Adolescence marks the period in one’s life in which one makes the transition from childhood into adulthood. During early adolescence, children begin to experience a number of changes in their lives – such as social changes, developmental changes, and biological changes. These changes refer to the alteration of social patterns, and relations and behaviour in society; the maturation process of children, both in body and mind; and the modification of the bodily structure of children during the adolescent years, respectively.
Though there is no exact age to describe when the period of adolescence begins and ends, this period is thought to begin in the teenage years (therefore, at age thirteen), and end in the early twenties (Weiten, 2011, p. 433). This paper aims at exploring the social, developmental, and biological changes that a person goes through during their adolescent years, and will attempt to understand and explain how these changes influence their path into adulthood. Early Adolescence Erik Erikson (1959), a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, developed a theory that a person’s life can be divided into eight different stages.
He described adolescence as the fifth stage in a person’s life, where one asks oneself, “Who am I and where am I going? ” According to Erikson, the fifth stage is the stage of “Identity versus confusion” (Erikson, 1959, as cited in Weiten, 2011). Early adolescence is an important time in a person’s life, as during these first few years, the child will want to distance themselves away from their families, in order to become more self-aware and independent. Their social environment and relationships change as they leave primary school and enter high school.
Most children will enter new schools and be forced to make new friends. They will join new activities that primary school did not offer them and have new experiences, both good and bad. These experiences will have a big impact on how children will develop through their adolescent years. Sources show that, once the child becomes a teenager and enters high school, they will want to distance themselves from their own parents and siblings, but form relationships with other adults that are not in their family, such as their teachers, or coaches.
Young people generally enjoy discourse with adults and they feel that their “adult wisdom” (Eccles, 1999, p. 39) could prove as beneficial for them. Entering high school makes this difficult for adolescents because, unlike in primary school, there are different teachers for each subject, the classes are usually bigger, and students get less one-on-one attention from their teachers, and therefore do not develop a friendship with their teachers as easily as they could in primary school. As adolescents distance themselves further and further away from their families, they begin to rely more and more on their peers.
Many adolescents will pay more attention to their peers and what their peers think about them, than on more important things, such as their academics. In most cases, it seems that it is a greater victory to be accepted among peer groups than to do well in school. These peer groups can have an immense influence on how the child develops and matures as a person. Parents of adolescent children seem to share the view that peer groups put pressure on young children to get involved in misconduct and that badly behaved groups can transform a good child into a rebellious child, but this view is “overly simplistic” (Eccles, 1999, p. 9). While it is true that peer groups have the ability to influence an adolescent; most of the time, peer groups are able to influence the adolescent only on what style of clothing to wear, what music to listen to, and what activities to engage in. Typically, early adolescents will share the same views as their parents on the important things, such as politics, religion, and education and so on; as this is what they were brought up believing in all those years before they met their new high school friends (Eccles, 1999).
Early adolescents also seem to choose to be friends with people who share similar ethics and views on life as they do. As Bateson & Martin (1999) pointed out, “Peers are important. But parents play their part even here because they are able to have a strong influence, whether wittingly or unwittingly, on who those peers are” (p. 27). Therefore, it seems reasonable for an expert to conclude that only “bad” parenting will lead a child to get involved in “bad” peer groups (Eccles, 1999). Mid-Adolescence
Adolescents spend a substantial of time with their peers, and at some stage in their lives, their peers will encourage them to experiment in risky behaviour; whether or not they are in a “good” peer group or a “bad” peer group. Taking risks is not always necessarily a bad thing, as taking risks is an important part of growing up. If adolescents never take risks, they will never learn what they are capable of, or have new and exciting experiences. It was noted that risky behaviour seems to peak during the adolescent years and decline during adulthood (Compas, 2004; Steinberg, 2008).
Theorists suggest that the cause of this may be because the prefrontal cortex of the brain is immature during adolescent years. The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the brain, and it is important as it will stop the person from taking unhealthy or irresponsible risks, it will stop the person from behaving inappropriately and from saying inappropriate things, and it is also involved in decision-making, planning, social interaction between people and understanding other people, and self-awareness.
