In my career as a clinical social worker, I am always trying to destigmatize a person’s use of mental health services and often frame the challenges they face as falling within a framework of normal human development. I believe this can go a long way towards supporting my client’s use of a strengths-based, rather than a pathologizing, approach to treatment.
In this blog, I will briefly outline the stages of human development with an emphasis on adult development, from late adolescence through seniority.
From the first moment of life through our death, we are all progressing through what are referred to as ‘the stages of human development’. When we think about human development, we most often think about childhood and youth. As our population ages, we have become increasingly aware of and have focused on the developmental processes of aging. Physical, cognitive, emotional and social changes are particularly evident during the early and later years. There are distinct challenges and milestones to be achieved during these periods and their successful attainment has implications for health, well-being and progress on the continuum of life.
Less frequently described are the periods of early, middle, and late adulthood. While the tasks and challenges of these different stages of adulthood differ, these seasons are among the most consequential and productive times in one’s life.
Psychologist, Meg Jay, argues in her book, The Defining Decade, that while important life events take place from birth until death, those that determine the years ahead are most heavily concentrated during the twenty-something years. She goes on to state by middle adulthood (~35-45) “about 80% of life’s most significant events have taken place and as thirtysomethings and beyond we largely continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during our twentysomething years.”
Some of the important events in early, also referred to as emerging adulthood, include completing our formal education, establishing personal and economic independence, acquiring the trappings of success such as a home and car, identity exploration, especially in love and work, developing knowledge about the practical aspects of life that permit good judgment about important matters and developing adult friendships.
The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung saw mid-life as one of those critical transition periods in our adulthood. To Jung, the ‘second half of life’ is less about acquiring things and knowledge, and more about finding meaning. In middle adulthood, we are faced with questions such as ‘What is the point of my life?’ or ‘What makes me feel useful in this world?’ As we ponder these questions, we often realize that life has not turned out the way we expected it to.
In mid-life we may experience alarm messages from our psyche. These often express themselves as feelings of depression or anxiety and through physical ailments. Jungian analyst, John Betts, observes that, at these times, “most of us go to our physician and get something for anxiety or depression, or something for our blood pressure or poor digestion. But it is seldom enough.”
If these issues are acknowledged at all, they are often subsumed under the generic term, ‘stress’. Seventy-five to 90% of all primary care doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. However, the underlying issues associated with one’s ‘stress’ are commonly not explored or understood.
Beginning in the mid-60’s and lasting until death, late adulthood is a time of preparing for and adjusting to retirement, decreasing strength and health, and looking back on one’s life to assess what we’ve achieved. The developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, described this stage as being one of ‘flux’, as people reflect on their lives with both feelings of satisfaction and regret.
It is not unusual for people to get hung-up along their developmental journeys, or, as a result difficulties or traumatic life events, to regress developmentally. These are most certainly times when people need support and guidance in navigating the inevitable shoals inherent in all of our lives.
In his brilliant poem, Sometimes, David Whyte reflects on our lives and the critical developmental questions waiting for all to face. Whyte refers to these questions as “…tiny but frightening requests…Requests to stop what you are doing right now, and to stop what you are becoming while you do it, questions that can make or unmake a life, questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.”
I look forward to having the chance to sit with you, to help you consider the questions we all have throughout our adult lives that “have no right to go away”. Remember, change begins with a conversation. Let’s start one that matters, today!