What Is Adolescence Development;Why We Need To Study It

The first conceptualization of adolescence Development occurred in G. Stanley Hall’s monumental two-volume work. Adolescence, published in 1904. Hall’s work coincided with increasing popular concern about teenage individuals. Growing in the early 1900s. this concern exploded after World War I when youthful soldiers returned from the front disillusioned with the world their elders had handed them. Emphasis on youth was strong in the 1920s and it became clear that the young were a separate generation. The decade of the 1960s was again a time when youth activities were prominent, when the “under 30” generation became a subject of popular concern. During this latter decade research on adolescence came into its own.


The view of adolescence as change and crisis received formal recognition with the work of Erik Erikson. His Childhood and society proposed that the major event of adolescence was an “identity crisis.” He defined an identity crisis as a time of searching for a new sense of self that encompassed all that one had been as well as what one would become. An identity crisis might be mild or acute, but generally Erikson characterized this time of self-searching as one of anxiety and confusion.


Biologically oriented scientists have documented the physical growth and sexual maturation that occurs at the beginning of the teen years (give or take a year or two). At this time, young people rather quickly shoot up several inches in height. This “growth spurt” occurs simultaneously with the beginning of sexual maturation, during which time reproductive organs develop and the sexual attributes that will characterize youth as men and women occur. Biological change in early adolescence is dramatic and may have resounding implications for other aspects of development.

The impact of biological development is seen in the studies of early-and late-maturing boys and girls whose timetable for growth is out of synchrony with a majority of their peers. Both early- and late-maturing boys and girls show evidence of psychological and social differences from their peers, but the evidence in the case of boys is more clear-cut. For example, boys who mature early often have an advantage over other boys that lasts through adolescence and early adulthood. They demonstrate social poise, leadership potential, and a variety of other valued characteristics. Latc-matunng boys, however, arc often at a disadvantage side by side with their peers. They are often aggressive, irresponsible, and dependent all at the same time. Although these differences even out. and in some cases reverse themselves later in life, the impact of biological development is clearly seen in these cases where young people arc not in accord with the normative timetable.


The study of cognitive development in adolescence has relied heavily on the theoretical work of Jean Piaget. Piaget saw children and adolescents as moving through cognitive stages. At each stage, thinking patterns are shaped by a particular view of reality. The stage of cognitive development associated with adolescence he called “formal operations.” Thinking now becomes abstract and hypothetical. Adolescents become able to distinguish inner feelings from outer events and to explore subjective and objective worlds with greater range.

The stage of formal operations, according to Piaget, opens up wider possibilities for adolescents and affects their psychological and social development. Adolescents arc now able to imagine “being in love” and. as a consequence, fall in love with all the emotional pangs attendant on this state. Adolescents can also imagine ideal worlds better than their own. and thus become impatient with the fallibility of the real world. Adolescents now have the capacity to imagine how they appear to others, and their ability to see their own reflection (however distorted) in the eyes of others increases their self-consciousncss. Cognitive changes may also account for psychological and social changes in adolescence and they may predispose some young people to experience a “crisis” of self-understanding.

Other researchers arc less insistent on the dramatic nature of cognitive change than Piaget. They argue that change is gradual, occurring over time, and that psychological changes may be phased in at different times as young people mature. Although many psychologists arc not strongly impressed with the dramatic nature of change, they nonetheless rely on Piaget’s stages as guideposts for exploring adolcsccnt cognitive development.


Other theorists attribute the criscs to different causes Erik Erikson places the “identity crisis” in ccnter stage Harry Stack Sullivan saw adolescent conflicts as emerging when young people sought to develop relationships first with same-sex and later with other-sex peers. Loevinger has desenbed adolescence as a time in which young people struggle to reconcile new contradictions introduced by their increased awareness of self and others.

Many psychologists, however, have noted that the personality growth may not show any of these signs of struggle. It is a moot point whether the complacency of many adolescents is due to succcssful adaptation to their social setting or to avoidance of important psychological issues. It is dear, however, that many adolescents experience tranquillity rather than tumult as they shape a view of themselves during adolescence and beyond.


