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Positive youth development

Developmental Maps: Early Adulthood (17–25 years old)

A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the cognitive part of the circle is larger.

Early Adulthood (17–25 years)

Cognitive development

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What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Brain-Based Development

Concentration, complex thought, planning and impulse control have matured

Becoming more able to plan, anticipate consequences and make decisions

Continuing to improve and refine precision and speed when performing complex tasks, with fewer errors

Displaying more consistent and flexible use of these abilities

  • Model effective planning behaviour. If youth observe their adult ally setting goals, making plans, and achieving success, they will often emulate the behaviour
  • Create opportunities for youth to plan larger-scale events
  • Help young people to become financially independent by assisting them in preparing and following a budget
  • Encourage a realistic understanding of personal abilities and skill sets
  • Provide opportunities for independence and for leadership (summer jobs and volunteer opportunities as rewarding ways to gain these valuable experiences)
  • Provide freedom for youth to make mistakes as this is an important aspect of learning. If a youth experiences a setback, support efforts to get back on track
  • Provide guidance and knowledge while demonstrating trust and respect. Do not be surprised if a youth chooses not to follow your advice

Efficiency of brain functioning continues into adulthood

Able to understand and interpret complex and abstract ideas (for example, able to think hypothetically and create a number of possible scenarios instead of limiting their thoughts to what is real)

Able to learn new information quickly

  • Encourage youth to familiarize themselves with new ideas (for example, propose books, biographies, documentaries, movies and other resources that can lead to new discoveries)

The ability to assess risks and rewards increases

More able to effectively assess risk versus reward

May decrease thrill-seeking and risk-taking behaviour

May be less sensitive to pleasure and reward

  • Maintain open communication and promote honesty and mutual respect
  • Encourage youth to educate themselves about the potential outcomes or consequences of their actions
  • Reinforce strategies for effective self-regulation (for example, encourage youth to stop and think before making decisions and engaging in risky behaviours)
  • Demonstrate trust and respect for youth as they begin to make carefully considered decisions about activities they participate in
  • Share your own experiences with risky situations (for example, by reflecting on your own good and bad choices)
  • Show interest in the activities of youth (this can help them feel comfortable approaching you for information or guidance)
  • Encourage youth to take positive and reasonable risks (for example, applying for a job)
  • Provide guidance and access to tools (for example, protective equipment, a cell phone or a map) and information from a variety of sources (for example, online forums, others who have had similar experiences) to help them learn and be prepared
  • Encourage relationships that are positive and supportive to improve peer support for pro-social behaviour

There is greater capacity to control impulses and regulate behaviour

Even under conditions of high emotional stress, able to anticipate consequences, control impulses, and act on rational decisions

Has improved organizational skills and ability for long-range planning

  • Establish expectations for behaviour and allow youth to solve complex situations independently
  • Give more room for youth to work through their personal situations (for example, difficulty at work) with more independence
Development of Reasoning Skills

Abstract thought matures

Able to compare and contrast different theories and ideas to draw their own conclusions

  • When a youth is learning a new theory (for example, supply and demand) have them walk you through their thought process. Probe their depth of understanding by:
    • Proposing alternative explanations (“But have you thought about…?”)
    • Posing alternative perspectives (“Would you think the same way if you were…?”)
    • Asking youth to generate analogies, comparisons and connections (“Do you think that’s similar to…?”)

Logical thinking matures

Improving ability to think about possibilities, form and evaluate hypotheses, deduce and induce principles that serve to guide decision making

Establishing abstraction and advanced reasoning

Working memory matures

Further refining the flexible use of working memory (for example, when solving a puzzle, can keep track of the solutions that have already been tried)

  • Introduce diverse perspectives, concepts, and lifestyles through movies, books, biographies, case studies and music
  • Remember that even adults learn through experience and “doing” (for example, activities that engage the senses and allow learners to interact with the learning environment [such as travelling, volunteering, visiting art gallery] are powerful teaching tools)
  • Guide youth to continually ask questions and seek information about all aspects of life
  • Consider how games can be used to support problem solving and strategizing skills (for example, video games)

Beliefs about knowledge are more sophisticated

Acknowledges that truth, facts and ideas are often relative, and sees that some methods of evaluating truth are more reliable than others

Able to think about knowledge as being constructed. (for example, being able to think critically and question how it is we come to know “X” is true)

May become frustrated with a lack of “right answers” to issues and questions

Developing a mature understanding of the nature and limits of knowledge

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A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the emotional part of the circle is larger.

