Adolescence is a transitory stage from childhood to adulthood, characterized by significant physical, emotional and social changes. Developmentalists used to view adolescence as a tumultuous stage due to stress of individuals who want to become an adult long before becoming one. But now, a changing perspective is taking place. Adolescence is no longer a stage in life that is full of conflict but one that is full of opportunities to become a better person. Hereditary and environmental factors play an important role in making sure such opportunities are maximized. These factors are crucial in determining how an individual goes through adolescence.
Puberty is noted with a surge in hormone production and the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics, causing a number of physical changes (Aacap & Pruitt, 1999). For example, girls begin to develop breast buds, grow hairs on pubic area, legs and armpits, start to menstruate, develop wider hips and grow in height. Boys, on the other hand, may begin to experience enlargement of the adam’s apple, testicles and scrotum, develop facial hairs as well as on the pubic area, armpits, legs and chest, develop deeper voice and also grow in height.
Puberty timetable, as well as the characteristics developed during this stage is influenced primarily by heredity, although environmental factors also contribute such as diet and exercise. The aforesaid physical changes are triggered by the pituitary gland, as the hormonal balance leans towards an adult state. The pituitary glands secrete hormones, such as testosterone for the boys or estrogen and progesterone for the girls.
The major landmark of puberty for the boys is the first ejaculation and menarche for the girls. The age of menarche depends on heredity though the girl’s diet and lifestyle are determinants, as well. To experience menarche, a girl must attain a certain level of body fat. So a girl with a high-fat diet and lives a sedentary lifestyle menstruates earlier relative to a girl with low-fat diet and exercise regularly. Girls who have poor nutrition or experience physical labor at an early age are expected to begin menstruating at later years.
During adolescence, cognitive development is characterized by the ability to think methodically in analyzing all the relationships in a given problem (McCormick, & Pressley, 2007). However, this development takes time and varies from one adolescent to the other. Some may apply logical thinking in school work before they can analyze their personal lives in the same manner. Adolescents begin to see their world in more complex ways which can influence their decision making either in a negative or a positive way.
Adolescents should be at what Jean Piaget called “formal operations” stage where they experience the need to think independently and efficiently, more advance and complex. There are five ways that this ability manifests: (1) to think of possibilities not limited to what is real; (2) to think about abstract ideas; (3) to think about the process of thinking itself; (4) to think at multidimensionality of things rather than to focus at a single issue; and (5) to see things as relative rather than absolute.
It is widely accepted that the intellectual capacity is determined by heredity and environment. Studies about intellectual development during adolescence in the field of developmental neuroscience show that “significant growth and significant change in multiple regions of the prefrontal cortex throughout the course of adolescence, especially with respect to process to myelination and synaptic pruning (both of which increase the efficiency of information processing),” (Steinberg, 2005)
To make the most out of these changes, they must be complemented by a positive environment for healthy cognitive development. Adolescents should be encouraged to join discussion about a variety of topics, issues and current events. They should be allowed to think on their own and to share their ideas with others. Stimulating them to think about future possibilities and guiding them towards their goal allow them to even out the wrong decisions they make.
Social, Moral and Personality Development
Individuals suffer from identity crisis during adolescence. According to Erik Erikson’s Theory of Identity Development, identity crisis is the most important characteristic of adolescents (Erikson, 1968). Although cultures define a person’s identity and thus varies from one culture to another, the accomplishment of this development task has a common denominator for all cultures.
Core to his theory is for the adolescent to establish an “ego-identity” and to avoid “role confusion” and “identity confusion”. A sense of identity in occupation, sex roles, politics and religion must be developed during adolescence. The ego-identity changes constantly as an individual acquires new experience and information through social interaction.
According to Erikson, adolescents have to make an account of his/her assets and liabilities and what to make out of them. Adolescents have to find their own identity by examining their past, present and future linked together. However, this is difficult as the past has lost the attachment of family and community tradition, the present is occupied by social change and the future has become more unpredictable.
The role of peers during this period is highlighted as they give the sense of acceptance to the adolescent seeking for social approval. Those who are able to receive positive feedback and encouragement turn out to have a strong sense of who he/she is and a feeling of independence and control. Those who fail to find his/her identity are likely to be insecure and confused about themselves and the future.
For Robert Havighurst, individuals have to acquire developmental tasks defined as skills, knowledge, functions and attitudes (Turner, 1996). They are acquired through physical maturation, social expectations and personal efforts. Achieving these development tasks lead to happiness and success with later harder tasks while failure in a given developmental task result to lack of adjustment, increase anxiety, social disapproval and helplessness to manage more difficult tasks to come.
Some of the developmental tasks are need to be achieved within a time limit which Havighurst called “teachable moment.” If the task is not mastered during this time, it becomes harder, if not impossible to accomplish. Society plays an important role by providing the socializing agents, as well as the method of reinforcement and punishment, to allow the individual to learn the developmental tasks according to their proper age levels.
According to Havighurst, for adolescents aged 12 to 20 years old, their development tasks include: (1) accepting one’s physique and accepting a masculine or feminine role; (2) new relations with age-mates of both sexes; (3) emotional independence of parents and other adults; (4) achieving assurance of economic independence; (5) selecting and preparing for an occupation; (6) developing intellectual skills and concepts necessary for civic competence; (7) desiring and achieving socially responsible behavior; (8) preparing for marriage and family life; and (9) building conscious values in harmony with an adequate scientific world-picture.
Aacap & Pruitt, David. (1999). You Adolescent: Emotional, Behavioral and Cognitive Development from Early Adolescence Through the Teen Years. NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Erikson, Erik. (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
McCormick, Christine & Pressley, Michael. (2007). Child and Adolescent Development for Educators. NY: The Guilford Press.
Steinberg, Laurence. Cognitive and Affective Development in Adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Vol.9, No.2 February 2005.
Turner, Jeffrey. (1996). Encyclopedia of Relationships Across the Lifespan. NY: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.