Attachment, Ego Resilience, Emerging Adulthood, Social Resources, and Well-Being Among Traditional-Aged College Students

Joel A. Lane


To improve conceptualizations of college student mental health, the present study (N = 538) compared predictors of well-being that comprise both well-established counseling theories (e.g., attachment) and newer models specific to the life experience of the millennial generation and Generation Z. Predictors included internal resources (i.e., attachment security, ego resilience), emerging adulthood identification, and social resources (i.e., social support, social media usage). Each variable set predicted significant variance. The emerging adulthood and social media variables accounted for approximately 7% of variance in both psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Identifying emerging adulthood as a time of negativity and instability was the second strongest predictor of psychological well-being, while identifying emerging adulthood as a time of experimentation and possibilities was the second biggest predictor of life satisfaction. Implications for conceptualizing and treating today’s students are discussed.

Keywords: college counseling, emerging adulthood, social media, attachment, social support

In recent years, higher education personnel have noticed declines in college student emotional health and corresponding increases in stress, depression, and anxiety (Watkins et al., 2012). The rates of students exhibiting frequent anxiety and depression symptoms have nearly doubled over a 30-year period and are now two to three times higher than those of the general population (American College Health Association [ACHA], 2015). Administrators have also described corresponding changes in college counseling services, especially regarding the increased need for crisis intervention and triage services (Watkins et al., 2012).

These trends roughly correspond to the millennial generation and Generation Z entering college. The societal forces that characterize these generational cohorts, including the proliferation of social media (Ellison et al., 2007; McCay-Peet & Quan-Haase, 2017) and increases in parental involvement and corresponding decreases in perceptions of college student maturity and autonomy (Watkins et al., 2012), seem to have substantially altered the psychosocial trajectories for today’s traditional-aged college populations (Arnett, 2004, 2016). The counseling profession has wrestled with how best to respond to these trends, and in many cases has relied on conceptual frameworks and theories of psychosocial development created long before the emergence of the millennial generation. It seems timely to attempt to develop a framework for mental health and well-being during the college years that incorporates theories specific to present generations of traditional-aged college students with more well-established theories of development. Such is the purpose of the present study, in which the contributions to college student well-being of attachment security (Bowlby, 1969/1997), ego resilience (Block & Block, 1980), and social support are integrated with and compared to the theory of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004), a conceptualization of psychosocial development occurring from the late teens through the 20s for contemporary generations.

Attachment and Ego Resilience

It is generally accepted that the constructs of attachment security and ego resilience play important roles in college student mental health and well-being (e.g., Lane, 2015; Taylor et al., 2014). According to Bowlby (1969/1997), the quality of our earliest interactions with caregivers provides us with relational templates, or types of attachment, that influence self-worth and interpersonal functioning throughout the life span. Ego resilience is a personality trait reflecting our ability to adapt and thrive amid stress and transition (Block & Block, 1980; Taylor et al., 2014). In the present study, attachment and ego resilience are conceptualized as internal resources because they are instilled early in life, relatively stable over time, and influential to mental health during the college years (Lane, 2016; Lane et al., 2017; Taylor et al., 2014).

Attachment and ego resilience also similarly impact functioning in times of challenge. With secure attachment, individuals are more likely to believe themselves capable of handling adversity and that others can be called upon in times of need (Brennan et al., 1998), presumably because of the consistent responsiveness of their caregivers earlier in life. Conversely, insecure attachment can lead individuals to doubt their own capabilities (i.e., attachment anxiety) or the intentions of others to provide them with support (i.e., attachment avoidance) in times of need. These internalized beliefs can lead to problematic outcomes during distressing situations (Wei et al., 2007), including maladaptive interpersonal dependence or isolation and a heightened focus on the distress (Brennan et al., 1998). Similarly, individuals high in ego resilience are generally able to respond to stressful situations with flexibility and an assortment of healthy coping behaviors (Taylor et al., 2014). Conversely, individuals low in ego resilience may lack the diversity of healthy coping strategies necessary to effectively persevere through a range of life challenges, and they may be prone to giving up when frustrated (Block & Block, 1980). Thus, individuals with attachment insecurity and low ego resilience are at an increased risk of accumulating stress during stressful situations rather than persevering through them (Brennan et al., 1998), which is a likely explanation for the associations of each construct with depression and anxiety symptoms (Taylor et al., 2014).

This latter point is especially important in the context of the present study. The college experience contains numerous life and role transitions, including leaving home, establishing independence, reconstructing social support networks, and developing professional goals (Lane, 2015). Each of these transitions pose opportunities for students high in internal resources to thrive and risks for those who are low in internal resources to accumulate stress and negative mental health symptoms (Lane, 2015). Accordingly, internal resources are conceptualized as the first set of constructs in the present model. That is, they seem to provide a foundation for college student mental health and well-being and perhaps do so by contributing to other potentially relevant aspects of well-being, such as identification with emerging adulthood (Schnyders & Lane, 2018) and social support (Galambos et al., 2006).

Emerging Adulthood

Although attachment and ego resilience have long been considered contributors to college student mental health and well-being, many of the aforementioned factors involved in declining mental health trajectories comprise social forces unique to present-day young adults. Emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004) is a theory that describes the effects of such factors on psychosocial functioning between the ages of 18 and 29. Specifically, it suggests that this age range now represents a period of life distinct from both adolescence and adulthood. The theory describes several dimensions that are representative of the present-day emerging adult experience, including a prolonged period of identity exploration (i.e., using the emerging adulthood years to consider and audition preferences regarding career, worldviews, romantic relationships, and interpersonal characteristics), significant demographic and relational instability (e.g., increased likelihood of multiple residence changes with respect to previous generations, causing disruptions in social groups), subjectively feeling in between adolescence and adulthood, and idealistic thinking about future possibilities (Arnett, 2004). These dimensions suggest that emerging adulthood is a complex phenomenon with significant individual variation: One’s degree of identification with each dimension can shape their relative satisfaction with the overall emerging adulthood experience (Baggio et al., 2015). Moreover, some evidence suggests that parental attachment quality predicts one’s identification with the various themes of emerging adulthood (Schnyders & Lane, 2018).

Emerging adulthood theory has several implications in the context of college student well-being. First, life transition is a salient theme of emerging adulthood, given that the late teens and 20s are a time of leaving the parental household, creating new attachment and support networks, entering and persisting through college (for many emerging adults), and entering the world of work (Arnett, 2004). These transitions can leave emerging adults vulnerable to distress (Lane et al., 2017) and are central features of the college student experience. Second, emerging adulthood suggests that present traditional-aged college students are at an earlier stage of psychosocial development than prior generations, even though expectations placed on them have remained stable (Arnett, 2004). Thus, emerging adult college students are still expected to navigate the many transitions of the college experience regardless of whether or not they have developed the necessary maturity and life skills. Finally, the emerging adulthood years constitute a high degree of risk-taking behaviors, impulsivity, and psychiatric risk (Arnett, 2004; Baggio et al., 2015). That is, not only is emerging adulthood a time of vulnerability to stress, but also a time of elevated risk for maladaptive stress responses. Thus, in the context of the present study, it is possible that the emerging adult experience uniquely contributes to mental health and well-being with respect to the contribution of internal resources.