The invention of MRI scans has made it possible to conduct investigations on the brain by looking at clear, high resolution pictures of the brain. Until fairly recently, it was believed that the brain does not develop very much after childhood, but MRI scans have proved otherwise. The scans have shown that the prefrontal cortex goes through many dramatic changes during adolescence. Studies show that the volume of grey matter increases during childhood, and peaks in early adolescence – though it peaks later in boys than it does in girls, as boys typically experience puberty later than girls do.
In mid to late adolescence there is a decrease in the volume of grey matter. The grey matter contains cell bodies and synapses, which form as the connections between the cells. Unwanted synapses are the synapses that are not being used in the particular environment that the person is in. The synapses that are being used in that environment are strengthened, while the synapses that aren’t being used are effectively eliminated, or pruned away. Therefore it is only appropriate that this process has been termed as ‘synaptic pruning’.
During the period of adolescence, the process of synaptic pruning is occurring in the prefrontal cortex, and is effectively fine-tuning the brain tissue in this region and in other regions of the brain, depending on which environment the person is in (Blakemore, 2012). Functional MRI or fMRI scans enable scientists to take a video or a movie of the brain activity when participants are taking part in an experiment where they are asked to think about something or feel a certain way.
An fMRI study was conducted which required participants to state whether they thought that the scenarios that they were presented with, for example one-lined scenarios such as ‘Swimming with sharks’, was a ‘good idea’ or ‘not a good idea’, simply by pushing the appropriate button. The results showed that adolescents took a significantly longer period of time on the ‘not a good idea’ scenarios in relation to the scenarios that were a ‘good idea’, in comparison to the adult participants (Blakemore, 2006).
To understand this, one must look at the development of the limbic system, which is located deep in the centre of the brain. The limbic system is responsible for the processing of emotions and rewarding feelings. This part of the brain enables the human being to feel rewarded when they have engaged in exciting and fun-filled activities, including taking risks. During adolescence, this region is hypersensitive, while at the same time; the part of the brain that is responsible for preventing the person from engaging in risky behaviour, the prefrontal cortex, is still developing (Blakemore, 2012).
Adolescents will be more willing to take risks in order to be accepted by a social peer group, or in order to impress their friends. There is evidence that in their early adolescent years, a person’s general self esteem lowers and there is an increase in their self-consciousness (Wigfield et al. , 1991). Acceptance by peer groups helps to increase a person’s self-esteem, as adolescents want to feel like they are part of something, important, and noticed by their peers; and therefore they are more willing to take any necessary risks to achieve this. During the period of mid-adolescence, one’s body begins to change.
This is a very awkward stage in a person’s life, and therefore it is easy to understand why one would become more self-conscious during this stage in life. Most early to mid-adolescents go through a growth spurt, they begin to grow hair where they did not grow hair before, girls start their menstrual cycles, and boys’ voices begin to “break”. Every adolescent’s body will mature at different times; therefore a boy’s self-esteem might decrease as the other boys begin to grow taller, develop muscles and begin to shave, and the late-maturing boy will become more self-conscious and aware of the rate that his own body is growing.
Early maturation can therefore be seen as beneficial for boys, at it will enhance their social status in the school environment, and enable them to perform better in sports; but maturing early is not very advantageous for girls. Girls who develop early will grow breasts, their hips will get bigger, and they will have an increase in body fat; and in a society where being “super-skinny” is valued, the young girl will feel more self-conscious and her self esteem will lower significantly, especially if she is the only girl who has begun to develop in her peer group (Eccles, 1999).
There is also an increase in sexual libido and the desire to impress the opposite sex; and seeing that girls experience the changes in puberty approximately a year and a half earlier than boys, this creates a complication in the social interactions between boys and girls during mid-adolescence. Late Adolescence With late adolescence comes “a new body and all the preoccupations and cares of adulthood” (Bateson & Martin, 1999, p. 13).
