26 to 29: The New Formative Years of a Child’s Development

Khuram Malik
Jun 29, 2018 · 18 min read

They say children make up their mind about whether they believe in God or not by the time they’re 12 years old. They’re usually quite clear about their sexual identity and orientation by that age too according to some studies. They don’t always know exactly what it is they’re feeling; they can’t always verbalise it, but sub-consciously, for most children, those beliefs are formed and set in stone for the rest of their lives from this point on.

The World-Health Organisation states:

“Early child development (ECD) encompasses physical, socio-emotional, cognitive and motor development between 0–8 years of age.”

I grew up accustomed to this kind of thinking as well. That most of our development as human beings takes place well before we leave school, and I still think that is largely still true, because the operative word here is ‘human’. We’re well developed as humans maybe as early as 12 (or as late as, if you feel differently). We can speak, write, make full use of our motor functions and we’re much more aware of our own emotions and those of others by that age.

That’s human development covered, but what about our development as an individual, especially a self-actualised individual capable of self-directing towards a meaningful and fulfilled life?

This is where I feel conventional thinking falls short and inadvertently overlooks what I believe are a child’s most important years: Their mid-to-late twenties, and yes, I use the word “child” purposefully.

A Childhood Well-Mapped

Most children in Western societies experience pretty much the same path into their mid-twenties. I.e. Starting with some form of pre-school and continuing their education through to University.

The actual knowledge they acquire and the style in which it is delivered may vary from country to country (and from child to child), but one thing that is universally true is that, at most, the only major life decision a child has to make up until that point in their lives is which University to go to and what subject to study.

Even then, the child gets a generous amount of input from teachers, parents and elders in general.

Let’s take the example of the average person from a middle class family born in the UK or USA in the 90s.

By the time this person (no longer a seen as a child at 18 and above) is ready for University by virtue of their age and intellect, from an emotional point of view, this young person has had no prior experience in taking full responsibility for major life decisions.

This young person has had no practice in dealing with the consequences of their decisions in relation to major life choices and very little time or space to really get to know themselves. Most people in this category have no real clarity on what it is that will give them true meaning and fulfilment; something that is generally learned through trial and error as a process of getting to know oneself.

Without this experience they have no critical thinking tools with which to self-direct.

All they’ve learned at this point is the idea that if they don’t get exceedingly good grades or get into the University they really want to, they will never be able to live the life they dream of. Thus far, in terms of their mental and emotional development, what they’ve really learned is that “failure is final”.

This is the first in a series of events that causes the child to stop dreaming. Big things and big ambitions are often risky — the probability of failure can be quite high, but given that the fear of failure becomes much more heightened at this point, it becomes a permanent part of the child’s psychology and plays a major role in inhibiting their choices going forward. It constricts their decision making to “safe” choices.

There is something to be said about dating and relationships however. By the time they start University, a large percentage of children have usually suffered their first heartbreak, if only minor. Given that the general trend in society is now to marry later and later, and given the economic pressures associated with marrying early, relationships tend not to be given as much weight in the early years in comparison to the career path.

That said, heartbreaks only serve to further inhibit the child’s ability to dream. The pain results in a certain guardedness that limits vulnerability. Without vulnerability one cannot have truly fulfilling experiences and without fuller experiences one becomes unaware of the great possibilities of one’s own potential and what life has to offer in general. Thus, by default — and through no fault of their own — the child chooses to dream smaller and smaller — safer and safer.

The Age of Pre-Crises

During University (or soon thereafter) begins the age of pre-crisis. In this comes a realisation for the child that their field of study might not be optimal for what they want out of life.

83% of College graduates do not get a job in their field of study
(source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York)

Up until now the child has been sold the idea — through the promise of good grades and a great education— that they can live a life of meaning and fulfilment so long as they work hard and do their best. Yet, despite trying their best, most children find they’re unable to get the job of their dreams with an ideal employer, and even if they do somehow land the job of their dreams, they quickly find it lacks the fulfilment and meaning they‘ve been seeking all along.