Social Resources

Like interpersonal resources and emerging adulthood, social support is a construct with implications for mental health. The degree to which an individual feels supported by their close relationships mitigates distress during stressful situations (Sarason et al., 1991). Individuals who are satisfied with their social support also report less depression, anxiety, and loneliness, and enhanced well-being compared to those low in social support (Galambos et al., 2006).

The aforementioned societal changes impacting emerging adulthood also have implications for college student social support. Today’s emerging adult social support networks have grown in complexity as psychosocial developmental trajectories have continued to evolve (Arnett, 2004) and social media has become an increasingly ingrained aspect of everyday life. These changes necessitate reconsideration of the construct of social support in the 21st century. That is, what are the implications for social support when interpersonal contact is increasingly conducted electronically? Is it possible for one to derive the benefits of social support from social media interactions? To address these questions, Manago et al. (2012) asked a sample of college students to respond to various support-related questions while browsing Facebook. Participants were able to use Facebook to meet certain intimacy needs, especially that of emotional disclosure, and the size of one’s Facebook friends list was positively associated with perceived social support and life satisfaction. Others have suggested that social media sites provide social capital and facilitate sustained connection with potentially beneficial relationships (Ellison et al., 2007). In light of these ideas, the present study conceptualizes social resources to include both social support and social media usage. Assessing the degree to which each construct impacts college student mental health and well-being is important given the ubiquity of social media on college campuses and the current disagreement among scholars regarding its benefits (Manago et al., 2012) and drawbacks (Twenge, 2013). Given that social support seems to facilitate the contributions of internal resources to mental health (Taylor et al., 2014) and emerging adulthood contributes to increasingly complex social networks (Arnett, 2004), social resources are conceptualized as a third level of constructs in the present model, after internal resources and emerging adulthood identification.

Present Study

The present study was designed to address several literature gaps concerning college student mental health and well-being. First, it combines several disparate threads of related research by testing a model including internal resources (i.e., attachment security and ego resilience), identification with the dimensions of emerging adulthood, and social resources (i.e., social support and social media usage). Although some research has examined the additive impact of more than one of these sets of constructs together (e.g., attachment and social support), no existing research has examined all three collectively. Second, the present study examined the mental health implications of emerging adulthood and social media usage: two constructs that are the result of 21st century societal forces. A primary hypothesis of the study was that each predictor variable set would explain unique and additive variance for two characteristics of college student mental health (i.e., psychological well-being [PWB] and life satisfaction). A secondary hypothesis was that emerging adulthood identification and social media usage would predict unique variance in each outcome variable even after accounting for the effects of all other predictor variables in the model.


Participants and Procedure

Participants in this IRB-approved study were traditional-aged undergraduate students from a large, public university in a metropolitan area of the Pacific Northwest. Participants were recruited via a recruitment email sent to a random sample of students meeting the inclusion criteria (i.e., 18 to 25 years old and enrolled as a full-time undergraduate student). An a priori power analysis was conducted to determine appropriate sample size (Faul et al., 2007). Given the large number of variables in the model and the fact that Hypothesis 2 was based on semipartial correlations, a small-to-medium effect size was selected (f 2 = .08). Results suggested an ideal sample size of approximately 400 participants. Assuming an approximate 10% response rate (Manfreda et al., 2008), recruitment emails were sent to 4,000 undergraduates.

The recruitment email contained a link to an online survey containing all demographic and study variable items. Surveys were received from 616 undergraduates (15.4% response rate). Data were treated according to the recommendations for multivariate analysis by Meyers et al. (2013). That is, 56 cases (9.1%) were removed because they contained missing data on at least 50% of the items. An additional 17 cases (2.8%) were removed for indicating that they were no longer paying attention at the midpoint of the survey. The remaining missing values were replaced with their respective item mean because no item was missing more than seven cases (1.3%) and no variable contained more than two missing items for any remaining participant. Data were screened for multivariate outliers using Mahalanobis distance, resulting in the removal of five (0.9%) participants. Thus, the study sample consisted of 538 participants.

The study sample had a mean age of 21.72 years (SD = 2.05) and was predominantly female (n = 378, 70.3%), while other participants identified as male (n = 142, 26.4%) or other (n = 16, 3.0%), and two participants declined to answer. The sample was racially diverse, as 341 (63.4%) participants identified as White, 64 (11.9%) as Latinx, 63 (11.7%) as Asian or Pacific Islander, 14 (2.6%) as Black or African American, 11 (2.0%) as Arab American or Middle Eastern, eight (1.5%) as Native American, 27 (5.0%) as multiracial, and seven (1.3%) as other, while three participants declined to answer.


Attachment security. As the first internal resources variable, attachment security was measured using the 12-item Experiences in Close Relationship Scale-Short Form (ECR-S; Wei et al., 2007). The items are evenly divided into two subscales: Attachment Anxiety (e.g., “I need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner”) and Attachment Avoidance (e.g., “I am nervous when partners get too close to me”). Items are rated on a 7-point Likert scale. Scores were summed, with higher scores indicating higher attachment insecurity for each dimension. Internal consistencies in the present sample (α = .78 for attachment anxiety, α = .80 for attachment avoidance) mirrored those reported by the ECR-S authors (α = .77 and α = .78, respectively).

Ego resilience. Ego resilience served as the other internal resources variable. It was measured using an 11-item version of Block and Block’s (1980) Ego-Resiliency Scale (Taylor et al., 2014). Items (e.g., “I can bounce back and recover after a stressful or bad experience”) are rated on a Likert scale ranging from one (most undescriptive of me) to nine (most descriptive of me). Higher total scores indicate higher ego resilience. The 11-item version has demonstrated internal consistencies ranging from .63 to .81 across multiple time points with a sample of emerging adults (Taylor et al., 2014). Internal consistency in the present sample was .73.

Emerging adulthood. The second level of predictor variables comprised dimensions of emerging adulthood. Identification with emerging adulthood dimensions was assessed using the 8-item Inventory of Dimensions of Emerging Adulthood (IDEA-8; Baggio et al., 2015). The items are evenly divided into four subscales (i.e., Experimentation/Possibilities, Negativity/Instability, Identity Exploration, and Feeling In Between [adolescence and adulthood]) that each represent dimensions of emerging adult theory (Arnett, 2004). Participants rate the degree to which various statements represent the present time in their lives (e.g., “this is a time of deciding on your own beliefs and values”) on a 4-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree). Scores for each subscale are summed to indicate how participants feel each dimension characterizes their emerging adulthood experience. The IDEA-8 subscales demonstrate internal consistencies ranging from .66 to .76 (Baggio et al., 2015), mirroring the range
found in the present sample (α = .69 to α = .77).

Social support. Social support served as the first social resources variable. It was measured using the 6-item Subjective Social Support subscale of the Duke Social Support Index (Blazer et al., 1990). Items (e.g., “Can you talk about your deepest problems with at least some of your family and friends?”) are rated on a 5-point scale (1 = none of the time, 5 = all of the time), with higher scores indicating higher perceived social support. Internal consistency in the present sample was .85, mirroring estimates found in prior studies (α = .82; Hawley et al., 2014).

