to heal trauma and attachment wounds and learn healthy coping skills, so they can lead successful and happy lives, on their own terms. Contact us today to schedule a mental health assessment at no charge.

Key Takeaways

  • The most common definition of young adulthood is the phase of maturation that lasts from age 18 up to either 22 or 25.
  • Often used interchangeably with “young adults,” emerging adults are still in the process of becoming full-fledged, independent adults.
  • There are 10 signs that indicate that a young adult is struggling, including lack of motivation, having difficulty at school or work, substance abuse, poor self-care, self-isolation, and troubled relationships.
  • Parents can be a supportive resource when their young adult is struggling, by offering unconditional love and acceptance and encouraging their child to seek mental healthcare.
  • Treatment for young adults should help young people build self-knowledge, healthy coping skills, and a sense of purpose and meaning.

Frequently Asked Questions


What are young adults struggling with?

During young adulthood, the brain is still maturing, which means young people’s coping and emotion-regulation skills aren’t fully developed. In addition, young adults face all the challenges that come with intense changes in their lives, like leaving home, starting college or a job, and navigating romantic relationships. 

What is failure to launch in young adults?     

Failure to launch refers to a syndrome in which young adults are unable to gain independence and autonomy due to a lack of coping skills, low self-esteem, and/or underlying mental health issues.

How can I help young adults who are struggling?

Parents can provide a listening ear and unconditional support. In addition, parents can support young adults to find mental health treatment that will reveal and heal anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, and other issues.

How do you motivate young adults?  

Ultimately, young adults need to find their own motivation and purpose. But parents and other adults can help by encouraging them to try new things, follow their passions, and take appropriate risks. 

Sources

BMC Psychiatry. 2018; 18(65).

 Appl Dev Sci. 2016; 20(3): 150–174.

 

Mental Health / October 1, 2022

Newport Institute

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