So the child puts this down to a temporary “blip” and has faith that good things are just around the corner and consequently makes a conscious decision to spend some time and newfound disposable income making up for a hard earned education. This usually involves travel to new sights and new countries, maybe a nice car and a dabble in new hobbies. The aim here for the child is to reward themselves for the hard work and stress of school and to experience the best of what they think is what “adults” experience.

Before they know it, they’re already 24 years old and while there may have been some progress career wise most are unable to sustain a high-flying lifestyle of leisure and luxury because the economics simply don’t allow it. Besides, they need to start thinking more seriously about their future.

Somewhere also in this timespan, the young person usually begins — due to the habits of, and the modus operandi of social media — to replicate a more refined and nuanced, “edited” version of themselves on social media in relation to their offline lives. This person presents, to everyone they meet, a projection of who they want to be but not who they really are.

There’s a disconnect from within and a lack of authenticity; one that doesn’t come from a place of malice or an intent to deceive but simply that, inside is a confused soul that is masked with a thin veneer of “I have got it together”. Most peers can’t tell the difference between who is operating with authenticity and who isn’t, not least because they’re usually going through the same struggle themselves.

A Phase Like Rory

By 26 the child has usually experienced their first serious heartbreak, maybe even a car crash of an engagement and the shining career prospects seem even harder to reach than they did before. Hope dwindles and emotional fatigue begins to set in.

Many twenty-somethings that I have personally spoken to describe this experience and feeling as if they are “broken in two”.

This is the age at which young pop stars and celebrities (e.g Britney Spears) often experience very public meltdowns. This is the age at which Muhammad Ali was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport.

This is the first, real crisis. This is when healing is required but rarely found.

Up until now fear was inhibiting fulfilment but meaning was still being sought, but now they have a new problem: A real crisis. Now they’re truly lost and don't know what to do with themselves. None of the advice given by elders or peers helps and by this point; even if only subconsciously the child begins to realise that even the elders don't have this figured out, and the child no longer knows who to turn to.

The child usually has enough “data” to arrive to the conclusion that they probably shouldn’t give as much importance to mainstream advice and people of “experience” as they had once thought.

If the child is from a religious upbringing or conservative background this is usually when they exhibit the height of their rebellion and relative moral decline against their own former values. This is an all out rejection of everything they’ve been taught to believe in.

Given that the child has not been equipped with the requisite critical thinking tools to help themselves heal, the child has to resort to whatever else is readily available as part of the intention to heal. The first instinct is to find ways to cope with their “failure” which can manifest in multiple ways such as more “distractions” with even more vigour than before.

This could be as basic as working longer hours, spending more time at the gym, going out more or it could be a little more intense such as binge-watching TV shows for whole weekends, sleeping longer hours or just spending an unhealthy amount of time on social media as a few examples of many. This is where signs that would often be associated with Mental Health disorders can begin to manifest themselves more outwardly.

It might even be health issues or a poor choice of friends, or in more serious cases, addictions. In fact the term addictions should be considered in its broadest sense. The need to be constantly ill, the need to be loved, to be adored, to be given attention, even the constant need for confrontation is an addiction. Mostly at this point they’re seeking healing and are desperate to be nurtured.

If the child comes from a troubled childhood, this crisis phase can be more extreme. From a dabble in recreational drugs or an addiction to alcohol to finding more direct ways to self-sabotage or self-harm. The extent to which the healing is required depends largely on their childhood and the magnitude of the crisis.

Rory at the desk of the local paper in her hometown (Credit: IMDB)

Take for example the Netflix show Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life. Although based on a fictitious character, if you’ve seen the follow up to the original Gilmore Girls show then you may have picked up on the parallels. Although Rory is slightly older at this point, her trajectory appears to follow the same pattern.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead) It is in this phase of her life in which Rory has a short and impromptu sexual encounter (which subsequently mortifies her), moves back in with her mum after struggling to find a job that’s worthy of her Yale pedigree, where we learn she has gone from being everyone’s “dream girl” to being the “other woman” to her former, very wealthy boyfriend , and when she chooses to work on the — now defunct — local paper.