Facebook usage. The other social resources variable was social media usage, measured using the 8-item Facebook Intensity Scale (FIS; Ellison et al., 2007). Although numerous social media platforms are popular among college students, developers of social media usage instruments have focused on Facebook. Given its recognizability and ubiquity, it remains the best proxy for assessing overall social media usage (Ortiz-Ospina, 2019). The first FIS item asks participants to approximate their number of Facebook “friends,” while the second item asks them to approximate time spent on Facebook each day. The remaining items ask participants to rate their agreement with various items assessing the importance of Facebook in their lives (e.g., “Facebook has become a part of my daily routine”). Items are first standardized and then summed to create an index of Facebook usage. The FIS authors reported strong convergent validity and internal consistency (α = .83), mirroring that found in the present sample (α = .87).

College student mental health. Operationalizing mental health is challenging given its many existing conceptualizations. Some authors have argued that mental health and mental illness are separate constructs entirely (e.g., Lent, 2004). Lent (2004) suggested that a complete understanding of mental health incorporates both PWB and subjective well-being (i.e., happiness) and added that subjective well-being is best conceptualized as a higher-order outcome of PWB. Others have argued that PWB and depression are opposite ends of the same construct (Bech et al., 2003), suggesting that PWB instruments also measure depressive affect and vice versa. Collectively, and in conjunction with the focus on depressive symptoms in the aforementioned college student mental health research, it seems useful to conceptualize mental health using indices of PWB and life satisfaction (Lent, 2004).

Psychological well-being. PWB was measured using the 5-item World Health Organization-Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5; Bech et al., 2003). Each item is a positively worded self-statement measuring the absence of various symptoms of depression (e.g., “I have felt calm and relaxed”). Because of its ability to measure both well-being and depression, it was selected as an ideal candidate for the present study. The presence of each statement over a 2-week period is rated on a 6-point scale (0 = not present,
5 = constantly present). Scores are multiplied by four to create a 0–100 scale, with higher scores indicating higher PWB, and scores below 28 indicating clinical depression (Bech et al., 2003). The authors reported strong evidence for reliability (α = .82) and validity. In the present sample, internal consistency was .81.

Life satisfaction. Life satisfaction was measured using the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Diener et al., 1985). Participants rate agreement with five items (e.g., “In most ways my life is close to my ideal”) on a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). Internal consistency in both the validation study and present sample was .87.


Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics and intercorrelations for all study variables. With the exception of the emerging adult feeling in between variable, all variables were significantly correlated with each of the outcome variables. Significant correlations ranged from small to large for both PWB (r = .12, p < .05 for Facebook usage and r = .44, p < .001 for ego resilience) and life satisfaction (r = .12, p < .01 for identity exploration and r = .50, p < .001 for social support). Also, the outcome variables were significantly associated with three emerging adulthood variables in different directions. That is, they were positively correlated with experimentation/possibilities and identity exploration, and they were negatively and moderately correlated with negativity/instability; however, neither outcome variable was significantly associated with the feeling in between variable.

To reduce the possibility of confounds in the regression results, several potential covariates were tested for their relatedness to the outcome variables. Based on prior research, age, gender, and race were tested (Galambos et al., 2006; Schnyders & Lane, 2018). Gender and race were dummy coded so that a) 0 = non-woman (i.e., man or other) and 1 = woman, and b) 0 = non-White and 1 = White. Significant differences were present in the Satisfaction with Life Scale scores on the basis of gender: t(537) = -2.841, p < .01. The mean life satisfaction score for women in the sample was 1.91 points higher than for non-women. Thus, all subsequent analyses controlled for the effects of gender. No other significant associations involving the potential covariates were present.


Table 1

Pearson Intercorrelations Among Study Variables


Variables Intercorrelations
   M     SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
  1. AAn. 23.42 7.28       –
  2. AAv. 17.03 6.76      .07      –
  3. ER 69.10 11.94     -.33**   -.08      –
  4. EP  7.08 1.16     -.17**   -.04    .24**    –
   5. NI 6.90 1.24      .20**     .06   -.25** -.06    –
  6. IE 6.80 1.34     -.05    .04    .12*  .38**  .07     –
  7. IB 6.83 1.38      .06    .06   -.01  .22**  .12*   .41*   –
  8. SS 21.98 4.27     -.25**   -.27**    .32**  .21** -.19**   .07 .05   –
  9. FB 21.75 8.72      .13*   -.11*   -.05  .08 -.02   .08 .16** .14*   –
10. PWB 55.35 18.72     -.27**   -.14*    .44**  .32** -.34**  .16**  .03 .40** .12*   –
11. LS 21.72 7.21     -.25**   -.25**    .39**  .36** -.30**  .12* -.02 .50** .14* .61**

Note. N = 538. AAn. = attachment anxiety; AAv. = attachment avoidance; ER = ego resilience; EP = experimentation/possibilities; NI = negativity/instability; IE = identity exploration; IB = feeling in between; SS = social support; FB = Facebook usage; PWB = psychological well-being; LS = life satisfaction.
*p < .05. **p < .001



Hypothesis 1 predicted that internal resources, emerging adulthood identification, and social resources would each predict unique and additive variance in each outcome variable. Thus, two hierarchical regression analyses were conducted (one with PWB as the outcome variable and one with life satisfaction as the outcome). Each set of predictors was entered as an individual level in the hierarchical regression. Table 2 presents the results of these analyses. As can be seen in Table 2, Hypothesis 1 was fully supported. Each predictor variable set predicted significant additive variance in each outcome variable after accounting for the preceding predictor variable sets in the model. It is also useful to note that the social resources variables predicted over twice as much additive variance in life satisfaction (∆R2 = .08, p < .001) compared to that of PWB (∆R2 = .03, p < .001). The model accounted for 36% of the variance in PWB and 41% of the variance in life satisfaction.


Table 2


Summary of Hierarchical Regression Analyses Predicting PWB and Life Satisfaction

Step and Variable

∆R2 ∆F β t rsp
Outcome variable: PWB
Step 1 – Internal resources .22 38.619***
Attachment anxiety -.14         -3.438**   -.07*
Attachment avoidance -.09         -2.308* -.03
Ego resilience  .40          9.685***       .23***
Step 2 – Emerging adulthood .09   8.259***
Experimentation/possibilities  .19          4.677***       .14***
Negativity/instability -.23         -6.177***      -.20***
Identity exploration  .06          1.403  .05
Feeling in between  .00          0.03 -.02
Step 3 – Social resources .03   1.681***
Social support  .19          4.679***       .16***
Facebook usage  .09          2.361*   .08*
Outcome variable: Life satisfaction
Step 1 – Internal resources .22 32.966***
Attachment anxiety -.12         -2.960** -.03
Attachment avoidance -.20         -5.185***    -.11**
Ego resilience  .36          8.711***       .17***
Step 2 – Emerging adulthood .09   8.131***
Experimentation/possibilities  .26          6.571***       .20***
Negativity/instability -.19         -5.139***      -.15***
Identity exploration  .01          0.304  .02
Feeling in between -.05         -1.273  -.07*
Step 3 – Social resources .08   4.872***
Social support  .31          8.138***       .27***
Facebook usage  .08          2.176*    .07*

Note. N = 538. Results control for the effects of gender. rsp = semipartial correlation. rsp is reported for the
last step in each model.
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.


