Physical and Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Adolescence is a developmental phase with issues that have repercussions throughout adult life. It is a period of vast change, more aptly described as a series of phases that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is also a period of life in which several forms of sociopathy and psychopathology often appears. Adolescence is both a biological process and a social-cultural transition.

The juvenile organism undergoes a process of growth and maturation as it moves toward adult size and functional capacity, and, more or less concurrently, the individual must pass through a transition from the status and conduct of a child to the responsibilities of the adult.

The suitable adjustment of these processes, each to the other, and the appropriate direction and timing of the demands made by adults upon the developing adolescent are important factors in the ease and adequacy of growing up in our culture. Physical Development in Adolescence

The normal human life span may be considered as divisible roughly into three epochs: the first, which extends from conception until past the age of twenty, is the time required to attain adulthood; the second is the variable, but usually very brief, period during which the individual enjoys the peak of his physical efficiency; and the third is the period of physical deterioration, a process which begins insidiously as early as the late twenties and, gathering speed as the years go by, effects his eventual senility and dissolution.

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Thus, the first twenty-odd years of life are spent in achieving physical maturity and a degree of physiologic equilibrium which is lost, at least in part, almost as soon as it is attained.

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If this seems an exaggerated statement, one need only recall that the baseball player is usually past the peak of his physical efficiency at thirty and that the pugilist’s legs have already begun to slow him down some years earlier. Viewed in this way, it is, perhaps, not too much to say that man has scarcely begun to live when he begins to die.

Adolescence begins early in the second decade and is usually considered as ending at about the twenty-second or twenty-third year in boys and somewhat earlier in girls. It covers, therefore, approximately the last ten years of what was just referred to as the first epoch of life, the period extending from conception to adulthood. The physical changes which occur during this early period of life include both growth and development: growth, in the sense of an increase in mass, volume, and external dimensions, and development, in the sense of becoming progressively more complex.

These two processes, growth and development, do not proceed at the same absolute rate or at the same relative rate throughout this early period of life. There are intervals during which the body is increasing in size more rapidly than it is growing in complexity, and them are other times at which this relationship is reversed. Some of the developmental changes which occur during adolescence are, perhaps, best appreciated when viewed in the light of some events which have preceded them.

When we speak of things which are determined by heredity in the human body, such traits as eye color, hair color, hair form, skin color, or such defects as hemophilia, red-green color blindness, etc. , suggest themselves. We are likely to lose sight of the fact that, in addition to determining a vast number of what may more or less properly be called “unit characters” such as those which were just enumerated, there is also in the germ plasm some mechanism which controls larger aspects of development and which insures, for example, that human beings give rise only to other human beings and that elephants continue to produce only elephants.

The genetic constitution of man, like that of other forms, controls another important aspect of development. It not only determines within rather narrow limits what the end product of development will be, but it also prescribes quite definitely the stages to be followed in attaining that end. (Blos, P, 1967). It has become increasingly evident that the growth and development of the child is a more or less orderly sequence or process which, for convenience, we classify into various arbitrary steps or periods.

It is also clear that each individual child moves through this sequence at his or her own rate of progress and attains dimensions of structure, function, and behavior that are idiomatic to the individual. Thus, while we observe a certain order and regularity of process, we may also note a wide diversity of products, as exhibited by groups of individuals who differ in size, shape, and capacity, although of the same chronological age.

As a result of these pronounced differences in rates of growth and maturation, the number of years a person has lived is in many situations of less significance than the level of physiological and social maturity he has attained. Differences in the time of maturing are sometimes of great importance to the individual. The early-maturing child has a shorter period of prepuberal development than the late-maturing child.

Conversely, the child with early puberty may have a prolonged period in which to make adolescent social adjustments, while the late maturing may have to compress these adjustments into a shorter interval before reaching adulthood. Preceding and accompanying sexual maturation the child undergoes a transformation in size and body form of greater or Im degree, with a lengthening of the legs that sometimes producesan almost sudden change in height. Some rapidly growing boys and girls may “shoot up” and within a brief period of eighteen months or two years attain nearly their full adult stature.

Others may grow slowly but continuously over a longer period. It has become evident that puberty is merely an early stage in adolescent development. It may be two or three years after the first menstruation before the girls will ovulate and attain full sex maturation and the capacity for procreation. Less is known about the male, and at present it is not possible to say when spermatogenesis or production of motile, functionally potent sperm does occur. At this point we should also note that recent studies show that every individual is bi-sexual, with the power of producing both male and female sex hormones.