The area of moral development in adolescence became prominent with the work of LawTcnce Kohlberg in the 1960s. Kohlberg stated that every adolescent is a philosopher and has a certain orientation to the world that shapes moral decisions and consequent behavior. Building on the cognitive work of Piaget. Kohlberg developed a model of moral development: As adolescents move into the cognitive stage of formal operations, they are also equipped to move from the conventional to the postconvcn-tional moral stage. In the conventional stage, young people learn to follow the rules of their community and society, honoring traditional customs and law*. In the postconventional stage they move beyond the laws of their society to consider what is best for people at large. In the postconventional stage moral decisions are based on principle.

The study of cognitive, personal, and moral growth has been strongly influenced by the work of important theorists such as Freud. Erikson. Piaget, and Kohlberg. In each of these areas, models of development have been constructed that imply that adolescent growth is largely an individual matter, motivated by forces within the young person. With the exception of Sullivan, most theorists in these areas have paid little attention to the social environment or the cultural experience of the adolescent.


In the study of sexual development and behavior, psychologists and other social scientists enter social cultural arenas Sexual behavior is usually a social act. involving other* as well as self. In most societies sexual behavior is governed by strong cultural norms and expectations that vary from culture to culture, or within social groups and geographic regions of a single culture.

In our own culture, adolescent sexuality has assumed a special significance. Adolescents mature sexually in the early teen years, developing capacity for sexual intercourse Young people are then faced with two sets of conflicting norms More recent ones condone youthful sexual activity under certain conditions. Older, more entrenched norms, how* ever, forbid adolescent sexual activity. As a result, adolescents may experience ambivalence about sexual expression owing to conflicting norms. The concurrent maturation of sexual capacities and the injunctions against sexual expression create tension. For many adults, as well as young people, adolescent sexuality thus comes to symbolize the changes occurring in adolescence.

Two prominent interpretations of adolescent sexual behavior take opposite points of v»cw m desenbmg the causes of sexual behavior and explaining differences in adolescent sexual experience between males and females One is that of Freud: the other is that of W. Simon and J. H. Gagnon The Freudian viewpoint argues that adolescent sexual behavior i\ a result of increasingly strong inner drives not yet channeled and controlled These drives arc postulated to be stronger in males than in females The fact that traditionally there has been more and earlier male sexual activity is used to support this point of view Simon and Gagnon, however, argue that sexuality is not a response to inner drives but rather a learned response to cultural expectations. For example, in our socicty people expect hoys to be sexual and they become so. People expect girls, in contrast, to be more interested in love than sex. and so girls meet these expectations. Consequently, each sex follows a cultural script and learns the behaviors expected by their culture.


Adolescent development is affected by young people’s experience in their families, with their peers, and in the schools. Each setting has an impact on whether changes occurring in adolescence result in positive or negative developments for the individual and society at large.


Adolescent peer groups are a source of popular concern. Adults fear that peers will lead young people astray und that adult influence will wane as peers become more important In general, this has not been substantiated by research. For most adolescents, the family influence surpasses peer influence on major questions throughout this developmental period.

In general, adolescents benefit in a number of ways from association with their peer group. First, friends their own age give adolescents a place to develop their social skills and provide a buffer against the alone-ness often experienced during the teen years. Second, the peer group provides a setting, first with same-scx friends and later with opposite-sex pairings, in which they explore their own identity and discover who they arc. Finally, although the peer group exacts conformity to Us own standards, particularly in the early teens, the group provides an anchorage for adolescents as they move from dependence on their family to adult independence.


In the school setting much of peer group activity is most evident, for particularly in the middle teens, the school becomes the life setting of adolescents. Different peer groups may be identified in terms of their identification with school as well as their intellectual or social orientation For each peer group, then, school will have a different meaning and affect their development in different ways.

Students who are not school-oriented fall into two groups, depending on whether their orientation is more intellectual or social. In some schools there ts a small group of intellectual students who do not identify with the school or the adult establishment. These arc often the rebels or philosophers. A larger group of nonschool-idcntificd youth have a social orientation. They spend time together for social reasons and may prompt each other to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and crime.

In the same suburban high school where the “jocks” reigned, the non-school-identification students were the “burn-outs.” They too had their own territory, controlled the flow of marijuana, and spoke only with each other Their standards were different from the jocks and they chose to thumb their noses at mainstream practices. Other students who identified with neither the jocks nor the burn-outs were in between and developed their own less distinctive orientation.

by Abdullah Sam
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