It seems that it is important for the late adolescent to be treated like an adult and therefore most late adolescents feel that they have to engage in adult activities, such as drinking, smoking and having sex – activities which have a legal age restriction. During late adolescence, the interest in the opposite sex, dating and sexual intercourse seems to be increased. It becomes a great struggle to balance their social lives (including relationships with family members) and their responsibilities that they have at their school and the responsibility to do their work.
There is an increased pressure to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, as this could make the teenager ‘look cool’ and this is what most late adolescents strive for (Bray et al. , 2010). In some cases, dating and having sex for the first time is seen as a ‘rite of passage’ into “perceived adulthood” (Bray et al. , 2010, p. 266) for male adolescents. When teenagers, particularly males, tell their other friends that they have had sex, they feel a sense of masculinity and maturity, while those boys who are virgins feel inferior and immature.
In an investigation, the grade 9 boys in a school in Fish Hoek explained that “the challenge mong boys is to have sex before the legal age of 16, and that successful completion of this challenge earns one the respect and admiration of other boys” (Bray et al. , 2010, pp. 264-265). Both girls and boys experience pressure from their peers to have boyfriends and girlfriends and to have sex, but there are differences in what is socially acceptable between the two genders. Boys seem gain respect from their peers if they have had many girlfriends, or even if they have multiple girlfriends at one time; whereas if a girl behaves in the same way, she is shunned upon by her peers, and labelled as “promiscuous”.
During early and mid-adolescence, to gain acceptance and respect from peer groups, it is seen as important to wear the latest fashions and own clothing from the most expensive brands, to do certain things at certain places, and listen to certain music, and so on. Late adolescents need (in addition) to be attractive, and have an attractive boyfriend or girlfriend in order to gain ultimate social success and sex appeal. There is lots of competition between people of the same sex for the attention of the opposite sex.
There is also an added responsibility for late adolescents to learn about sex from mature and educated adults (even though it may be uncomfortable to ask for this information) so that they do not run the risk of falling pregnant, getting a girl pregnant, or contracting a sexually transmitted disease. It is unwise for adolescents to seek information from their peers, especially males, as boys typically tend to exaggerate details and enjoy teasing and playing tricks on their friends by feeding them false information.
To gain success in the social world, there is pressure for late adolescents to be seen at all the ‘right’ places, to be wearing the ‘right’ clothes, to be surrounded by the ‘right’ people, and to be dating the ‘right’ person. In addition, it is seen as ‘not cool’ or ‘boring’ to do chores or homework at home instead of going out, to practice religion, or participate in class; and therefore this can put a late adolescent at a crossroads in deciding what they really want and what is really important (Bray et al. , 2010, p. 286).
Many teenagers go through an identity crisis because of this – they begin to think about what they value in life, what kind of person they are expected to be, who they would like to be, what they want in life, how they will go about achieving it, and whether or not it is worth sacrificing their social status in order to achieve the answers to their questions about their identity. It is true that people still ask themselves these questions well into adulthood, but this sense of confusion is heightened during late adolescence.
Girls and boys in late adolescence are expected and somewhat forced to make decisions with a future plan in mind – in grade 10, they need to choose subjects at school which will benefit them in the future, when they leave school, they need to decide what career path they will be pursuing and therefore they need to make informed choices about what they need to study and where. This can be difficult when the adolescent has no true idea of who they are or where they want to go.
Though early adolescents seem to make poor decisions as result of the unwanted guidance from their parents, it may seem to adults to be just a juvenile need for attention, but it is, in fact, an important process in growing up and becoming a strong and independent human being. The decisions that a person makes, and the mistakes that a person makes during early adolescence, are the beginning of the exploration of themselves and who they will be as they enter into the world of adulthood.
It is important for adolescents to take risks to learn about themselves and to grow, but to be smart about the risks that they take, because one bad decision can change the adolescent’s life forever and force the adolescent to become an adult immediately – for example, an unwanted pregnancy in the teenage years. An adolescent is neither a child nor an adult and therefore a person is at a very exciting stage in their life during this period – a stage where the person is being transformed from a child, through social, developmental and biological changes and modifications, into a stable and valued member of the community.