These male and female hormones have been found in the urine of boys and girls as early as five or six years of age; they increase in quantity as children approach puberty. Initially, the female sex hormones (estrogens) are more significant for puberal development even in the male, who develops only somewhat later a characteristic preponderance of male hormones (androgens). This balance of male and female hormones directs or controls the sex maturation of the boy and girl and the appearance of the secondary sex characteristics–breasts, pubic and axillary hair, beard, voice changes, etc. Esman, A. H, 1975).

One important aspect of adolescent development is that the growth of other dimensions and of the several organ systems may lag behind growth in stature. The very tall boy of fifteen or sixteen may still have juvenile, undeveloped gonads, while his heart and circulatory system, the respiratory system, and the gastrointestinal tract may still be relatively immature and progressing only slowly toward the size and functional capacity appropriate to his stature.

Conversely, the boy or girl who reaches puberty at an earlier age apparently grows and develops more as a whole, with fewer biological discrepancies and organic imbalances. But this earlier puberty has its disadvantages as well as advantages, especially in view of the social consequences of “outgrowing” former friends and associates. A simple analogy may serve to illustrate this. We can imagine a hundred boys and a hundred girls starting from New York to California. A small number of them will travel by airplane, arriving there quickly.

Another and larger group will travel by fast limited express trains and arrive soon after the first group. A still larger group will travel by trains operating on the usual time-schedules; some will go by bus, others by hitch-hiking, and a very few will attempt to trudge across the continent on foot. Not all of the two hundred will reach their destination, for some will be lost en route. Those who do arrive will bear the evidence of how they traveled-including the discomforts and dangers of each mode of travel.

Similarly, in the course of child development, each mode of travel, each pattern of growth and maturation, involves its peculiar biological and personality risks. Just because the whole organism is changing, in organ systems and functions as well as in external size and shape, impairment often occurs in the ability to maintain homeostasis, or physiological stability. Especially during the period when various parts of the organism are showing their maximum discrepancies in rates of growth, we may find that some functional sotivities are imperfectly integrated.

If these interacting functions become seriously out of balance, as may sometimes happen as a result of neglect, overstrain, inadequate nutrition, or other adverse factors, it in possible that the residual effects of this adolescent disturbance will be carried over to influence, when they emerge, the physiological patterns and homeostatic capacity of the adult. (Freud, A, 1958). Boys or girls who complete their growth within a relatively short time may experience only a brief period of instability and may therefore be able to go forward to adult status with less internal incongruity.

On the other hand, a brief period of growth may entail disturbances of various kinds merely because of the sudden, unexpected increase in size. During this brief period the adolescent must revise his image of the body and try to become accustomed to a new body size and form. Moreover, many of the eye-hand co-ordinations and other patterns of muscular co-ordination built up over the years of childhood may be rendered obsolete by these changes, so that the individual may find himself clumsy and painfully incapable of even simple activities. Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Adolescence is a time in which cognitive process is ever expanding, reminiscent of the child’s shift from being a nonreader to being a reader. Suddenly, the world opens up to that child. What once appeared as jumbles of letters now appears as words: messages, directions, communications of all kinds. For adolescents, it is the abstract world that is now open: the world of ideas and concepts. Adolescents can think about thinking, think through hypotheses, think ahead. This is what allows them to use the defense of intellectualization, which A. Freud (1958) identified in “Adolescence. Adolescents can think instead of taking action as a way to discharge energy and reduce conflict. With the development of the capacity for abstract thinking, adolescents can think beyond the present; they can conceptualize a past. This is how they can leave “childhood,” an abstraction, behind while they live in the present and, eventually, begin to contemplate a future.

In her 1937 article, Katan described “object removal” as a process that involves a directional change for adolescents wherein they leave old ways of looking at important people behind. This takes place in the context of an adolescent’s ability to conceptualize a “past. When analytic thinking develops, the social, political, aesthetic, and religious spheres open up for the adolescent’s exploration. Adolescents develop theories about how these spheres should be and then try to validate their theories by looking at the world around them. According to Inhelder and Piaget (1958), this represents an important change in the direction of thinking: Children look at the world and develop hypotheses to explain what they see; adolescents think about what is possible and then look out to see whether they are correct. Reality is secondary to possibility.

This is described as the change from concrete to formal operations. In Piagetian theory, adolescence marks the transition from the concrete operational thinking characteristics of school aged children to formal logical operations. Formal operations include the ability to manipulate abstraction such as algebraic expressions, to reason from known principal, to way many points of view according to varying criteria, and to think about the process of thinking itself. Some early adolescence demonstrates formal thinking, others acquire the capability later, and others don’t acquire at all.