If you’ve seen the original TV series, you’ll understand why this behaviour is so uncharacteristic for Rory. If you haven’t — I’ll explain briefly. Rory is a girl that’s been raised to be independent and go after what she wants, while also being instilled with reasonably conservative values. She’s a bright, hard working girl that gives the utmost importance to her education and has good financial backing from her grandparents. Her lifelong dream is to go to Harvard University and then to become a world-class journalist. She is the child that shows the greatest promise in her town. By 30 her life is nothing like what she and her elders thought it would be however.

Rory has become a “child in crisis”.

The First Act of Self-Determination

The average child in their mid-twenties is often a confused soul on the inside increasingly gripped by fear and a substantial amount of social anxiety that is well masked on the outside. This is afterall an art that most children are taught to practice quite well by this age.

So the child starts to seek remedies since by now (usually a year or so on) the thirst for distraction is somewhat satiated. If they’re lucky, they’ll find reassuring and inspirational advice from a critical thinker. This might be in the form of a book, a seminar, an online video or someone they know personally.

If they’re unlucky, they’ll find people that take advantage of their confusion and vulnerability.

Either way, oddly enough, this is all it takes to give them enough courage to exact their first act of self-determination.

If this is a child that is employed, they might try their first serious stint at entrepreneurship, or if they work for a large corporate they might try their hand at working for a start-up. For others, it might be a complete change in career paths altogether, I.e. a completely different field or industry. For the rest, it might be a move to a new country, or if this child is married it might be the first act of asserting themselves more in the relationship. Whatever the act, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bold or ambitious and is often not considered a big deal for onlookers, but it is often incredibly significant for the child themselves.

(Interestingly it’s around about at this age that JK Rowling started writing Harry Potter.)

This act — metaphorically speaking — for the child, is the equivalent of jumping off a large ship or luxury cruise liner and into a small lifeboat.

The large ship represents the status quo and all the ideas and beliefs that got the child up to this point — the small lifeboat represents a new beginning. A new awakening. The ship is where safety and ordinary life is. The lifeboat presents great risk but it also promises purpose, meaning and fulfilment.

Sink, Swim or U-Turn

At first, this new journey is terribly exciting. It’s really scary too, but a ‘good’ scary. Like an adrenaline rush kind of scary. Though it’s the first time the child feels in control in quite a while, the lifeboat presents an inevitable problem: It’s easily unsettled by giant waves. At first, the waves are likely to be quite small and easy enough to manage, but not so much the larger waves, I.e. when truly going “against the grain”.

The child understands that this hardship is inevitable and part of the journey, but as time goes on, the waves become so big they threaten the lifeboat altogether as does their waning spiritual willpower since going against the grain can be spiritually exhausting. Thus with the large waves and depleted willpower, eventually they reach a critical juncture which becomes one of the greatest test of their lives. Some recognise this as a test consciously, others don’t. Regardless, it’s at this point the child has to face their deepest (and maybe darkest) truths:- What it is that they really want from life and whether they’re willing to continue making the sacrifice to achieve it.

It’s at around this age that Muhammad Ali had the biggest fight of his career, the same age (approximately) at which Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple and the same age at which JK Rowling had her book rejected.

Thus the child is forced to face their three inevitable options where they must make a promise to themselves for better or for worse:-

  1. Sink into the ocean because the ship has drifted too far away and they don’t have the strength or courage to swim
  2. Make a complete U-turn and get back onto the “safe ship”
  3. Keep swimming and have faith they will overcome

If they’re terribly unlucky, they will sink. Unfortunate examples of this are pop stars that either commit suicide or die from a drug overdose despite having done rehab (in such cases rehab is often the act of self-determination).

