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New Study Finds That Identifying as an Adult Can Mean Less Risky Behaviors

Teenage boy shaving for the first time

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Key Takeaways

  • Those aged 18 to 29 who identify as an adult are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.
  • Practitioners say that identifying as an adult can also open the door to increased self-confidence.

Recently, we’ve delved into research that points to risky play as a precursor to better mental health outcomes for children, but what happens when risks become more pronounced and difficult to manage in young adulthood?

When low risk supervised activities like jumping off of heightened platforms or challenging our fears make way for substance use and dangerous driving, how can people mitigate risk? A new study by two Georgia academics entitled “'I’m an adult now': Health risk behaviors and identifying as an adult,” points to a way forward.

Dr. Elizabeth Culatta and Dr. Jody Clay-Warner’s research, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, says that those aged 18 to 29 who labeled themselves as an adult were less likely to engage in risky behaviors. They wrote that “self-identifying as an adult serves as a protective factor against participation in health risk behaviors for young people during the transition to adulthood."

A Lot is Packed Into the Word "Adult"

In discussing their study, which included final survey data from 506 people aged 18 to 29, the authors identified “the extended transition to adulthood that has become more common in recent decades.”

Dr. Larry Ford, LPC, DBH, LBHP, BC

It takes a village to raise a child. But what happens when the child isn’t a child anymore? Well, it takes that same village to keep them healthy. And that's nothing more than a connection. We're only as strong as our connections in life.

— Dr. Larry Ford, LPC, DBH, LBHP, BC

Helene D’Jay, a licensed professional counsellor and executive director of young adult services in Connecticut for Newport Academy, says that her experience leads her to believe that risky behavior is natural as part of a shift in self-perception

“It's sort of a period of self-discovery and self-identification. And I think when they reach the age where they're getting close to adulthood, or at adulthood, I think the expectations on them change, and continuing to identify as a child opens the door for continued risky behavior and impulsive teenage behavior,” she says.

The survey asked about risky sexual and driving behaviors, as well as the use of substances. It also asked participants to react to the statement, “I identify as an adult.”

Although all of those involved were over the age of 18, fewer than 25% circled "strongly agree." D’Jay says that her clients get a boost in confidence when they come to a place where they can identify as an adult.

“When they are considered adults and called an adult, it sort of makes them feel like they are able to take charge of their own lives and accountability for the decisions that they make,” she explains. 

How to Aid the Transition

One of the possible impacts of the study is a shift in how healthcare providers, colleges and universities, as well as parents approach the concept of adulthood in relation to risky behaviors.

According to Dr. Larry Ford, DBH, of Oklahoma City’s Hands to Guide You, the focus needs to be from a community perspective rather than just an individual one.

"It takes a village to raise a child. But what happens when the child isn’t a child anymore? Well, it takes that same village to keep them healthy. And that's nothing more than a connection. We're only as strong as our connections in life.”

Jennifer Kowalski, MS, LPC

Nobody wants to be an adult. So we kind of start from a place of, 'What would it take for you to feel safe and stable?' Because that's what it all comes down to.

— Jennifer Kowalski, MS, LPC

Thriveworks’ Jennifer Kowalski, MS, LPC, says that society needs to be aware that not all support systems are created equal when it comes to supporting a person’s vision of what adulthood can and should look like.

“Just because someone shows up for you in your life doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to help you. And so sometimes you really have to be the person you can rely on,” she says.

Kowalski also cautions against seeing risky behavior in young adults as a black and white question. 

“There's this spectrum of behaviors where just because someone's engaging in some of those things, doesn't necessarily mean that they're not mature or that they're not an adult.”

D’Jay says that parents should resist the urge to infantilize the young adults in their lives.

She says, “I think that parents who continue to identify their children as their babies—they continue to do laundry for them, cook for them, serve them, and make important decisions for them—don't allow a young adult to break out of that image of being a child and start to take accountability and responsibility for important life decisions.”

Dr. Ford says that when someone is looking for support in understanding themselves as an adult, it’s important to not jump to conclusions about what adulthood looks like.  

“I ask, 'in your opinion, what do adults do?' And then I will follow it from there and figure it out. Because everybody's perception is totally different.”

Kowalski takes a similar track. “Nobody wants to be an adult. So we kind of start from a place of 'What would it take for you to feel safe and stable?' Because that's what it all comes down to.”

What This Means for You

Allowing the young adults in your life to identify with adulthood takes a collective effort. If you are a young adult looking to see yourself as more of an adult, make sure you know what you are striving towards, and that you know what an adult's actions look like to you.

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  1. Culatta E, Clay-Warner J. “I’m an adult now”: Health risk behaviors and identifying as an adultJournal of Health Psychology. April 14, 2022. doi: 2022:135910532210861