What makes an adult an adult? I have been thinking about this more and more recently, and I am increasingly puzzled as to why we seem to have a pre-defined age? In the UK and US, you are officially declared “legal” when you turn 18. In the UK, you can buy alcohol, vote, and get a credit card at 18. Before you are 18, you can even drive a car and sign up to go to war – all pretty big things. But, when it comes to mental maturity, most people in their teens and early 20s are still figuring out what do to with their lives.
Latest scientific research suggests that the actual age of becoming an adult it a lot less clear-cut, and indicates that we don’t become fully-formed adults until far beyond 18. I would also add, that there is no “one size fits all,” and that each person develops at a different rate, depending not just on their biological make-up, but also their environment and cultural background.
The reason scientists have recently identified our thirties as a more realistic marker to adulthood is due to the extent of changes (particularly in the brain) that take place in our late teens and throughout our twenties. Neurons continue to develop, connect, and become more refined in our third decade, even if the bulk of the change took place in our mid-teens.
In a study in the Lancet Child Child & Adolescent Health journal last year, experts wrote that they believe we should change the definition of an adolescent to include people over 19 and under 25. They note that the brain continues to mature beyond the age of 20, and that many people’s wisdom teeth, a big marker of adulthood, don’t come through until the age of 25.
The findings of the study by the University of Cambridge make complete sense to me, but I would even go as far to say that our brain never stops developing. Our neural pathways are always changing and we have the ability to create new ones all the time. Through my own mental health journey, and training in neuro-linguistic programming, I know that it is possible to create new thinking patterns and change your behaviours. You can control and improve how you think, act and behave if you choose your actions and experiences with care – even after years of thinking one way.
Dr. Michael Merzenich explains, in his book Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, that:
“whatever the circumstances of a child’s early life, and whatever the history and current state of that child, every human has the built-in power to improve, to change for the better, to significantly restore and often to recover. Tomorrow, that person you see in the mirror can be a stronger, more capable, livelier, more powerfully centered, and still-growing person.”
All of this has research mirrors my own journey of moving from childhood to adulthood whilst recovering from mental ill-health. My eating disorder halted my mental and emotional development even further, so that now that I am in my thirties, I feel as though I am only just entering my twenties.
I really believe that changing age definitions could stop us from beating ourselves up for not achieving things we think we “should” have by 25. If we embrace the knowledge that we’re still growing and developing in our early twenties, we’ll give ourselves more space to mess up, make mistakes, and learn from them. If we eliminate the pressure of being an adult as soon as soon as we leave college, we might feel a whole lot more able to actually get on and enjoy living in the “here and now,” instead of constantly trying to measure up to some outdated concept of where we think we “should” be.