Hypothesis 2 predicted that the emerging adulthood variables and Facebook usage would each predict significant individual variance in each outcome variable after accounting for the effects of all other predictor variables. To test this hypothesis, semipartial correlations (rsp) were examined for all variables at the last step of the hierarchical regression (i.e., the step in which all variables are entered into the model). Semipartial correlations examine the unique variance explained by a single predictor after accounting for the collective variance explained by all other predictors (Meyers et al., 2013). As can be seen in Table 2, significant semipartial correlations predicting PWB included the negativity/instability (rsp = -.20, p < .001), experimentation/possibilities (rsp = .14, p < .001), and Facebook usage (rsp = .08, p < .05) variables. Of all the predictors of PWB in the model, negativity/instability made the second largest individual contribution. Of the predictors of life satisfaction, significant semipartial correlations included experimentation/possibilities (rsp = .20, p < .001), negativity/instability (rsp = -.15, p < .001), feeling in between (rsp = -.07, p < .05), and Facebook usage (rsp = .07, p < .05). The experimentation/possibilities variable made the second largest individual contribution to life satisfaction. However, because identity exploration was not significant for either outcome variable, and feeling in between was not significant for life satisfaction, Hypothesis 2 was only partially supported. Collectively, the emerging adulthood and Facebook variables accounted for 7.4% of unique variance in PWB and 7.1% of unique variance in life satisfaction.


The present findings yield several useful contributions. First, they bridge disparate threads of research by comparing the contributions of well-established mental health predictors with those of constructs unique to present-day college students, each of which contributed uniquely to college student mental health. Although many of the effects of the individual variables were small, the emerging adulthood and Facebook variables collectively explained roughly 7% of unique variance in the mental health variables over and above that explained by the more well-established constructs. As such, the findings are consistent with the assertion that constructs like attachment, ego resilience, and social support, while useful to conceptualizing college student mental health, may nevertheless be aided by also considering factors unique to 21st-century students.

The positive associations between Facebook usage and college student mental health are noteworthy, given the current disagreement regarding the impact of social media use. Contrary to concerns regarding social media overuse (e.g., Twenge, 2013), the present study found that Facebook usage positively predicted PWB and life satisfaction, albeit with a small effect. This was true even after controlling for other predictor variables, suggesting that Facebook provided a small but unique contribution to college student mental health. This finding supports the conclusions of Manago et al. (2012) that Facebook can fulfill certain social support needs for students. There may also be negative implications for societal reliance on social media use (e.g., Twenge, 2013), including its promotion of unhealthy comparison behaviors and cyberbullying. Nevertheless, the present findings and those of Manago et al. demonstrate the positive contributions of social media to college student mental health.

The significance of some of the emerging adulthood variables also warrants discussion. The degree to which participants identified with emerging adulthood being a period of experimentation and possibilities was positively associated with PWB and life satisfaction, while the degree to which they identified with emerging adulthood being a period of negativity and instability was negatively associated with PWB and life satisfaction. Moreover, identifying emerging adulthood as a time of feeling in between adolescence and adulthood was negatively associated with life satisfaction. Even after accounting for all other control and predictor variables, emerging adult instability was the second strongest predictor of PWB (after ego resilience), while emerging adult experimentation/possibilities was the second strongest predictor of life satisfaction (after social support). These findings add important context to prior empirical conclusions that emerging adulthood is associated with negative mental health (Baggio et al., 2015). That is, while each of the dimensions of emerging adulthood represents important developmental processes toward reaching adulthood (Arnett, 2004), only some of these dimensions (especially viewing emerging adulthood as a period of experimentation or instability) seem relevant to college student mental health. Additionally, feeling in between adolescence and adulthood was negatively associated with life satisfaction but unassociated with PWB. This finding underscores the complex contributions of emerging adulthood to college student mental health. Previous research has indicated that life satisfaction decreases during adolescence (Goldbeck et al., 2007). Accordingly, it is plausible that subjectively identifying the emerging adult years as feeling in between adolescence and adulthood results in life satisfaction trajectories that more closely mirror those of adolescence compared to emerging adults who feel less in between adolescence and adulthood. Although such conclusions require further validation, it nevertheless can help college counselors understand which factors of the emerging adult experience are relevant foci of clinical attention.

Implications for Counselors

The present results yield several useful insights that can aid mental health counselors who work with college-aged populations. Most prominently, counselors are encouraged to conceptualize their clients using a blend of foundational and contemporary models. Life for 21st-century college-aged individuals is unprecedentedly complex (Arnett, 2004; Kruisselbrink Flatt, 2013). It is important for college counselors to acknowledge this complexity, as doing so may represent an important form of cultural competence working with millennial generation and Generation Z individuals (Lane, 2015). Counselors are encouraged to utilize emerging adulthood theory when conceptualizing their clients, as this framework contains important departures from other identity development models. For example, counselors are likely to be more familiar with Erikson’s (1959/1994) framework than emerging adulthood theory. The former model suggests that identity development occurs during the teenage years, while the latter model asserts that identity development is a process that now extends well into the 20s (Arnett, 2004). Emerging adulthood theory also suggests that, as a result of this prolonged identity development process, traditional-aged college students are likely to temporarily exhibit heightened self-focus and idealistic thinking. Acknowledging these factors could facilitate a more empathic understanding of the behaviors that contribute to some counselors and scholars endorsing negative stereotypes against millennials and Generation Z individuals (Lane, 2015). Incorporating emerging adulthood theory could help college counselors be more mindful of the evolving nature of the transition to adulthood and its contributions to mental health.

The findings involving the social resources variables also have novel implications for counseling college students. Although social support has long been established as an important target for improving mental health, counselors are encouraged to acknowledge both the unprecedented complexity of emerging adult social support networks (Arnett, 2004) and also the ability of emerging adults to receive social support from face-to-face and electronic interactions (Manago et al., 2012). Accordingly, it is important to continue exploring the potential therapeutic applications of social media and other forms of technology. For example, an exciting direction in this regard is the growing use of informal support groups via social media (Manago et al., 2012), which exist for many counseling-relevant issues. Such groups provide a sense of community and help members remember that they are not alone in their struggles. Moreover, present mental health trajectories among college students have necessitated a shift in focus for many college counseling centers toward crisis intervention and outreach (Watkins et al., 2012). For many college counseling centers, social media remains an underutilized tool, despite the recent development of social media and text-based initiatives for each of these objectives (Evans et al., 2013). Such programs might be especially useful in today’s higher education climate in which symptom severity seems to be increasing while budgetary resources for college counseling centers are often stagnant or decreasing (American College Health Association, 2015; Watkins et al., 2012).


Several limitations in the present study warrant consideration. First, the results relied on a convenience sample, and it is impossible to know whether there are group differences between the 15.4% of invited college students who participated compared to those who did not. Second, the findings are correlational in nature, and the directionality of the relationships cannot be assured. Third, although the sample was racially diverse, it was predominantly female. Fourth, it should be noted that the social media variable in this study consisted solely of Facebook usage; the findings may have been different had other prominent social media platforms been represented.

Implications for Future Research

Future research efforts should continue to explore the mental health implications of the study’s variables. First, it would be useful to confirm the findings with a more gender-representative sample. The model should also be explored with a longitudinal sample to determine mental health trajectories through various transitions common during the college experience. It would also be useful to explore potential mediating effects among the variables in the model, which could provide further empirical support for the theoretical sequencing of the variable sets. Other research efforts could further explore the therapeutic applications of social media. Such efforts could aid understanding of the evolving needs of college-aged populations.


