The word adolescence is Latin in origin, derived from the verb adolescere, which means "to grow into adulthood." Adolescence is a time of moving from the immaturity of childhood into the maturity of adulthood. There is no single event or boundary line that denotes the end of childhood or the beginning of adolescence. Rather, experts think of the passage from childhood into and through adolescence as composed of a set of transitions that unfold gradually and that touch upon many aspects of the individual's behavior, development, and relationships. These transitions are biological, cognitive, social, and emotional.
The biological transition of adolescence, or puberty, is perhaps the most observable sign that adolescence has begun. Technically, puberty refers to the period during which an individual becomes capable of sexual reproduction. More broadly speaking, however, puberty is used as a collective term to refer to all the physical changes that occur in the growing girl or boy as the individual passes from childhood into adulthood.
The timing of physical maturation varies widely. In the United States, menarche (onset of menstruation) typically occurs around age 12, although some youngsters start puberty when they are only eight or nine, others when they are well into their teens. The duration of puberty also varies greatly: 18 months to six years in girls and two to five years in boys.
The physical changes of puberty are triggered by hormones, chemical substances in the body that act on specific organs and tissues. In boys a major change incurred during puberty is the increased production of testosterone, a male sex hormone, while girls experience increased production of the female hormone estrogen. In both sexes, a rise in growth hormone produces the adolescent growth spurt, the pronounced increase in height and weight that marks the first half of puberty.
Perhaps the most dramatic changes of puberty involve sexuality. Internally, through the development of primary sexual characteristics, adolescents become capable of sexual reproduction. Externally, as secondary sexual characteristics appear, girls and boys begin to look like mature women and men. In boys primary and secondary sexual characteristics usually emerge in a predictable order, with rapid growth of the testes and scrotum, accompanied by the appearance of pubic hair. About a year later, when the growth spurt begins, the penis also grows larger, and pubic hair becomes coarser, thicker, and darker. Later still comes the growth of facial and body hair, and a gradual lowering of the voice. Around mid-adolescence internal changes begin making a boy capable of producing and ejaculating sperm.
In girls, sexual characteristics develop in a less regular sequence. Usually, the first sign of puberty is a slight elevation of the breasts, but sometimes this is preceded by the appearance of pubic hair. Pubic hair changes from sparse and downy to denser and coarser. Concurrent with these changes is further breast development. In teenage girls, internal sexual changes include maturation of the uterus, vagina, and other parts of the reproductive system. Menarche, the first menstrual period, happens relatively late in puberty. Regular ovulation and the ability to carry a baby to full term usually follow menarche by several years.
A second element of the passage through adolescence is a cognitive transition. Compared to children, adolescents think in ways that are more advanced, more efficient, and generally more complex. This is evident in five distinct areas of cognition.
First, during adolescence individuals become better able than children to think about what is possible, instead of limiting their thought to what is real. Whereas children's thinking is oriented to the here and now (i.e., to things and events that they can observe directly), adolescents are able to consider what they observe against a backdrop of what is possible—they can think hypothetically.
Second, during the passage into adolescence, individuals become better able to think about abstract ideas. For example, adolescents find it easier than children to comprehend the sorts of higher-order, abstract logic inherent in puns, proverbs, metaphors, and analogies. The adolescent's greater facility with abstract thinking also permits the application of advanced reasoning and logical processes to social and ideological matters. This is clearly seen in the adolescent's increased facility and interest in thinking about interpersonal relationships, politics, philosophy, religion, and morality—topics that involve such abstract concepts as friendship, faith, democracy, fairness, and honesty.
Third, during adolescence individuals begin thinking more often about the process of thinking itself, or metacognition. As a result, adolescents may display increased introspection and self-consciousness. Although improvements in metacognitive abilities provide important intellectual advantages, one potentially negative byproduct of these advances is the tendency for
A fourth change in cognition is that thinking tends to become multidimensional, rather than limited to a single issue. Whereas children tend to think about things one aspect at a time, adolescents describe themselves and others in more differentiated and complicated terms and find it easier to look at problems from multiple perspectives. Being able to understand that people's personalities are not one-sided, or that social situations can have different interpretations, depending on one's point of view, permits the adolescent to have far more sophisticated and complicated relationships with other people.