As per the cultural meme:-

The 27 Club is a list of popular musicians, artists, or actors who died at age twenty-seven. It remains a cultural meme, documenting the deaths of celebrities, some noted for their high-risk lifestyles. (Source: Wikipedia)

Note: “sinking” doesn’t necessarily denote death. It could just mean a severe downward spiral to a much more stunted form of existence. This could be severe depression or severe co-dependence — as a simple example.

If the child is just unlucky (but not terribly unlucky), the universe will present to them a path of least resistance which they will use to find their way back to the safe ship to go back to a life of carried adolescence I.e. the inner child never matures into a real “grown-up” that can self-direct and self-determine and lacks an authentic connection with the rest of their being. This becomes a person that misses out on the best of their own truths. This child has some growth but it’s not as holistic or as wholesome as it could be.

This is the child that dabbles in Entrepreneurship for a year or two and then goes back to a full time job, or like Rory, who leaves the nest but then returns back home to her mum. In fact, in many cases, this is the child that never fully embraced the lifeboat in the first place. They certainly jumped onto it, but the boat always remained attached to the large ship. These are the people that stay home despite being away from home, such as when the child is at university. I.e. emotionally they’re still connected to the large ship and never really broke away, never fully committed to the lifeboat, even though it seems that way to the onlooker.

It’s a resignation to an ordinary life. A life in which people become incredibly co-dependent, favour routine, resist change vehemently and find distractions for the rest of their lives — and — have perfectly “reasonable” rationalisations for doing so in their own minds. Again, because the inner child lacks an authentic connection with the rest of their outer being. They mature outwardly but inwardly the child no longer grows, hence terms such as “man-child”.

[I want to make clear here, that I have nothing against a full-time job or living with parents past a certain age. My point is simply that the child makes a U-turn on their own act of self-determination.]

As for the “distractions” they may be as simple as shopping or continually finding something to improve around the house, or always attending to the crises of their own children. It’s a distraction that seems innocent enough (as it were) on the surface, but is in fact driven by something more serious underneath.

If the universe still cares to favour them, they may experience more crises later in life that will throw them off the ship once again where they’ll be faced with the ‘three inevitable options’ once again. If not, they’ll be left alone and they’ll live a life being very careful not to bash into the walls, rock the boat too much and do the best to maintain a familiar life.

For the child that is lucky they will either find the courage to continue deep from within, or they’ll have a mentor that will forcibly keep them on the “straight and narrow” or the ship will just have drifted too far away that they can’t find a path of least resistance back and they’re determined enough at least to not sink — or some combination or permutation of the above. Either way, their only choice is to keep on swimming.

A good example of this is when Muhammad Ali was in the ring with George Foreman in his fight in Africa and his internal dialogue (as we know from his biography) was such that he had to tell himself in the ring that if he didn’t carry on fighting all the way, his defeat would be incredibly humiliating since he himself was largely responsible for the media storm and attention surrounding the event.

During and after the greatest test of their lives at the time, they go through a metamorphosis where the inner child becomes a Butterfly. They’re still able to remain young at heart but the inner child is well nurtured and well alive and has a true and authentic connection with their whole being. These self-actualised individuals — through their authenticity and ability to self-direct — become natural leaders, most of which also exude magnetism and an authentic charm. They’re the outliers that go onto leave their indelible mark on the world. These are such as the Muhammad Ali’s, the Steve Jobs and the JK Rowlings of our modern times.

Also — though I do not believe in or place faith in Astrology — there is an astrological phenomenon that is interesting to note that describes this process well — known as Saturn Returns.

The phenomenon is described by Western astrologers as influencing a person’s life development at roughly 29.5 year intervals[citation needed], though the planetary influence may be felt for a few years before the exact conjunction, and variable orbits of the planets can also make the time period longer or shorter[citation needed]. These intervals or “returns” coincide with the approximate time it takes the planet Saturn to make one orbit around the sun, roughly 29.5 years. Western astrologers believe that, as Saturn “returns” to the degree in its orbit occupied at the time of birth, a person crosses over a major threshold and enters the next stage of life. With the first Saturn return, a person leaves youth behind and enters adulthood. (source: Wikipedia)

It’s not an easy ride even after this metamorphosis for the self-actualised adult. There’ll always be tests and on-going crises, but this authentic connection, the feeling of purpose and ability to be more in touch with their own intuition and own truths becomes like a muscle that gets stronger for them. The ability to think critically becomes more and more refined over time.

