When we think about social development for clients with behavioral health disorders, there are three important elements. The first is whether the client’s disorder has caused them to lag behind in social development up to this point in their lives. If symptoms of the behavioral health disorder surfaced early in the client’s life or if substance use reached a significant level during adolescence, the client may have failed to complete some of the developmental tasks associated with those life stages. In order for the client to successfully manage an adult life, these tasks will need to be recognized and understood.
The second consideration about social development is how the client can move through the appropriate developmental tasks of adulthood while maintaining their recovery. Moving through the various stages of adult social development can be stressful, even for individuals without behavioral health disorders. One way to help individuals to cope with these stresses is to help them prepare and plan for going through these transitions. Peer support specialists can, of course, use their own lived experience as part of this planning and preparation process. They can also be of help by linking their clients to resources that may be needed at various stages of adult social development.
A third aspect of social development that is important for peer support specialists to recognize is that their clients may not have successfully completed the developmental tasks of adolescence. It is often said that for individuals with substance use disorders, social development stops at the age of onset of substance use. Since the adolescent brain is still developing, the impact of alcohol and other drugs on brain development can be significant. As a peer support specialist, you will not perform a formal developmental assessment, but you may recognize that your client is not behaving as maturely as might be expected. Social and emotional skills development may be part of the client’s plan so that they can move successfully along the developmental continuum in order to fulfill adult responsibilities.
The most widely accepted theory of social development was developed by Erik Erikson. According to his theory, there are three stages of social development that an individual goes through in adulthood.[i] These stages do not have hard and fast beginning and ending points and are not necessarily formally acknowledged. However, it can be useful for both the peer specialist and the client to understand what is typical or normal for each stage of life.
Young Adulthood – This stage generally includes ages 19-40. During this stage, individuals generally enter the workforce, establish households separate from their families of origin and they may seek partners with whom to share their adult lives. Concerns of isolation or loneliness may arise for individuals who have difficulty with this separation from parents or with finding an appropriate adult attachment. During this stage, individuals begin to take on the responsibilities of adulthood that call for goal setting, responsibility and sacrifice. Coping with these responsibilities can create stresses that may place recovery at risk.
Individuals whose behavioral health disorders create serious symptoms during this stage of life may lose some of their newly created independence or may revert to adolescent type behaviors, particularly if their parents are called upon for increased help and support. Career development is another important factor determining the general emotional development of a person. Career success or failure can have a huge impact on the social and emotional development of a person. All individuals establish their own goals for different periods of time. Positive attributes such as independence, self-confidence and trust are essential for normal social development. This development can be delayed or threatened if recovery is not achieved and maintained.[i] In this video, the speaker focuses on the special challenges of those just coming into their adulthood.
Middle Age or Middle Adulthood – This stage generally lasts from age 40 to age 65. For many individuals, the primary task of this life stage is to raise and nurture the next generation of their family. Some individuals in this stage of life experience taking on the added responsibility of caring for aging parents and for others, there is the separation when their children enter adulthood. Career changes and challenges can also emerge during this life stage. At this stage of life, people are generally expected to be settled, responsible and stable. Many individuals use this time to reflect on their lives, evaluate what they have accomplished and what they still want to accomplish. For individuals with behavioral health disorders, this life review may be stressful as they reflect on the impact of substance abuse or mental health issues in their lives. The role of the peer specialist in instilling hope for a positive future is especially important for those peers who may feel disappointed with their path in life up to this point.
Older Adulthood – This stage generally lasts from age 65 onward. This stage is marked by a gradual slowing of the pace of life and, at some point, is when a person enters the retirement phase. One major part of this stage of life is the awareness of mortality and impending death. This stage may be marked by grief and loss as well, as partners and friends come to the end of their own lives. Loss of independence may also be a critical stressor during this stage.
No matter what the chronological age of your client is, it is important to know where they are developmentally in order to determine how to help them identify appropriate goals and skills.