The college years constitute considerable mental health risks that seem particularly pronounced for current generations of traditional-aged college students. The present findings suggest that traditional models of college student mental health can be aided by also incorporating generation-specific factors, including emerging adulthood identification and social media usage. Such generation-specific factors seem to predict unique variance in college student mental health characteristics, namely PWB and life satisfaction. The findings underscore the importance that counselors consider contemporary models, including emerging adulthood theory, when conceptualizing and treating traditional-aged college student clients.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.




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Joel A. Lane, PhD, NCC, LPC, is an associate professor and department chair at Portland State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Joel Lane, 250G Fourth Avenue Building, 1900 SW 4th Ave., Portland, OR 97201,

Counseling Emerging Adults in Transition: Practical Applications of Attachment and Social Support Research

Joel A. Lane

Today’s emerging adults (i.e., individuals between the ages of 18 and 29) in industrialized nations navigate multiple significant life transitions (e.g., entering career life), and do so in a rapidly changing society. While these transitions pose psychological difficulties, a growing body of research has identified attachment and social support as two notably salient protective factors in emerging adulthood. The purpose of the present article is to explore the counseling of emerging adult clients, particularly those in the midst of one or more transitions. The concept of emerging adulthood represents a relatively recent phenomenon that the counseling community has been slow to acknowledge. Specifically, this author reviews literature pertaining to emerging adulthood, attachment and social support, and uses this literature to provide clinicians with practical recommendations for counseling emerging adults.

Keywords: emerging adulthood, life transitions, attachment, social support, counseling

Emerging adulthood is a stage of life resulting from recent societal trends in industrialized nations, occurring between the ages of 18 and 29 (Arnett, 2000, 2004, 2007). These trends include the proliferation of college enrollment, significant delays in settling down and high unemployment compared to prior generations of young adults (Furstenberg, Rumbaut, & Settersten, 2005). Corresponding with these changes is an evolution of the psychosocial development of current emerging adults, who engage in extended identity exploration and report subjectively feeling in between adolescence and adulthood (Arnett, 2001). While the benefits and drawbacks of these changes are a source of frequent and intense debate (Arnett, 2013; Twenge, 2013), few would disagree that being twenty-something today is a drastically different experience than it was several decades ago.


Emerging adulthood presents many life transitions and significant mental health risk. In the midst of prolonged identity experimentation and subjectivity, emerging adults navigate a multitude of major life and role changes, such as leaving home, entering and leaving educational settings, and starting a career. The convergence of these factors—the subjective feeling of not being an adult and near-constant life changes propelling one toward adulthood—seems to contribute to critical periods of identity crisis and various psychological difficulties (Lane, 2013b; Lee & Gramotnev, 2007; Weiss, Freund, & Wiese, 2012). Though not all emerging adults experience difficulties during these transitions (Buhl, 2007; Galambos, Barker, & Krahn, 2006), some respond with significant distress (Murphy, Blustein, Bohlig, & Platt, 2010; Perrone & Vickers, 2003; Polach, 2004), which is problematic given that the emerging adult years are considered a critical juncture in the development of mental illness (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013; Ingram & Gallagher, 2010) and substance abuse (APA, 2013; Chassin, Pitts, & Prost, 2002; Ingram & Gallagher, 2010). Elevated distress also has been shown to increase impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors in emerging adulthood (Scott-Parker, Watson, King, & Hyde, 2011). The distress accompanying these transitions, therefore, poses a considerable threat to emerging adult well-being.


Despite these changes and risk factors, the counseling community has been slow to acknowledge the evolving landscapes of the late teens and twenties. Counselor training programs continue to prominently feature theories of development contending that identity development is a task completed by the end of the teenage years (i.e., Erikson, 1959/1994). It seems likely that many counselors face the challenge of using outdated developmental models to conceptualize their emerging adult clients. For counselors to work effectively with the many challenges and risks that emerging adults face, they must have an increased awareness of emerging adulthood and better understand factors that predict well-being and stability during the numerous transitions commonly experienced. To address this concern, the author provides an overview of emerging adult theory and research describing the significance of emerging adult life transitions; reviews literature examining the importance of attachment and social relationships in emerging adulthood, which appear to especially salient sources of risk resilience during this period of life; and considers implications for counseling professionals to utilize when working with emerging adults.


Emerging Adulthood


Current societal expectations regarding normative life trajectories in the early-to-mid 20s—being finished with education, marrying, acclimating to a professional setting and adjusting to life as a parent—do not seem fully applicable to today’s emerging adults in most industrialized nations. Arnett (2000) described emerging adulthood as a period of feeling “in between” (p. 471), during which individuals are no longer adolescents, but do not yet identify as adults. Thus, the normative developmental tasks for individuals in their 20s seem to have shifted from objective tasks like attaining work, settling down and becoming financially independent, to more subjective tasks like considering the question, Who am I and what do I want my life to look like? This shift is reflected in several factors that distinguish emerging adulthood from other life stages and from prior young adult generations. Of these distinctions, the three most prominent pertain to demographic instability, changes in subjective self-perceptions and extended periods of identity testing (Arnett, 2000).


Characteristics of Emerging Adulthood

     One way that emerging adulthood is distinct from other life stages is with regard to demographics. The past several decades correspond with higher proportions of 18- to 25-year-olds leaving home and periodically moving back home several times (Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999), attending college immediately after high school (Arnett, 2004), delaying marriage and childbirth (Arnett, 2000), spending more time in college (Arnett, 2004; Mortimer, Zimmer-Gembeck, Holmes, & Shanahan, 2002) and changing careers (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). In comparison to other age groups, the demographic statuses of emerging adults today vary with little predictability (Arnett, 2000; Cohen, Kasen, Chen, Hartmark, & Gordon, 2003); however, the demographic factor that is most predictable is frequent residential change (Arnett, 2000, 2007; Shulman & Nurmi, 2010). All of these trends indicate the changing demographic landscapes of today’s late teens and early 20s compared to those of prior generations.


     Another changing landscape of emerging adulthood is a trend toward increasingly vague and subjective self-perceptions (Arnett, 2000; Fussell & Furstenberg, 2005). Emerging adults view their progression into adulthood as long and gradual. When a sample of emerging adults were asked if they felt they had reached adulthood, over 50% selected the answer choice “in some respects yes, in some respects no,” and fewer than 5% selected “yes” (Arnett, 2001, p. 140). Moreover, emerging adults seem to consider individual character qualities (e.g., accepting responsibility) to be more salient indicators of having reached adulthood than objective milestones, such as completing education or becoming a parent (Lopez, Chervinko, Strom, Kinney, & Bradley, 2005). In short, emerging adults perceive themselves as no longer adolescents, but also not quite adults, and report vague perceptions of what it will take to feel more like adults.


     A third distinction of emerging adulthood is a prolonged period of identity exploration (Arnett, 2000; Gerstacker, 2010). Given the relative freedom from life obligations, in tandem with the long-term implications of many of the decisions that will be made during emerging adulthood, this stage of life represents an opportunity for significant identity development to occur (Gerstacker, 2010). The freedom to engage in identity exploration results in the delay of firm decisions regarding adult roles (Schulenberg, Bryant, & O’Malley, 2004). These factors also contribute to an increased self-focus during emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004). While some researchers have interpreted these features as resulting from increased narcissism among emerging adults (e.g., Twenge, 2013), Arnett (2004) conceptualized them as temporary and developmentally normative qualities.