These are the people that have a strong sense of purpose, vision and sense of direction in life. They understand their relationship with destiny and take full responsibility for carving out their own fate. These are people that know very well what they want and consistently achieve and accomplish.

Of course, none of this is intended as a hard and fast set of rules. It’s not an exact science. Some children experience their first crisis much sooner; perhaps the death of a loved one, war, famine, emigration etc etc. Others experience their first crisis much later in life, plus, the gap between the first crisis and the first act of determination can also vary quite greatly in timespan. The mileage — naturally — varies from child to child, but the general pattern seems to be largely the same.

The question, however, arises that: Why is this pattern so universal and how can such a set of generalisations be believed and accepted so readily?

To which I proffer the following: If we can believe in and— even — encourage and setup the structures to give every child a predictable path of growth; the same general structures of pre-school, middle school, high school, college/University etc and if the general parameters of the approach to teaching and parenting share common patterns and structures, then logic would dictate that it is not unreasonable to assume that their life will play out and follow a fairly predictable pattern.

Why does all of this even matter?

For the individual when the critical thinking foundations that well-equip the individual are not in place then — through no fault of their own — , (I strongly believe) it significantly increases their susceptibility to mental health issues.

In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety disorder, more than 1 million cases of addiction and almost 4 million cases of mood disorders, including bipolar disorder, in the UK. (source: Mental Health Foundation)

In turn, this has led to a rising mental health epidemic.

Nearly half (43.4%) of adults think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life (35.2% of men and 51.2% of women). A fifth of men (19.5%) and a third of women (33.7%) have had diagnoses confirmed by professionals. (source: Mental Health Foundation)

This — in turn — has multiple implications.

For one people that enter the workplace that aren’t fully self-actualised compromise organisational productivity. Staff turnover increases, the burden of employee training increases and most importantly innovative and creative ideas don’t rise ground up the way they should. This means an organisation that has the potential to achieve maximum impact — is unable to actualise its ability to do so.

Employers find it harder and harder to find the “right staff” from a growing pool of graduates. Of course, this creates dis-enchantment for both sides — the prospective employer and the prospective employee. Plus, with a compromised ability to achieve maximum impact across a broad spectrum of organisations and businesses, this has an impact on the economy as a whole as well. The nation becomes less innovative as a whole and is unable to lead — technologically or otherwise.

From a macro-economic perspective the rise in mental health cases overburdens the economy where healthcare is free, and overburdens the individual financially where it isn’t. Either way, it has an adverse financial impact one families one way or another.

With a lower ratio of self-actualised individuals Entrepreneurship also dwindles in the nation as a whole and since it has been widely reported in multiple places that the wealthiest nations are those that foster Entrepreneurship, the nation becomes more impoverished.

For the family unit and relationships in general, it can accelerate the increase in collapse of the family unit, thus further burdening state and social services and, again, in turn burdening the economy and further adding to the mental health crisis creating a vicious cycle.

For better or for worse, as a whole, this leads to a less happier nation and that means we lose an absolute pre-requisite for a prosperous society.

The implications are endless and the effects are profound and if we’re to take anything from this, we must recognise that focusing on the formative years of a child’s development is a good place to start for building a prosperous society.

I want to benefit organisations and people with this insight around the globe. If you’d like to help me on my journey, please write to me on LinkedIn.

If you are an organisation and feel you could benefit from the insight in this post, please visit this page and arrange to speak to me via the “Contact Us” page.

Sources and Footnotes
- World Health Organisation — Early Child Development
- Daily Mail — Crying Girl
- Mental Health Foundation — 2016 stats

Khuram Malik

Written by

Behavioural Strategist, Author and Podcast Host.

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