Early Adulthood (17–25 years)

Emotional development

What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Experience of Emotions

Emotional responses are maturing and sensitivity to reward begins to decrease

Experiencing a decrease in mood fluctuations and becoming less emotionally reactive to situations

  • Recognize and support youth when they demonstrate greater ability to control, redirect or address their emotions in healthy ways (for example, staying calm, communicating effectively, meditating or exercising to reduce stress)
  • Provide youth with the opportunity for their own time and space to reflect and relax in a way they choose (for example, music, reading, drawing, writing)
  • Provide motivation, support and encouragement through difficult times
  • Encourage openness about mental health issues. If you are concerned about a young person’s emotional stability, connect them with available supports and information (for example, Kids Help Phone, family physician, websites, an appropriate mentor or counsellor)—the negative stigma around mental health often discourages people from seeking support.
  • Provide opportunities for independence and leadership
Self-Regulation

Emotional self-regulation matures

Able to self-regulate emotions using thinking strategies

Able to override emotional responses and make reasoned choices

  • Provide youth with opportunities for own time and space to reflect and relax in a way they choose (for example, music, reading, drawing, writing)
  • Reinforce strategies for effective self-regulation (for example, encourage youth to stop and think before making decisions and engaging in risky behaviours)

Motivation is further internalized

Demonstrates ability to set their own goals and stay on task with less prompting from others

  • Provide encouragement. Youth of this age want to know that parents, teachers and other role models are interested in their activities and ambitions but ask for the freedom to set and achieve goals independently
Empathy

Empathy reaches maturity

Can detect subtle signs of emotional distress in others

Is able to respond appropriately to the needs of others

  • Reinforce empathetic behaviour (for example, giving up one’s seat on the bus)
  • Promote perspective-taking to encourage the development of empathy and to recognize the difference between own experience and that of others (for example, someone from a different cultural background)
  • Encourage youth to spend time focusing on other people and topics (for example, volunteering with a community organization)
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A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the social part of the circle is larger.

Early Adulthood (17–25 years)

Social development

What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Identity Formation

A sense of identity is solidifying

May begin to commit to an identity after exploring various roles, values, beliefs and goals

May signal values, beliefs and goals through the opportunities and interests pursued

  • Support the opportunity to explore and participate in organized events, clubs and teams so that youth can identify their talents and potential career pursuits

Gender identity is more stable

May display a sense of confidence around gender identity—expressed through clothing/image

  • Talk about gender identity without making assumptions
  • Encourage youth to engage in opportunities without concerns about preconceived gender identity labels

Social group-esteem and social identity mature

May display a commitment or sense of belonging to social groups

Begins to feel comfortable with their own social identity and has positive feelings about social group membership

Has learned about their own social groups and has examined their own beliefs independently

Rejects negative views based on stereotypes held by others

  • Encouraging volunteer and other local structured opportunities, which can lead youth to a better sense of community and social inclusion
  • Support participation in cultural traditions to help youth develop their sense of cultural social group identity and social group-esteem
  • Promote opportunities for young adults to mentor other youth

Spiritual beliefs may be more internalized

May begin to integrate religious/spiritual beliefs into their larger identity

Motivated to act/behave to a greater degree by deeply held beliefs

Sense of place in, and connectedness to, the larger world beginning to emerge

  • Where appropriate, support youth participation in religious and spiritual traditions to help them develop their sense of spiritual identity
  • Support critical thought about religion

Self-concepts become more integrated

May be able to resolve conflicting self-concepts based upon differences in contexts

  • Encourage youth to focus on more positive self-concepts (integrate those activities they are good at into settings where youth are less sure about themselves)

Self-appraisal skills continue to improve

Continuing to refine ability to think critically and be reflective of one’s self

Is less reliant on/looking for the approval of others

  • Provide constructive feedback to encourage the development of self-appraisal skills
  • Encourage self appraisal through questions like, “how do you feel?”

Self-efficacy is increasing

Can take on more difficult and longer-term challenges, and persevere in the face of adversity or failure to achieve goals

  • Model a confident understanding of your own skills and capabilities—youth learn to be self-efficacious from the role models in their lives
  • Help youth set goals and support their attempts to reach those goals, to enhance self-efficacy
  • Provide realistic challenges for youth to tackle, and provide support and counselling through these challenges

Self-esteem improves

Feeling more confident and positive about themselves

Level of self-esteem continues to improve (this process is ongoing until late adulthood)

  • Create opportunities for youth to excel (for example, scholastic, vocational, volunteer, recreational)
  • Show interest in the opinions, ideas, beliefs, goals and life plans of youth
  • Provide an opportunity for young people to be leaders
  • Recognize achievements
Development of Relationships

Understanding of multiple perspectives is maturing

May fully understand the effect of social roles in perspective-taking

Understands that “neutral” perspectives on a situation are rare, and that everyone’s perspective is coloured by their context, beliefs and background

  • Support understanding of the experiences, challenges, and issues of others

Peer relationships continue to evolve

Exhibits weakened influence of peers, greater ability to choose a romantic partner based on personal compatibility (as opposed to social standing as is often the case for younger teens)

  • Encourage youth to maintain connections with friends, even as they become more committed to school, work or their romantic partners
  • Keep in mind that while the influence of peers often shifts during emerging adulthood, friends continue to support the development of romantic relationships by sharing their social networks and being supportive when relationship troubles occur

Romantic relationships mature

Shifts focus in romantic relationships from fun/companionship to forming strong emotional bond with physical and emotional intimacy

May have longer-lasting relationships (often more than a year) and be working with a partner toward a committed and long-term relationship in which conflicts are negotiated and resolved.