     The three most common areas of emerging adult identity exploration are love, work and worldviews (Arnett, 2000). First, emerging adults use their freedom to explore varying levels of commitment with regard to sexual and romantic relationships (Arnett, 2004), and do so in a time period with unprecedented societal acceptance of differing sexual and romantic preferences (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012). Second, significant identity exploration occurs with regard to professional identity, for which evidence can be found in several college trends. Emerging adults are increasingly likely to change their majors more than once (Arnett, 2000), report negative attitudes toward graduation (Lane, 2013a, in press-a; Yazedjian, Kielaszek, & Toews, 2010), spend more time in college (Arnett, 2004) and experience more career turnover (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008) than prior generations. Finally, worldviews represent a third area of identity exploration. With today’s unprecedented higher education enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014; Weber, 2012), a growing number of emerging adults are gaining a more complex understanding of the world around them via higher education experiences. The impact of the college environment on moral reasoning and cross-cultural experiences is well documented (e.g., Bowman, 2010). These trends may explain the observations of several scholars that today’s emerging adults share an unprecedented passion for social justice and community well-being (e.g., Arnett, 2007), especially in urban areas.


Emerging Adult Transitions

     A central feature of emerging adulthood is the frequent occurrence of significant life transitions. Each of these transitions initiates significant role changes that impact social networks, familial support and autonomy. The influence of life transition on well-being has been well documented and frequently results in periods of self-doubt, immobilization and denial (Brammer & Abrego, 1981). In contrast to common assumptions that the transitions associated with emerging adulthood (e.g., college graduation, obtaining employment) are positive life events, these transitions represent periods of loss (Vickio, 1990) that consist of considerable psychological distress for some individuals (Lane, in press-a, in press-b; Lee & Gramotnev, 2007). The proceeding section reviews a growing body of recent research suggesting that the characteristic delay in adult identity formation in emerging adulthood may increase the degree of loss and difficulty experienced during several normative transitions.


     High school graduation. Conclusions are mixed regarding the assertion that high school graduation is a critical emerging adult transition. Though some have reported that graduation is associated with increased quality of parental relationships and decreased depressed mood and delinquent behaviors (Aseltine & Gore, 1993), others have reported significant differences in these trajectories as a function of race and college attendance (Gore & Aseltine, 2003). Similarly, social and institutional support predicts whether deviant behaviors increase or decrease after high school (Sampson & Laub, 1990). These findings suggest that the transition of high school graduation is a positive experience for some emerging adults, but a psychologically distressing experience for others, especially those who lack social support, do not attend college, or identify as African American or Latino.


     The transition to professional life among non-college attendees. After high school, the two most common trajectories are to enter either postsecondary education or the workforce (Arnett, 2004). The transition to work can be particularly difficult for those who forgo college. These emerging adults attempt to transition into professional life without the advantage of higher education—a psychologically beneficial resource that provides important institutional and social support (Raymore, Barber, & Eccles, 2001). Among individuals with high school diplomas, unemployment rates are highest between the ages of 18 and 19, approaching 20% in 2014 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). Those who do find work are unlikely to receive a sustainable income, as mean incomes among emerging adults are drastically lower than for other adult age groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Such difficulties are particularly problematic given that unemployment and economically inadequate employment have been implicated as mental health risks (Dooley, Prause, & Ham-Rowbottom, 2000).


     The freshman transition. For those emerging adults who decide to attend college, their adjustment to college life also represents a significant life transition. In particular, the first year of college is a risk factor for psychological distress. Bowman (2010) found that among first-generation college freshmen, psychological well-being significantly decreased throughout the course of the freshman academic year. Similarly, Sharma (2012) demonstrated that first-year undergraduates experienced significantly greater emotional and social difficulties than other college students. A prominent focus of first-year transition literature is the important role of attachment relationships, a construct that will be discussed in greater depth later in this article. In short, the attachment security of incoming freshmen predicts their overall well-being, as well as their social and academic adjustment (Kenny & Donaldson, 1991; Larose & Boivin, 1998).


The senior year experience. A small but growing body of recent research has identified potential difficulties for college seniors preparing to transition out of school (Lane, 2013a, in press-a). The college experience represents a period of moratorium from many adult responsibilities (Fasick, 1988) and is associated with increased leisure behaviors compared to individuals who do not attend college (Raymore, Barber, Eccles, & Godbey, 1999). Given the subjective experience among emerging adults that they have not yet reached adulthood (Arnett, 2001) and the prevailing societal expectation that college graduation is associated with adult roles (e.g., entering the workforce, settling down), it is likely that emerging adults increasingly view graduation as an important signifier of impending life changes for which they do not feel ready (Lane, 2013a). For example, ambivalence about graduating was one of the primary themes to emerge from a qualitative study of college seniors (Yazedjian et al., 2010). Other qualitative studies of college seniors have found that students are frequently anxious about graduating due to the impending changes they will experience in priorities (Overton-Healy, 2010) and the sense that they lack direction regarding the next phase of life (Allen & Taylor, 2006). Factor analyses of surveys given to college seniors uncovered domains of concern about graduation, including leaving behind the student lifestyle, the impending loss of friendships and support, the process of obtaining employment, and the process of applying to graduate school (Pistilli, Taub, & Bennett, 2003). A recent path analysis revealed significant relationships between these domains of concern and factors such as life satisfaction, psychological health and attachment security (Lane, in press-a).


     Life after college. Given the psychological implications of preparing to leave the college environment, it is not surprising that the time immediately following college life often presents psychological difficulties as well. A sample of Australian college graduates voiced concerns about adjusting to life after college and to work life, referring to this period as a low point of their lives (Perrone & Vickers, 2003). Chickering and Schlossberg (1998) found that well-being suffered when emerging adult graduates encountered difficulties obtaining employment. Such findings are especially significant since they contrast overall trends toward increased well-being throughout emerging adulthood (Galambos et al., 2006). That is, while emerging adulthood is associated with upward trends in well-being, the time immediately following graduation can alter this trajectory, especially when emerging adults experience difficulties obtaining employment.


     However, emerging adults who do secure postcollege employment are not exempt from transition-related distress. This transition involves significant changes in attitudes, expectations and levels of preparedness compared to college life (Polach, 2004; Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). Transitioning to the world of work can be particularly difficult since emerging adults are typically leaving an environment in which they felt experienced (e.g., high school, college) and becoming inexperienced professionals (Lane, in press-b). More than half of all college graduates leave their initial place of postcollege employment within two years of graduating (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008), and there is evidence suggesting that this turnover is due to difficulties in adjusting to professional life for the first time (Sturges & Guest, 2001). Such difficulties seem to frequently result in experiences of imposter syndrome (i.e., perceiving oneself as incompetent despite evidence of competence) among emerging adults entering professional life (Lane, in press-b). Other related difficulties include significant learning curves, less feedback and structure than afforded by the college environment, guilt about initial levels of work production, and difficulties forming new social networks (Polach, 2004). Similarly, the results of a survey conducted by Sleap and Reed (2006) suggested that most graduates possess limited awareness of the impending culture changes they will experience as a result of leaving higher education and entering the workplace. The importance of this awareness was demonstrated in a longitudinal study in which emerging adults were tested as college seniors regarding their knowledge about workplace culture, and then were subsequently tested both six months and one year after entering professional life (Gardner & Lambert, 1993). Those who had more accurate information as seniors were more likely to report job satisfaction at both subsequent intervals. Buhl (2007) conducted a similar longitudinal study, finding that the subjective quality of participant parental relationships predicted well-being trajectories during the initial three years of professional life.


