A young woman sits on a couch struggling with a phobia of growing up

Why Teens and Young Adults Suffer From a Phobia of Growing Up

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Teens and young adults are developing strong phobias around growing up. Fears over climate change, growing wealth inequality, and social isolation exacerbated by the pandemic have contributed to increased anxiety over entering adulthood.

Clinically Reviewed By:
Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

Peter pan syndrome. Arrested development. These phrases are commonly used to describe young people who seem to have difficulty transitioning into adulthood. But these terms also carry negative baggage with them – painting a picture of a petulant child who refuses to grow up. 

What if the mental state underpinning a reluctance to enter adulthood is far more complex, rooted in genuine fear, and exacerbated by trauma? 

Nearly half of U.S. adults, mostly in their early 20s, still live at home with their parents, numbers we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. The Covid-19 pandemic certainly contributed to this trend. But the larger issue is a collective anxiety roiling a generation of young people saddled by student debt, rising housing costs, and an imminent climate crisis. And it’s not just younger generations who’re doubtful over their future–most U.S. citizens agree that young adults are facing an uphill battle as they grow older.

Several mitigating factors have contributed to a recent uptick in young adults developing a phobia of growing up (like the Covid-19 pandemic and an appearance and age-obsessed social media) which we’ll cover in a bit. 

What is the phobia of growing up?

A fear of growing up can be characterized by an inability or unwillingness to take on adult responsibilities, and a tendency to resist the transition into adulthood.

Young adults who experience this phobia may find it hard to commit to relationships, struggle with financial responsibility, and often view making long-term plans, or setting goals, as overwhelming. Though this phobia is not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder, it can have a significant impact on a person's life and executive functioning.

Although fear of adulting might not have an official diagnosis, an excessive fear of aging, or growing old, is known as gerascophobia. Patients who suffer from gerascophobia see the process of aging as a legitimate threat, and will go to great lengths to slow down, or hide growth. This condition is often a combination of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological elements, and can be intensified by different environmental factors like trauma and sexual abuse.  

It should be noted, however, that phobias about entering adulthood, and taking on adult responsibilities, are in no way symptoms of gerascophobia–a condition concerned with a specific fear around the physical and biological act of aging. 

It’s unclear if gerascophobia is anecdotally on the rise, or if it’s just being discussed more in recent years. There’s a distinct possibility people are becoming more aware of gerascophobia due to increased social media and internet usage, which may lead to more people seeking help for their fear.

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What makes an adult an adult

The definition of adulthood varies from person-to-person and culture-to-culture. For the purposes of this article, we’ll define the period of the adult transition that occurs between the ages of 18-29 as “emerging adulthood” – a term coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. from Clark University.

Arnett argues that the three biggest qualifiers for establishing an adult identity are: 

  1. Accepting responsibility for yourself
  2. Ability to make independent decisions
  3. Becoming financially independent

Those might sound like “normal” signifiers to older generations. But today’s young adults suffer more from social isolation, depression, and anxiety than others that came before them. These conditions can often make managing daily decisions difficult, let alone goal-setting for the future. 

If living day-to-day is a constant struggle for sufferers of depression and anxiety, then entering adulthood can feel like an impossible challenge. 

The pandemic’s impact on the phobia of growing up

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated existing mental health issues among teens and young adults – an age group whose rates of depression and anxiety were already high even before the pandemic, according to a recent Surgeon General’s report.

Studies have cited different reasons for this upward trend in reportage of depression and anxiety amongst young people. One rationale has to do with more discussions around mental health in the media, schools, and at home. However, a willingness to talk more openly about mental health is one small part of the story of the ongoing crisis. Other contributing factors are increased academic pressures, and an over reliance on digital media over real-life peer-to-peer interactions, which can lead to greater isolation.

The pandemic’s massive fatality rates, alongside the constant drumbeat of death in the news, ratcheted up pre-existing anxieties, more specifically death anxieties (defined by The North American Nursing Diagnosis Association as a feeling of being unsafe, or having a fear related to death or near-death). Additionally, separation anxiety in kids and young adults ballooned once schools reopened, and/or when parents or caretakers went back to work. The safe harbor of home in the midst of a global pandemic was threatened by this dramatic shift in routine – and many young people were afraid to leave their parents, or even their domiciles. 

And if kids and teens experienced high levels of separation anxiety when leaving home, they most certainly faced social anxiety when reentering in-person schooling after mostly interacting with peers over Zoom.  

An even more troubling statistic concerns the increased incidents of child and domestic abuse during the pandemic. Childhood trauma can lead to the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as avoidance, denial, fawning, and escapism, which can further contribute to an individual's inability to fully take on adult responsibilities.

Yes, depression and anxiety can cause those who suffer from them to have a gloomy outlook of the future, and even fear what’s to come. But that’s not the only reason young adults resist, or feel ill-equipped, to enter adulthood. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders inhibit the kind of thought and action necessary for gaining independence and responsibility –two key tenets of emerging adulthood. 

A mother comforts her son who is afraid of growing up and leaving home

Social media effect and the phobia of growing up

It’s no secret that social media can be detrimental to growth and development. The negative effects of social media on kids, teens, and young adults has been widely documented – with reports correlating sleep disruption, ADHD, cyberbullying, and increased anxiety to high rates of social media usage.

Not only that, but social media can contribute to a “culture of comparison,” wherein young adults become increasingly obsessed with self-image, and often develop a preoccupation with youth and impossible beauty standards. This unhealthy obsession can curdle into mental and emotional distress, with drastic repercussions like higher rates of suicide and suicide ideation. 

Another striking data point is young people’s decreased satisfaction with life in general due to social media.

A recent study reported that during early adolescence, heavy use of social media predicted lower life-satisfaction ratings in the subsequent year. Not only that, but increased usage of social media also can affect brain development in adolescents

The culmination of these factors and distressers cannot be ignored, and likely are a major reason for young people’s increasingly dim outlook of their future. However, social media is here for the time being, so countering its negative effects is now more important than ever. 

If you’re a parent or caretaker, there are different methods of mediation to allay the negative effects of  social media - like limiting screen time, or having frank discussions with a young person you believe is being negatively impacted.

When it comes to this issue, there’s no magic pill solution – the process often relies on trial and error to find what’s best for the teen or young adult in your life. 

How Charlie Health can help 

Are you a young person struggling with a phobia of entering adulthood? Or, are you coping with distressing thoughts about taking on adult responsibilities? If so, Charlie Health may be able to help you.

Our personalized intensive outpatient program provides mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families dealing with a variety of struggles, including phobias around emerging adulthood. In our program, you will be matched with a trauma-informed therapist who meets your specific needs, and connected with a group of peers from similar backgrounds who face similar struggles to help you remember you are not alone. 

Coping with trauma can be very difficult, but with trauma-informed care and a supportive community, you can push forward, grow, and even thrive after trauma. Help is here now. We're available 24/7 to get you started on your healing journey. 

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