Finally, adolescents are more likely than children to see things as relative, rather than absolute. They are more likely to question others' assertions and less likely to accept "facts" as absolute truths. This increase in relativism can be particularly exasperating to parents, who may feel that their adolescent children question everything just for the sake of argument.
Adolescence is also a period of emotional transition, marked by changes in the way individuals view themselves and in their capacity to function independently. As adolescents mature intellectually and undergo cognitive changes, they come to perceive themselves in more sophisticated and differentiated ways. Compared with children, who tend to describe themselves in relatively simple, concrete terms, adolescents are more likely to employ complex, abstract, and psychological self-characterizations. As individuals' self-conceptions become more abstract and as they become more able to see themselves in psychological terms, they become more interested in understanding their own personalities and why they behave the way they do.
For most adolescents, establishing a sense of autonomy, or independence, is as important a part of the emotional transition out of childhood as is establishing a sense of identity. During adolescence, there is a movement away from the dependency typical of childhood toward the autonomy typical of adulthood. For example, older adolescents do not generally rush to their parents whenever they are upset, worried, or in need of assistance. They do not see their parents as all-knowing or all-powerful, and often have a great deal of emotional energy wrapped up in relationships outside the family. In addition, older adolescents are able to see and interact with their parents as people, not just as their parents. Many parents find, for example, that they can confide in their adolescent children, something that was not possible when their children were younger, or that their adolescent children can easily sympathize with them when they have had a hard day at work.
Being independent, however, means more than merely feeling independent. It also means being able to make decisions and to select a sensible course of action. This is an especially important capability in contemporary society, where many adolescents are forced to become independent decision makers at an early age. In general, researchers find that decision-making abilities improve over the course of the adolescent years, with gains continuing well into the later years of high school.
Many parents wonder about the susceptibility of adolescents to peer pressure. In general, studies that contrast parent and peer influences indicate that in some situations, peers' opinions are more influential, while in others, parents' are more influential. Specifically, adolescents are more likely to conform to their peers' opinions when it comes to short-term, day-to-day, and social matters—styles of dress, tastes in music, and choices among leisure activities. This is particularly true during junior high school and the early years of high school. When it comes to long-term questions concerning educational or occupational plans, however, or values, religious beliefs, and ethical issues, teenagers are influenced in a major way by their parents.
Susceptibility to the influence of parents and peers changes during adolescence. In general, during childhood, boys and girls are highly oriented toward their parents and less so toward their peers; peer pressure during the early elementary school years is not especially strong. As they approach adolescence, however, children become somewhat less oriented toward their parents and more oriented toward their peers, and peer pressure begins to escalate. During early adolescence, conformity to parents continues to decline and conformity to peers and peer pressure continues to rise. It is not until middle adolescence that genuine behavioral independence emerges, when conformity to parents as well as peers declines.
Accompanying the biological, cognitive, and emotional transitions of adolescence are important changes in the adolescent's social relationships. Developmentalists have spent considerable time charting the changes that take place with friends and with family members as the individual moves through the adolescent years.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the social transition into adolescence is the increase in the amount of time individuals spend with their peers. Although relations
Finally, whereas children's peer relationships are limited mainly to pairs of friends and relatively small groups—three or four children at a time, for example—adolescence marks the emergence of larger groups of peers, or crowds. Crowds are large collectives of similarly stereotyped individuals who may or may not spend much time together. In contemporary American high schools, typical crowds are "jocks," "brains," "nerds," "populars," "druggies," and so on. In contrast to cliques, crowds are not settings for adolescents' intimate interactions or friendships, but instead serve to locate the adolescent (to himself and to others) within the social structure of the school. As well, the crowds themselves tend to form a sort of social hierarchy or map of the school, and different crowds are seen as having different degrees of status or importance.
The importance of peers during early adolescence coincides with changes in individuals' needs for intimacy. As children begin to share secrets with their friends, loyalty and commitment develop. During adolescence, the search for intimacy intensifies, and self-disclosure between best friends becomes an important pastime. Teenagers, especially girls, spend a good deal of time discussing their innermost thoughts and feelings, trying to understand one another. The discovery that they tend to think and feel the same as someone else becomes another important basis of friendship.