     In sum, it is clear that the common transitions experienced during emerging adulthood pose threats to well-being due to role confusion and psychological distress. Given the risks associated with psychological distress, it is paramount to better understand factors that might promote the maintenance of well-being during periods of transition in emerging adulthood. Accordingly, a focus of emerging adult research has been examining constructs that predict positive developmental progressions through these periods of transition. Two such constructs that have received considerable attention are attachment (e.g., Kenny & Sirin, 2006) and social support (e.g., Murphy et al., 2010). It seems that emerging adults who feel secure in their relational attachments and supported by social networks are able to face the developmental challenges of emerging adulthood with greater confidence and well-being than those who lack support and secure attachments. To better explain the impact of these constructs on emerging adult development and well-being, the proceeding sections of this article examine attachment and social support literature pertaining to emerging adulthood.




     Attachment theory contends that the early relationships people develop with their caregivers inform attitudes toward help seeking and new learning in times of distress across the lifespan (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Attachment is defined as the emotional bonds that develop between children and their caregivers beginning in infancy. Based on repeated experiences of caregiver responsiveness, infants begin to develop beliefs and expectations regarding the degree to which their physical and emotional needs will be satisfied. According to attachment theory, these beliefs become internalized as subconscious representations of self and other, which continue to increase in complexity and broadly inform social interactions throughout the lifespan. Those whose representations are based on consistent and sufficient caregiver responsiveness are considered securely attached and are likely to trust their ability to resolve future needs, either by themselves or by relying on caregivers. Insecurely attached children, on the other hand, develop expectations that their caregivers cannot be adequately relied upon in times of need; these children are likely to react to perceived threats with inappropriate levels of affect (i.e., overactivation or deactivation). These reactions interfere with the children’s development of effective emotional regulation and with the successful resolution of stressful situations, thereby continuing to reinforce such responses to future stressful situations (Guttmann-Steinmetz & Crowell, 2006).


     This idea positions early attachment relationships as a likely influence on psychological health in emerging adulthood. The years of later adolescence and early emerging adulthood are a time in which attachment needs are increasingly fulfilled by peers and romantic partners, as opposed to caregivers (Fraley & Davis, 1997). Thus, the relative security of parental attachment representations is likely to inform interpersonal trust and intimacy, as well as the ability to seek the meeting of attachment needs from others (Schnyders & Lane, 2014). In fact, frequency of contact with parents during emerging adulthood is negatively associated with subjective closeness to parents (Hiester, Nordstrom, & Swenson, 2009), while geographical distance from parents is positively associated with psychological adjustment (Dubas & Petersen, 1996). Younger emerging adults are likely to begin experimenting with independence, though they often still use parents or caregivers as attachment figures in times of distress (Fraley & Davis, 1997; Kenny, 1987).


Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) conducted what was perhaps the first study to consider the relevance of attachment to the unique needs of young adult populations. They demonstrated several trajectories in interpersonal functioning on the basis of attachment functioning. In the study, attachment was conceptualized as occurring across dimensions of self and other: secure (positive representations of self and other), anxious (negative representations of self, positive representations of other), dismissive-avoidant (positive representations of self, negative representations of other), and fearful-avoidant (negative representations of self and other). Such a conceptualization has become a standard for contemporary adult attachment research (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Fearful-avoidant participants seemed to struggle with interpersonal passivity. Dismissive-avoidance was “related to a lack of warmth in social interactions” (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991, p. 234). The interpersonal problems of anxious participants suggested control seeking or overinvolvement in the affairs of their peers. These findings corroborate more recent conceptualizations of insecure attachments in adulthood (Brennan et al., 1998; Mallinckrodt, 2000). Specifically, individuals with elevated attachment anxiety are likely to respond to distress with a hyperactivated strategy, heightening awareness of their distress and causing them to seek inappropriate levels of interpersonal dependence. Conversely, individuals with elevated attachment avoidance are likely to respond to distress with a deactivated strategy, inhibiting awareness of negative affect and preventing them from seeking support from others.


     A growing body of emerging adult research supports the importance of healthy attachment functioning for various psychological outcomes during emerging adulthood. Attachment is a crucial predictor of well-being trajectories at many key emerging adult transition points (Lane, 2014), including the first year of college (Kenny & Donaldson, 1991), the last year of college (Lane, in press-a) and the postcollege years (Kenny & Sirin, 2006). For example, one study tracked Israeli males from their final year of high school through their third year away from home for compulsory military service (Scharf, Mayseless, & Kivenson-Baron, 2004). Securely attached individuals demonstrated better coping strategies and higher capacity for intimacy during their military service than those with insecure attachments. More generally, attachment security in emerging adulthood also influences self-reinforcement capacity and reassurance needs (Wei, Mallinckrodt, Larson, & Zakalik, 2005), affect regulation and resilience (Karreman & Vingerhoets, 2012), perceived self-worth (Kenny & Sirin, 2006), dysfunctional attitudes and self-esteem (Roberts, Gotlib, & Kassel, 1996), self-compassion and empathy toward others (Wei, Liao, Ku, & Shaffer, 2011), self-organization strategies (Lopez, Mitchell, & Gormley, 2002), and identification with emerging adulthood (Schnyders, 2014; Schnyders & Lane, 2014). Many of these factors illustrate the importance of attachment functioning in developing healthy and supportive interpersonal social networks.


Social Support


The construct of social support refers to social relationships or interactions that provide individuals with actual or perceived assistance (Sarason et al., 1991). Social support is psychologically beneficial in its capacity to mitigate stress during stressful situations (e.g., Ditzen et al., 2008), an idea commonly referred to as the stress buffering hypothesis (Cohen & McKay, 1984). A wealth of recent research has strongly suggested that social support is particularly salient during emerging adulthood, as this is a life period marked with numerous transitions and opportunities to experience distress. In a qualitative study of emerging adults who had recently transitioned into professional life, social support was the most prominent theme related to adjustment (Murphy et al., 2010); those who reported relational isolation also struggled with unpreparedness for new financial obligations and feeling that their expectations about life after college were left unfulfilled. Mortimer et al. (2002) reported similar findings. Wendlandt and Rochlen (2008), noting that social support is often lacking in the transition out of college and into the work force, urged college counselors to develop interventions aimed at increasing perceived support. This idea was supported in a study of college graduates who had recently relocated to a metropolitan area and were adjusting to their first year of professional life (Polach, 2004). Participants reported frustration and difficulties trying to establish new peer groups outside the college environment. They also cited the importance of a sense of belonging as the primary reason for moving to a city after graduating. Clearly, ample evidence supports the protective qualities of social support for emerging adults transitioning into professional life.


