Understating Adolescence and its interactive changes across several spheres

Adolescence, by many accounts, is a period rooted in culture and society. Prior to the industrial revolution, children were treated like adults and worked side by side with their parents in the factories. Industrialization during the 19th century led to new patterns of work that excluded children, lengthened the amount of formal schooling, and brought increased economic dependence of youth on their families.These events ushered in the period of the life cycle we now call adolescence, defined as a transitional stage whose chief purpose is to prepare children for adulthood. Broadly speaking, this developmental period spans the second decade of life and ends with the assumption of adult work and family roles.

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Adolescence is characterized by a series of dynamic and interactive changes across several spheres, including biology, psychology, cognitive functioning, social interactions, and emotions. While these changes proceed in relatively the same sequence for most teens, they occur at varying rates and times for youth and are shaped by the environments in which they take place.

Thus, it is typical for teens to mature in some respects before others. A more complete understanding of these changes is achieved by using a multidisciplinary contextual perspective that incorporates the impact of culture, families, peers, schools, communities, neighborhoods, and society. Indeed, youth face unprecedented challenges in society today compared to 20 years ago, and these challenges shape their long-term functioning in fundamental ways.


Today, more than ever, teens are confronted with an array of confusing messages about their responsibilities, sexual behavior, health risks, life choices, job opportunities, interpersonal relationships, and future potential. Yet, despite these added challenges, most young people traverse the teen years with relative ease and success. Research indicates that youth have the capacity to cope with these challenges, and in fact, it is through the successful resolution of
these experiences that most youth achieve significant personal growth.


In 1999, there were approximately 39.5 million youth between 10 and 19 years of age in America. Recent census data show that the majority of these youth lived in Western states and metropolitan areas. Based on current projections, the racial and ethnic makeup of the dolescent population in the United States will become increasingly heterogeneous, including a decrease in whites, an increase in other racial/ethnic groups, and growing numbers of Hispanics. One in six youth less than 18 years of age live at or below the poverty line, and ethnic minorities constitute a large percentage of poor youth; nearly one third of black and Hispanic youth live in poverty.

Poverty is related to a host of conditions that negatively affect youth’s development, including increased exposure to crime and unemployment, poor health status, low-quality schools, and limited access to health care and adequate housing. Moreover, economic hardship on the family influences adolescents’ functioning and well-being through increased parental distress and less effective parenting behavior. The percentage ofadolescents living in two-parent households has fallen sharply over the past 20 years particularly for minority youth, and nearly 42% of teens living in single-parent female-headed households are poor.

The majority of adolescents appear to be in good-to excellent physical health. They show low rates of cancer, hypertension, and other physical disorders, and mortality rates have dropped dramatically for all adolescents over the past two decades. Nonetheless, trends in mortalityrates underscore the health disparities for males and females and different ethnic groups. Mortality increases with age, and males are three times more likely to die than females. The rate of death among black males continues to be much higher than for any other group.


The leading causes of death for teens are no longer a natural phenomenon but instead constitute injury and violenceresulting from motor vehicle accidents, homicide, suicide, and other unintentional injuries. Thus, a large majority of the deaths are preventable, and understanding these behaviors is critical to public health prevention efforts. The Surgeon General recently released a report on mental health indicating that nearly 21% of youth aged 9–17 meet criteria for a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder, and 11% report significant impairment as a result of their mental health problems.

There is additional evidence that mental health disorders are under diagnosed among youth, and that more than 30% may have some mental health symptoms. Obesity has emerged as a major health and mental health concern because evidence points to serious risks associated with poor nutrition and excess weight. Indeed, the percentage of overweight youth rose from 5% in 1980 to 20% in 2002 with black adolescents at greatest risk.


Experimentation and risk taking are hallmarks of adolescence, yet the negative health consequences today are more serious than ever before. Unprotected sex will not only result in unwanted pregnancy, but it may also lead to HIV transmission. Illegal substances are more potent and more addictive, and cars and guns are easily accessible. Specific risk behaviors show divergent patterns among adolescents. Tobacco use peaked in 1997 but appears to have stabilized, while alcohol use remains high. Almost half of all high school seniors report using marijuana at some point in their lifetime, although recent use (in the past 30 days) has fallen in the past 5 years.

The trends for sexual behavior are more mixed. For the first time in two decades, fewer adolescents are having sexual intercourse and more teens are using condoms. However, only 30% report using condoms consistently, and almost 75% of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse. Furthermore, teens account for approximately 25% of new sexually transmitted diseases reported annually, and adolescents are one of the only groups for which ates of HIV infection are increasing. The primary mode of HIV transmission for adolescents is through unprotected sexual activity, and adolescent females are now almost as likely to become infected with HIV as males, comprising 59.7% of new HIV cases in 2001. These trends underscore the new predominance of heterosexual HIV transmission among youth.



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

Cognitive Changes

There are important changes in cognitive functioning during adolescence that have far-reaching implicationsfor 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 Quincea˜nera.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.

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