Who is an Adolescent?
Adolescent Physical Development
Adolescence is the period of transition from childhood to adulthood, starting from around 10-12 years old, up to 18-21 years old. Puberty is the rapid skeletal and sexual maturation that occurs in early adolescence. It is marked by menarche (first menstrual cycle in girls) and growth spurt, both height and weight, in both genders. The onset of menarche declines 4 months per decade; starting at around 14 years old during the 1990s, and now at 12 years old, probably due to higher levels of nutrition and health today. On average, growth spurt begins at 9 years old in girls and 11 years old in boys; and peaks in girls at 11 years old and in boys at 13 years old.
Pubertal development occurs because of changes in hormone levels, which, in turn, influence mood swings. Testosterone, an androgen, increases 2x in girls and 18x more in boys. This hormone is responsible for the development of male genitals, height increase, and voice change among boys. It is also associated with violence. On the other hand, estradiol, an estrogen, increases 2x in boys and 8x more in girls. It is responsible for the development of girls' breasts, uterus and pelvic bones. It is also linked with depression. Mood swings resulting from changes in hormone levels are only temporary, and diminish after puberty.
The brain, also, continues to develop. Myelination, the process of encasing axons with fat cells, is still observed in the somatosensory cortex of adolescents.
Adolescent Cognitive Development
According to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, cognitive development occurs in qualitative stages. Children belong to the sensorimotor, pre-operational and concrete operational stages. Adolescents are beginning to enter or have entered the last stage - the formal operational stage. In essence, the adolescent therefore thinks no less than an established professional adult in terms of quality. The Formal Operational Stage is characterized with abstraction, idealism and logical thinking.
Abstraction is the ability to solve problems verbally, without the need for concrete representation, which is the limiting factor of the concrete operational stage. This is the reason why adolescents tend to think about thought itself.
Idealism is the tendency to set and prefer ideal standards to just about everything, which oftentimes results to impatience and confusion.
Logical Thinking in adolescence uses a hypothetical-deductive kind of reasoning, in which adolescents continually search for people for or against an intelligent guess.
A mixture of abstraction, idealism and logical thinking is quite difficult to handle; and moderation is the key. Most of the time, adolescents are too abstract and idealistic that they undermine their logical ability.
Aside from Piaget's formal operational stage, psychological research has also found that adolescents tend to be egocentric. Adolescent Egocentrism is characterized with self-preoccupation, a sense of uniqueness and invincibility. Adolescents tend to think that everyone else is looking at them, that no one understands them, and that they can do anything that they aim for. Having a sense of invincibility can sometimes prove to be dangerous, as when adolescents engage in dangerous sports, like drag racing, drug use, suicidal attempts and unprotected sex. The other side of the coin is when adolescents willingly risk their lives to save other people's lives.
Adolescent Socioemotional Development
Erik Erikson's famous psychosocial stages put adolescents at a point of struggling to find themselves, to craft and assert their identities. Put simply, adolescents are trying to solve the task of finding their identity over identity confusion. This is because adolescents are torn between childhood security and adult autonomy, and they are continually being confronted with and are exploring and trying out new roles and adult statuses. Adolescents, in their pursuit of finding their own identities, begin to want and demand more freedom, although they fear failing and making the wrong decisions. Psychologists surmise that adolescents' fear of failure stems from their inability to recognize their growing cognitive abilities.
Expanding on Erik Erikson's identity versus identity confusion crisis, James Marcia (1980) categorized adolescents in terms of how much they explored or committed to a particular identity:
- Identity Diffusion: The adolescent has not yet explored and tried out new roles, and has also not yet committed to a particular identity.
- Identity Foreclosure: The adolescent has not yet explored identities, but has already committed to a particular one. An example is a college student who has decided to pursue nursing because his parents said so.
- Identity Moratorium: The adolescent is still in the process of exploring roles and identities, and is not yet committed to a particular identity.
- Identity Achievement: The adolescent has adequately explored new roles and identities, and have successfully committed to a particular identity.
Failure to achieve an identity leads to identity confusion, wherein adolescents socially withdraw and lose themselves in a crowd.
Ethnicity is also an important aspect of forming one's identity, especially in a bicultural family living in a multi-cultural society like the United States. Asian Americans are oftentimes pressured to academic excellence; female African Americans strive not to conform to White standards of beauty; male African Americans struggle against possible job discrimination and negative social image; and Latin Americans fight against prejudice and conflicting values. Ethnic challenges foster stereotype and social stigma. Adolescents, in their quest of forming their own identities, realize that they need to incorporate and resolve these challenges as part of themselves.
Risk aspects that undermine adolescent socioemotional development include delinquency, substance abuse, unprotected sex and adolescent pregnancy. These risks are present in 25% of adolescents. Community Psychologists organize various programs to reduce the effects of such risks to susceptible adolescents. Individualized attention is given to those who require counselors to attend to their specific needs. Community-wide programs may include the interrelation of substance abuse prevention in school curriculum. Delinquency prevention is done 2-generational: Adolescents are given scholarships, and their parents are provided with jobs and information on parenting tips. So far, Joy Dryfoos (199) found the greatest success with individualized attention and community- wide programs.
Adolescence and Positive Psychology
The common notion that adolescents are abnormal or deviant stems from Sigmund Freud's early emphasis on sexual drive and conflicts. Positive Psychology, however, realigns negative perspectives on adolescence, and upholds it instead as a time for evaluation, decision-making and commitment, wherein adolescents move toward accepting parental and social values. True enough, Daniel Offer and others (1988) found that ¾ of adolescents (samples from US, Australia, Bangladesh, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey and West Germany) have healthy self-images, are happy, confident with their ability to cope with stress, and value school and work. On helping the other ¼, Reed Larson (2000) recommends participation in structured voluntary activities and organizations to help them develop initiative and to help them battle depression with having fun.