Moreover, social support also seems to be important during other emerging adult transitions. In one qualitative study, emerging adult participants described the ability to understand friendship dynamics as an important component in the subjective experience of reaching adulthood (Lopez et al., 2005). Examples of understanding friendship dynamics included the maintenance of preexisting friendships, changes in friendships based on varying maturation rates, and understanding the importance of the social network. In another study, first-year college students seemed to adjust more effectively to college life when the support they received from family members shifted from actions consistent with parental attachment to actions consistent with social support (Kenny, 1987). In a multiethnic sample of urban high school students, perceived social support predicted aspirations for career success, positive beliefs pertaining to achieving career goals and the importance of work in the future (Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman, & Gallagher, 2003).


Several longitudinal studies also have demonstrated relationships between aspects of social support and various elements of positive adjustment in emerging adulthood. A large study that tracked individuals for nearly 30 years beginning at age 7 (Masten et al., 2004) found that social quality was an aspect of resilience and predicted success in various emerging adult developmental tasks (e.g., academic attainment). Moreover, success with these tasks predicted success in postemerging adult developmental tasks (e.g., parenting quality, romantic success, work success). O’Connor et al. (2011) found perceived quality of peer relationships to predict positive development in emerging adulthood, which they conceptualized to include life satisfaction, trust and civic engagement. Galambos et al. (2006), in a longitudinal study tracking nearly 1,000 Canadian participants throughout the course of emerging adulthood, found that increases in social support were significantly correlated with increases in well-being.


These findings suggest that the degree to which emerging adults are able to develop and rely upon support networks directly impacts their ability to adapt to various normative experiences and transitions. Given the aforementioned discussion regarding emerging adult attachment, it is likely that these two constructs (attachment and social support) are of shared importance during such transitions. That is, attachment representations inform one’s capacity for positive interpersonal interactions (Mallinckrodt & Wei, 2005), and in this way, attachment and social support collectively facilitate transition processes in emerging adulthood (Lane, 2014; Larose & Boivin, 1998).


Implications for Counseling Emerging Adults


Counseling professionals who work in mental health or university settings are uniquely positioned to intervene with emerging adult clients and to foster resilience and well-being during this turbulent life phase. If counselors are to be effective working with the many challenges that emerging adults face, it is necessary to better understand factors that predict well-being during life transition. The aforementioned literature demonstrates the protective qualities of social support for emerging adults in transition. Emerging adults who are able to rely on positive social relationships during life transitions derive higher psychological well-being, life satisfaction and positive affect (Lane, 2014). Accordingly, counselors would be wise to assist their emerging adult clients in cultivating supportive social relationships. While counseling is a supportive relationship unto itself (Slade, 2008), the degree to which emerging adults in transition are able to derive satisfaction from a number of supportive relationships seems to directly impact the experience of well-being during transition. In this regard, counselors are encouraged to recognize the unprecedented complexity of emerging adult support networks (Arnett, 2007; Garcia et al., 2012; Manago, Taylor, & Greenfield, 2012) due to the proliferation of social media and changing attitudes toward romantic relationships.


Moreover, social support is not limited to interpersonal relationships, but also includes structural and institutional forms of support (Masten et al., 2004). Thus, possessing knowledge of community programs and resources available to emerging adults also is imperative when working with this age group. Support can be enhanced through transition-specific programs (e.g., Lane, 2013a; Yeadon, 2010) that provide information about future expectations and strengthen coping skills (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). Further benefits can be derived as counselors work with their clients to rely on these support systems during times of transition.


As the literature further suggests, one’s degree of attachment security will impact the ability to develop and rely upon social support. Thus, excessive attachment anxiety or avoidance could pose challenges to working with emerging adults on support utilization. Accordingly, counselors of emerging adults should be aware of this potential therapeutic roadblock; they also should be prepared to intervene to develop corrective attachment experiences with their clients. Mallinckrodt (2000) suggested an approach in which clinicians utilize the therapeutic relationship to promote secure attachment strategies. The focus of this approach is maintaining relational boundaries through anticipating how clients might resist such boundaries. That is, because elevated attachment anxiety promotes a desire for maladaptive interpersonal dependence (Brennan et al., 1998), counselors should work to establish greater interpersonal distance than their anxiously attached clients would prefer (Mallinckrodt, 2000). Similarly, since elevated attachment avoidance promotes a desire for maladaptive interpersonal isolation, counselors should seek greater interpersonal closeness than their avoidant-attached clients would prefer. While doing so, clinicians should monitor the affective experience of their clients as a result of the therapeutic relationship, and should assist their clients in self-monitoring as well. This process can facilitate client awareness of attachment tendencies and enhance mindfulness about communicating future relational needs.


Other helpful suggestions come from a qualitative study of experienced therapists who worked toward corrective attachment experiences with their clients (Daly & Mallinckrodt, 2009). The therapists in the sample suggested that therapeutic boundaries should be reevaluated over the course of therapy. These therapists also emphasized the importance of sensitivity to client defenses early in the therapeutic relationship, and suggested several strategies for both managing boundaries and combating resistance. Such strategies included intentional disclosure of feelings toward client patterns, fostering a sense of consistency and dependability about counseling, and developing an awareness of the temporary nature of the therapeutic relationship, beginning at the onset of therapy. These considerations may aid counselors in helping emerging adult clients work past insecure attachment patterns to develop healthy social relationships that can be utilized to facilitate emerging adult transition.


More broadly, the preceding literature review speaks to the importance of counselors acknowledging the changing landscapes of young adulthood. Current trends in the media seem to advance a narrative that today’s young adults are narcissistic, entitled and lazy. While the veracity of such labels is a focus of current debate in the research community (for an overview of this debate, see Arnett, 2013 and Twenge, 2013), the narrative that these labels perpetuate is not conducive to an empathic understanding of the needs of those in this age group. Thus, counselors are encouraged to consider Arnett’s (2004) theory of emerging adulthood when conceptualizing their work with emerging adult clients. This theory indirectly encourages counselors to honor the process of emerging adulthood, during which it is normative to engage in numerous behaviors that are often negatively misconstrued. Specifically, emerging adults are likely to (a) frequently move out and back into the parental household (which could be construed as parental enmeshment), (b) engage in prolonged identity exploration (which could be construed as laziness), (c) possess vague subjective understandings regarding the realization of adult identities (which could be construed as lack of direction), (d) think optimistically about the future (which could be construed as entitlement) and (e) temporarily possess a heightened self-focus (which could be construed as narcissism). Thus, acknowledging and normalizing these characteristics, even if they might constitute relatively recent phenomena, is important for fostering empathic understanding between counselors and their emerging adult clients.




     Emerging adults navigate many significant life and role transitions with important long-term implications. These transitions can induce great pressure and distress for some emerging adults, increasing their likelihood of experiencing many of the risks commonly associated with this age group. Thus, it is important that counselors understand the unique dynamics of emerging adulthood, especially given the myriad ways that this group has changed and evolved compared to prior young adult generations. In particular, the aforementioned literature suggests that counselors may find success with their emerging adult clients by working to enhance social support and correct potential insecure attachment behaviors, as well as by incorporating emerging adult theory to conceptualize client behaviors and perspectives. Though emerging adulthood is often a time of turmoil and instability, it is also a period rife with opportunities and possibilities, thus providing the potential for deeply rewarding and transformative counseling experiences.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The author reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.





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Joel A. Lane, NCC, is the recipient of the 2014 Outstanding Dissertation Award for The Professional Counselor and an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Joel A. Lane, Department of Counselor Education, Portland State University, Graduate School of Education, PO Box 751, Portland, OR 97207,