Spending a large amount of time alone in couples, rather than in larger group (some may prefer to engage in shorter-term relationships as they explore their independence)

LGBTTQ youth may “come out” more fully in openly acknowledging a same-sex relationship

  • Give space to youth to develop relationships that are private and personal but stay connected and approachable, providing opportunities for questions and help when needed
  • Demonstrate respect for a young person’s relationships

Family relationships continue to evolve

Experiences a continuing decline in conflict with parents

  • Develop strategies and tools that can be used to stay connected at a distance (for example, phone, email, online messaging)
  • Try to stay in regular contact with youth (on a daily or weekly basis) to remain informed of each other’s lives
  • Establish routines or dedicate certain times as “family time” such as major holidays, specific meals or a chosen day of the week
  • Share experiences together (for example, shopping trips, vacations, going for walks)
  • Communicate that you are available so youth feel free to come to you for help or to ask questions

Moral reasoning may begin to shift to a focus on moral or ethical principles

May increasingly make moral decisions based on self-chosen moral and ethical principles

May begin to make decisions out of concern for equality, human rights, dignity, and life, regardless of the consequences for own self

May continue to make decisions based on a “law and order” orientation with a focus on upholding laws in order to maintain social order

  • Be conscientious in your own moral reasoning—youth are shown to replicate styles of moral reasoning in role models
  • Encourage interactions in which adolescents and young adults engage in challenging conversations on relevant issues where conflicting views are raised and discussed
  • Support opportunities for active discussion of moral dilemmas (for example, concerning discrimination, oppression and bias) to stimulate reasoning and problem-solving skills

Self-sufficiency continues to strengthen

Able to maintain close connections while still maintaining a separate sense of identity

May leave family home to live independently

Continues to gain financial independence

  • Remember that many young adults move in and out of their parental home before making a final transition to independence
  • Provide advice and share personal experiences related to gaining independence
  • Provide advice and share personal experiences related to “firsts”, like getting a first full-time job, moving out of the family home, buying a car or first major relationship break-up
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A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the physical part of the circle is larger.

Early Adulthood (17–25 years)

Physical development

What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Physical Activity

Levels of physical activity continue to decline

Less likely to engage in physical activities

  • Consider barriers to participation such as cost, time, equipment and transportation (for example, youth may no longer have the support of parents in paying for activities)
  • Continue to support youth in setting realistic goals and balance them with other priorities (school, work, social life)
  • As youth begin to master movement concepts, begin to focus more on the development of skills and techniques
  • Motivation at this stage has become primarily internalized. Programs and activities to promote physical development should focus on helping youth develop knowledge, skills and attitudes for a healthy, active lifestyle
  • Encourage emerging adults to feel ownership of their own development and provide them with opportunities to design and implement programs and activities

Cardiovascular and muscular endurance, strength and flexibility are changing

Females: in the absence of training, exhibit no further increase in cardiovascular endurance or muscular capabilities

Males: gradual increase in cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength is peaking, and begins to level off (there are no further increases in muscular endurance)

In the absence of training, slow decline in flexibility continues

  • Offer activities that teach youth how to avoid and deal with injury (for example, learning a stretching routine)
  • Provide access to information about positive and negative ways to increase strength and endurance (for example, information on the the dangers of taking steroids or supplements to improve athletic performance)
Growth & Physical Development

Changes associated with puberty are concluding

Females: have often completed pubertal changes

Males: may continue to gain weight, height, muscle mass and body hair

  • Encourage and create open communication that is two-directional and allows youth to ask questions and be provided with age-appropriate information about their changing bodies and emerging sexual characteristics

Hormonal influences on the sleep cycle begin to reverse

Falls asleep earlier in the evening and wakes up earlier in the morning

  • Support youth in maintaining a healthy sleep routine—going to sleep and waking up at appropriate times (for example, turning off the computer one hour before bed)
Body Image & Nutrition

Development of body image is ongoing

More apt to make social comparisons about body type

Opinions about style, clothing and appearance become important

  • Be aware that youth may have an increased sensitivity to messages about body shape and sexuality
  • Allow youth more independence in demonstrating their own style through clothing and decisions about appearance
  • Encourage youth to focus on the parts of their bodies that they like and can feel confident about
  • Lead by example, through sharing your own experiences

The need for making independent decisions about nutrition and healthy eating increases

Has more prominent opinions about, and a desire for independent control over, eating and nutrition

  • Encourage some independence around food preferences and knowledge of nutrition and food preparation
  • Nutrition plays an important role in healthy development during this time. Provide information about nutrition (for example, check out Canada’s Food Guide)
  • Encourage healthy eating habits and routines (for example, involve youth directly in grocery shopping or meal preparation)
  • Engage youth in conversations about healthy eating and be aware of dramatic changes in diets that may indicate eating disorders
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