ADULTING 101: Mental Health Tips on Transitioning to Adulthood

Young adult sitting on bed looking down

By Andie Spevetz, MSPC

A common theme from clients ages 18 to around 30 is, “I don’t feel like an adult,” or “I don’t know how to be an adult.” Why is this such a common question in counseling sessions? If you search YouTube, you will find over 100 videos on that topic or one similar. What makes being an adult such an abstract concept? Starting with the basics (think “Adulting 101”) is helpful. 

What is an "Adult"?

Our Adulting 101 crash course starts simply: with a discussion of definitions. The Oxford dictionary defines “adult” as: “a person who is fully grown or developed.” Practically speaking, that’s not helpful at all. For humans, that could be any place between 12 to 20, physically speaking, and between 24-30 cognitively speaking. Again, not really helpful, so let’s try again.

Merriam-Webster is even less helpful (for the noun): “one that is an adult,” although they do specify “especially: a human being after an age (such as 21) specified by law.” That’s a little helpful in there is an assumption that the law is involved. Let’s try one more time.

Urban Dictionary’s number one definition (at time of writing) is at least amusing: “A person who has stopped growing at both ends and is now growing in the middle.” Another slightly more helpful example from them is: “One who does grown up, sophisticated things such as wearing crocs, knitting, buying patio furniture, reading novels and teaching students.”

It’s no surprise so many people feel like they are struggling with adulthood when the word “adult” seems so undefinable.

When are the Stages of Adulthood?

Adulting 101 gets more complex when we delve into psychological theory. Psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about the stages of a human’s life. In his writings and developmental theories, he established there were two distinct outcomes from each stage. If someone did not achieve the goal of that stage, they would then be “stuck” at that stage until completion. So, to be an adult, someone needs to successfully navigate through adolescence (age 12-18). The goal of this stage is identity (vs role confusion if not successful).

For Erikson, social interactions and relationships with friends form the idea of identity. The next stage, young adulthood, lasts until age 40 and is about romantic relationships – intimacy or isolation.

Defining or comparing one’s self to friends or peers isn’t helpful. In today’s world, there is the assumption college follows high school, and a job/family follows college. How is identity reachable if someone didn’t go to college but had a job after high school? When they compare themselves to their peers, it is easy to feel as if they don’t measure up to societal standards of adulthood. Yet, they may have a job that pays well and allows them to buy their own house (a traditional marker of adulthood).

Unfortunately, these questions on the qualifying characteristics that make you an adult surfaced after Erikson’s time. While there’s continued research on attachment and learning, most of the theory surrounding the stages of human development was done in the 1960s. With life so different now, it’s understandable many of today’s younger adults just don’t feel, well… adult

To be mentally well is to have a healthy definition of who one is.

Erikson’s simple concept of identity is the part keeping a person on track for the rest of their life. They are able to develop a healthy set of boundaries for themselves and for others. They can say no without it being tied to worth (“if I don’t do this for someone then they won’t like me”). That solid sense of identity makes putting off goals more of a sense of irritation than a feeling of failure. Knowing who one is as an individual means knowing who they are as a partner, a parent, and even a member of the larger world.

So then for the last time: what is an adult? It’s someone who plays with toys and supports themselves financially. It’s someone who does laundry at Mom and Dad’s on the weekend but also brings dinner or helps mow the lawn. An adult could be someone who is getting a new degree to have a better job while also sitting in PTA meetings to help build a better school. An adult is all of those things and none of those things. And for those who say they can’t be an adult because they don’t know how to write a check, make a cake, check their oil, drive a car, or fix a leaky toilet… well, YouTube is good for that too. 

How Do You Become an Adult?

The final stage of our basic Adulting 101 course: becoming an adult. From a simplified perspective, this means going to college, getting a job, buying a house and getting married, and then having children… in that order. That can’t be the case for everyone. As mentioned earlier, comparing one’s self to others often shows perceived inadequacies. A lack of internal motivation and self-efficacy leads to “imposter syndrome.” This is the concept that one is not who one is presenting themselves to be. The simple idea is someone is not an adult because they don’t feel the things they do are “adult enough.”

Here’s the secret to adulthood: it’s so hard to define because it happens for everyone at different stages of life. There isn’t an age you reach or any one thing that can all of a sudden make you an adult. Adulthood is defined differently for everyone, and it comes in whatever form you find it. You can feel the essence of adulthood through the college experience, marriage, children, travel, buying a house or an apartment, becoming financially independent, and many more life experiences. It is important for each individual to determine their own life goals and plans to reach for. This will help you figure out what your steps into adulthood will look like.  

Remember that if everyone led the same life, the world would be unbearable. Life is incredible because there are so many different paths to take, and there are so many options for what one wants to do with their time. Things will happen in due time. Don’t wish time away because you’re only looking toward the next big thing. Become your version of an adult every day in your time.


Want to go deeper than “Adulting 101”? Anchorpoint’s family counseling services supports young adults in different stages of their life and can help them navigate a wide range of personal, emotional, and relational issues. Call at (412)-366-1300 or use our Digital Intake Form to schedule an appointment today. Hope is only a phone call away.