One of the most important social transitions that takes place in adolescence concerns the emergence of sexual and romantic relationships. In contemporary society, most young people begin dating sometime during early adolescence. Dating during adolescence can mean a variety of different things, from group activities that bring males and females together (without much actual contact between the sexes); to group dates, in which a group of boys and girls go out jointly (and spend part of the time as couples and part of the time in large groups); to casual dating as couples; and to serious involvement with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend. More adolescents have experience in mixed-sex group activities like parties or dances than dating, and more have experience in dating than in having a serious boyfriend or girlfriend.
Most adolescents' first experience with sex falls into the category of "autoerotic behavior," sexual behavior that is experienced alone. The most common autoerotic activities reported by adolescents are erotic fantasies and masturbation. By the time most adolescents are in high school, they have had some experience with sexual behaviors in the context of a relationship. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), a self-reported survey of a national representative sample of high school students in grades nine to 12, indicated that in 2003, 46.7 percent of the students reported having had sex. By grade level, the rates were 32.8 percent for ninth grade, 44.1 percent for tenth grade, 53.2 percent for eleventh grade, and 61.6 percent for twelfth grade.
Generally speaking, most young people are able to negotiate the biological, cognitive, emotional, and social transitions of adolescence successfully. Some adolescents, however, are at risk of developing certain problems, such as:
- eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or obesity
- drug or alcohol use
- depression or suicidal ideation
- violent behavior
- anxiety, stress, or sleep disorders
- unsafe sexual activities
Many parents dread the onset of adolescence, fearing that their child will become hostile and rebellious and begin to reject his or family. Although it is incorrect to characterize adolescence as a time when the family ceases to be important, or as a time of inherent and inevitable family conflict, adolescence is a period of significant change and reorganization in family relationships. Family relationships change most around the time of puberty, with increasing conflict and decreasing closeness occurring in many parent-adolescent relationships. Changes in the ways adolescents view family rules and regulations may contribute to increased disagreement between them and their parents. Family conflict during this stage is more likely to take the form of bickering over day-to-day issues than outright fighting. Similarly, the diminished closeness is more likely to be manifested in increased privacy on the part of the adolescent and diminished physical affection between teenagers and parents, rather than any serious
When to call the doctor
Although changes—biologically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially—are to be expected during adolescence, certain inappropriate behaviors, drastic changes in personality or physical appearance, or abnormal sexual development may warrant a phone call to a physician or counselor. These include:
- extreme changes in weight (loss or gain) or excessive dieting
- sleep disturbances
- social withdrawal or loss of interest in activities
- sudden personality changes
- signs of alcohol or drug use
- talk or threats of suicide
- violent or aggressive behavior
- atypical (early or late) onset of puberty; in girls, failure to menstruate by the age of 16
Anorexia nervosa—An eating disorder marked by an unrealistic fear of weight gain, self-starvation, and distortion of body image. It most commonly occurs in adolescent females.
Hormone—A chemical messenger secreted by a gland or organ and released into the bloodstream. It travels via the bloodstream to distant cells where it exerts an effect.
Menarche—The first menstrual cycle in a girl's life.
Metacognition—Awareness of the process of cognition.
See also Puberty.
Steinberg, L. Adolescence, 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Blondell, Richard D., Michael B. Foster, and Kamlesh C. Dave. "Disorders of Puberty." American Family Physician 60 (July 1999): 209-24.
Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: United States, 2003." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53, no. SS-2 (May 21, 2004): 12-20.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016-3007. (202) 966-7300. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
Society for Research on Adolescence, 3131 S. State St., Suite 302, Ann Arbor, MI 48108-1623. Web site: <www.s-ra.org>.
Paulu, Nancy. "Helping Your Child through Adolescence." U.S. Department of Education. August 2002 [cited December 31, 2004]. Available online at: <www.ed.gov/parents/academic/help/adolescence/index.html>.
Rutherford, Kim. "A Parent's Guide to Surviving Adolescence." KidsHealth. June 2002 [cited December 31, 2004]. Available online at: <kidshealth.org/parent/growth/growing/adolescence.html>.
Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D. Stephanie Dionne Sherk