Adolescent development in context

July 28, 2011

Biological Changes

Adolescence marks the most rapid and significant biological changes throughout the life span with the exception of infancy. Puberty and menarche (see entries in this encyclopedia) end with the ability to reproduce and the appearance of a physical adult form. The main physical manifestations of these changes are a dramatic growth in height and weight, further development of the gonads or sex glands (i.e., ovaries in females), growth of secondary sex characteristics (e.g., breasts, pubic hair, sex organs), changes in the distribution of fat and muscle in the body, and increased tolerance for exercise resulting from improved circulation and respiration. The changes in appearance evoke mixed reactions from the teenager about herself and mark critical shifts in family relationships, peer relationships, and societal expectations (see below).

Cognitive Changes

There are important changes in cognitive functioning during adolescence that have far-reaching implications for achievement and interpersonal relationships. Advanced reasoning abilities emerge and teens become increasingly capable of abstract and logical thought. They are able to consider multiple hypothetical outcomes and view events from perspectives other than their own, although shifts in emotions may impair their judgment at times. Teens acquire a greater capacity to think in a multidimensional way rather than being limited to a single issue, and they begin to think more about the process of thinking or metacognition. However, adolescence also brings a heightened focus on the self, or egocentrism, and the belief that one’s own experiences are unique. These cognitive changes may lead to increased conflict in the family as youth become increasingly aware of their parents’ limitations. Youth typically assume they are immortal and invulnerable, and these beliefs have been implicated in elevated risk-taking behavior, such as unprotected sexual activity and substance use.

Social Changes

Social relationships change in distinct ways during adolescence. It is common for teenagers to evoke complex reactions from parents, peers, and society, especially with the development of secondary sex characteristics and need for increased autonomy. There is a shift in focus from parental relationships to greater intimacy with peers. Peer groups become larger and more complex during adolescence, and they form around similar interests (e.g., hobbies, sports teams). Adolescents may adopt the values of their peers, but there is extensive evidence to suggest that teens assume transient peer values such as music, fashion, clothes, and makeup, but not more rooted beliefs such as antisocial behavior or political views. Romantic relationships increase in significance with age with early romantic feelings characterized by distant crushes developing into intimate adult-like relationships in later adolescence. Developing sexual interests and impulses are linked to increases in hormones (estrogen and testosterone) and other elements in the adolescents’ social context. The emergence of close social ties is an important developmental milestone during adolescence and failure to achieve close interpersonal relationships is associated with distress.

Families play a central role in helping youth traverse the second decade of life. Family relationships shift with the transformation of the parent-child relationship. Parental control over adolescent behavior is more limited, and there is a redefinition of the boundaries between autonomy and connectedness among family members. A key challenge for the family during this transition is to permit individuation and identity exploration and at the same time stay connected to one another. Autonomy and connectedness in the family may be viewed along a continuum with either end leading to impaired adolescent development. When there is too much autonomy or chaos, reliable parental figures are absent, and teens seek a secure environment outside the home, for example, among peers by joining a gang. At the other extreme are families who maintain rigid roles and relationships, adhere unbendingly to rules, and show little tolerance for deviance. Adolescent identity formation is compromised because there is minimal acceptance of self-expression, differing opinions, and independence.

Optimal adolescent development occurs in the context of supportive and nurturing family relationships, parental flexibility and adaptability to the individuation process, tolerance for role experimentation and confusion, and the transformation of the parent-child relationship to a more equal give-and-take. Parents must continue to set firm and consistent limits and follow through on consequences, but discipline is most effective in the context of a warm and loving parent-adolescent relationship. There is a popular belief that adolescence is a time of “storm and stress,” when family relationships become highly argumentative and hostile. Some conflicts can positively facilitate the process of redefining rules, roles, and relationships, but most families do not experience significant disagreement. Indeed, most adolescents and parents successfully modify and renegotiate their relationship to accommodate the adolescent’s increasing maturity. Of note, adolescents report that parents remain the most important confidants during this transitional period.

Psychological Changes

There are unique psychological changes that take place during the second decade of life. Youth begin to question and formulate new identities and definitions of the self. They seek out novel experiences in order to explore different options, experiment with diverse roles and values, identify potential role models, and test the limits of their newfound autonomy. Adolescents look for ways to separate and individuate while at the same time feel pulled to remain a child. As a result, youth will often vacillate between rebelliousness and dependence. The desire for individuation increases with age, but all youth continue to yearn for closeness with others including their families.

Changes in emotional development have important implications for future functioning. Teens experience mood swings from happiness to sadness and may be unfamiliar with how to adapt to these shifts. During adolescence, the first gender disparity in rates of depression emerges, with teenage girls reporting significantly more depression than boys. Explanations for this increase include hormonal changes, increased cognitive processing and the tendency to compare one’s self to others, greater sensitivity to life events and stressors, and negative perceptions of body image. Some girls have difficulty adapting to their altered appearance as they mature, specifically around normal weight gain during puberty. Girls gain on average 40 lb over the course of adolescence, and this increase sometimes leads to eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Cultural Issues

Many cultures do not have an “adolescence” or a transition period between childhood and adulthood. In agrarian societies, for example, girls begin to work in the home at a very young age observing their mothers and performing the adult roles they will eventually assume. On the other hand, some cultures mark the transition to adulthood using unique rituals or rites of passage. For example, in Jewish tradition, a girl performs a series of rituals as part of her Bat Mitzvah that culminate in her becoming a “woman.” As another example, in many

Latino communities, girls are initiated into adulthood through a coming-out ceremony called the Quinceanera. These examples illustrate the importance of cultural influences on adolescent development. Some theorists suggest that youth need an event to demarcate the transition to adulthood, and they hypothesize that the absence of socially sanctioned “rites of passage” in America explains the growing involvement of youth in gang activity where initiation rituals are enacted.

Legal Issues

The second decade of life is fraught with confusing messages about the transition to adulthood. Consider, for example, the laws that allow youth to consent for health care at age 12, but drive at age 16. They are permitted to watch R-rated movies at age 17, but they must be 18 years old to vote. Moreover, they are not allowed to drink alcohol until age 21. These inconsistent messages about youth’s decision-making ability, maturity, and adult status are confusing and unsettling.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. They will shape the future of our society, and they will determine our role and status in the world. Investing in our nation’s youth will yield significant benefits, while not investing in them will have far-reaching consequences. Indeed, America has devoted few resources to nurture our young people, and it shows. The United States has the highest death rate among youth than any other developed nation. Access to drugs, alcohol, guns, and cars have produced high morbidity and mortality rates among adolescents. Our mass media bombards youth with positive images of risk behavior, violence, and unbridled pleasures without corresponding messages about the need for responsibility to others and productive roles in society. Institutional opportunities to learn how to function in adult roles are limited in scope and restricted to certain populations, and there are few chances to achieve outside the mainstream (e.g., those without a college degree, poor). In sum, we have a significant challenge ahead of us to help youth achieve their full potential, but it can be done. Our future depends on it.

SEE ALSO: Child abuse, Environment, Menarche, Puberty, Sexual abuse, Socioeconomic status, Substance use


  • contexts of adolescents

Category: Adolescence