Young adolescents may be able to apply formal operations to school work but to not to personal dilemmas. When the emotional stakes are high, magical thinking, such as the conviction of invulnerability, may interfere with higher order cognition. The ability to treat possibilities as real entities may affect critical decision, such as whether or not to have unprotected intercourse or engage in other risk taking behavior. Some theorists argue that the transition from concrete to formal operations follows from quantitative increases in knowledge, experience, and cognitive efficiency rather than a qualitative recognition of thinking.

Consistent with this view are data showing a steady rise in cognitive processing speed from late childhood through early adulthood, associated with a reduction in synaptic number (pruning of less used path ways) and progressive maturation of electroinsephalographis results. It is unclear whether or not the hormonal changes of puberty directly affect cognitive development. The development of moral thinking roughly parallels general cognitive development. Mostly adolescents perceive right and wrong as absolute and unquestionable.

Taking a loaf of bread to feed are starving child is wrong because it is “Stealing”. Adolescents often question received morality, embracing the behavior standards of the peer group. Group membership may allow them to displays guilt feelings for perceived moral infractions from themselves to the group. With the transition to formal operational thought, middle adolescents question and analyze extensively. Questioning of moral conventions fosters the development of personal codes of ethics. Such codes often appear design to justify the adolescent’s sexual apatite: “anything I want is right”.

In other cases, adolescents may embrace a code that is more strict than that of there parents, perhaps in response to the anxiety engendered by the weakening of the conventional limits. An adolescent’s new flexibility of thought has pervasive effects on relationships with self and others. In late adolescents sexual experimentation decreases as they adopt more stable sexual identities. Cognition tends to be less self-centered, with increasing thoughts about concepts such as justice, patriotism, and history. Older adolescents are often idealistic but also may be absolutist and intolerant of opposing views.

Religious or political groups that promise answers to complex question may hold great appeal. According to Kohlberg and Gilligan (1971) looked at whether the Piagetian stages of cognitive development corresponded to Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. They found correspondence in childhood and established that it was only with the attainment of formal operations that Kohlberg’s last stages of moral development could be achieved. Adolescents delight especially in consideration of that which is not, a capacity that develops in the move from concrete to formal operations.

They show a marked preference for abstraction. This may be what permits adolescents to deidealize their parents, a necessary component of the second individuation process that takes place at this time (Blos, 1967). Early adolescents can see that other parents are different from theirs; by midadolescence, they are able to criticize their parents for things that they have not done or ways that they have not been. Both of these serve the adolescent disengagement process. According to Esman (1975) the state of anomie in which adolescents find themselves once the deidealization of their parents takes place.

They go through a mourning process in which they may search for alternative “gods” in politics, religion, or ideology. This process may also simply serve to motivate a search for values, political and religious beliefs, or ethics. This search often brings the adolescent into contact with different groups. The group involvement diminishes some of the anomie that results from the disengagement from the family of origin. That to which people aspire is denoted as their ego ideal. As people approach this ego ideal, self-esteem rises.

Blos posited that there is a maturation of the ego ideal during adolescence given that adolescents develop the capacity and the motivation to formulate values and goals that are different from those of their parents. It is the move toward autonomy that permits goals and values to be examined and reformulated. Adolescents look to the world around them for both people and ideas that may be transiently used to aid them in forming these new goals and values. Thinking about, through, ahead, and beyond are all forms of exercising new potential and gaining mastery over both internal and external reality.

These contribute to the adolescent’s achievement of greater competence. An adolescent does not have to look to others for explanations of that which is not immediately comprehensible; hypotheses can be generated and tested. This contributes to the adolescent’s sense of greater autonomy. Researchers on the development of a concept of self during adolescence note that there is more differentiation evident over time. This is seen as a direct result of adolescents’ increasing cognitive ability. The components of their self-concept become more and more complex, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

This is very much in keeping with the second individuation theory of Blos (1967), which posits that adolescents have an increased capacity to see and define themselves. In their major study of sex differences, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) established that the effect of children’s cognitive skill is greater than the influence of their parents’ attitudes and behavior on the development of sex roles. This suggests that it is the greater cognitive skill of adolescents that leads them to be more aware of and responsive to sex differences.

A major psychoanalytic characterization of self or identity is that people form mental pictures or representations of themselves. The representations of adolescents must include images of their now more mature bodies. This gives them a sense of ownership of their bodies. It is no longer the caretaker of bodily needs from childhood who is responsible for “seeing to” the body; it is the adolescent. These mental representations of the body must include images of the genitals as functioning organs for the adolescent to feel identified as male or female, or potential father or mother.

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Physical and Cognitive Development in Adolescence. (2017, Mar 10). Retrieved from

Physical and Cognitive Development in Adolescence

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