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Child Development Theory: Adolescence
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Adolescent Emotional Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

As is evident from the above discussion, cognitive development and emotional development are closely intertwined. Adolescent emotional development is often characterized by rapidly fluctuating emotions. In this section we will debunk the myth that fluctuating emotions are simply the result of adolescents' "overreaction" to stress. We will also discuss important aspects of emotional maturity, particularly an essential skill called emotional self-efficacy. Finally, we will review the process by which adolescents come to form their own unique identity.

Adolescent stress

For many parents, the adolescent period can seem like a whirlwind of rapidly changing emotions. In fact, some earlier theories about adolescent development proposed that "storm and stress" was to be expected, and suggested adolescents characteristically tended to over-react to everyday situations. However, more recent research refutes that outdated notion. Developmental experts have since learned that what may appear as "storm and stress" is actually the natural outcome of youth learning to cope with a much larger array of new and unfamiliar situations. (Larson & Ham, 1993).

In addition to navigating new and uncharted territory, teens growing up in today's society are subjected to increased demands on their physical, mental, and emotional resources. Social relationships outside the family have exponentially increased with the advent of electronic social networking (e.g. Facebook®, Twitter™, etc.). Academic standards have become more stringent. Sports and other recreational pursuits are more competitive. While teens are learning to cope with these challenges it should be expected that they will have a diverse range of emotions, and may experience fluctuating emotions throughout the day or week.

Therefore, teens must learn how to respond to new and unfamiliar situations at the same time they are experiencing increased demands on their physical, mental, and emotional resources. Such a scenario can certainly increase stress; however, the ability to adaptively cope with stress is influenced by many factors. Certain genetic factors, such as temperament, make some people more sensitive to stress. On the other hand, certain environmental factors such as family and community can help to mitigate the effect of stress by enabling youth to become more resilient in the face of stress.

As mentioned, one factor that can influence our response to stress is temperament. Temperament refers to a genetically-determined tendency to behave in a particular way. We are each born with temperamental differences that are observable at birth. For instance, some babies are more sensitive and reactive to stress while other babies are not. These more sensitive babies react swiftly and sharply to a light shining in their eyes, or to a sudden loud noise. They will also take longer to calm down, and are more difficult to soothe and comfort. Other babies are more easygoing and less reactive to stress. They react to a bright light or loud noise by simply closing their eyes, or turning away. They calm down quickly and are easier to soothe and comfort. Thus, adolescents born with more sensitive temperaments may have a more difficult time coping with stressful situations, and may require greater assistance to learn effective techniques to manage their stress. More about temperamental differences can be found in the sensory-motor developmental article.

However, just because youth are born with a more sensitive temperament does not mean they are doomed to suffer. There are many protective factors that can help to mitigate the effects of stress, and serve to increase youths' resilience in the face of stress. Resilient youth will experience fewer negative reactions and negative behaviors in response to stress, and fewer adverse consequences as a result.

One such protective factor is the social support provided by family, peers, teachers, coaches, etc. Social support enables youth to practice handling stressful and challenging circumstances while simultaneously knowing that if they should need help someone is nearby and willing to assist them. Therefore, social support enables youth to gain experience managing stressful situations and to gain confidence while doing so. Perhaps an analogy can illustrate how social support functions. Suppose you want to learn how to swim. Swimming is a skill that must be practiced in the water, much like stress management is a skill that must practiced while in the midst of stress. Clearly you can't learn how to swim unless you actually get into the water. But it is much easier to get into the water if you know someone is nearby and ready to rescue you should you begin to drown. Social support works the same way as a lifeguard or buoy would. It's there if you need it, and its mere presence permits safe opportunities for developing and practicing new skills.

In a related way, a sense of safety and security is another protective factor. Youth who feel secure and safe tend to cope with stress much better than youth who feel unsupported, unsafe, or unprotected by their immediate environment (family, community, school). Rules, boundaries, and limitations serve to create a sense of safety and comfort. Youth feel more comfortable and relaxed when they know what is expected of them. For instance, youth who attend schools with a high degree of staff-to-student engagement, high academic standards, and clear and consistent behavioral expectations, tend to be more resilient because they have more opportunities to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to successfully overcome tough obstacles. Likewise, youth who have parents and caregivers who establish rules and healthy boundaries, along with opportunities to practice independent decision-making skills (while making some mistakes along the way), are far better equipped to cope with life's ups and downs. Thus, when social support is coupled with a balance of age-appropriate limitations and freedoms, it creates a sense of safety and security that can mitigate the effect of stress.

Besides temperament, social support, and security, culture also plays a key role in determining how people respond to stress. There is a great deal of cultural variation with regard to emotional expression: ranging from very high emotional expression, to very low emotional expression (emotional restriction). Since family and community members serve as role models, youth will adopt the culturally accepted methods of expressing emotions surrounding stress. When teens observe respected members of their community expressing their emotions in a responsible and respectful manner they are more likely to follow this pattern of emotional expression.

While environmental factors can certainly serve to protect against the negative effects of stress, the same environmental factors can serve to increase the negative effects of stress. To begin with, some youth grow up in chronically stressful environments. The additional demands of adolescence can become over-burdensome and puts these youth at greater risk for developing problems such as depression and anxiety, alcohol or other drug use, teen pregnancy, and violence.

Likewise, just as the presence of social support has a positive influence on stress management, the lack of social support has a negative effect. Youth who do not feel loved, wanted, or valued by their family, school, or community lack the necessary social support for the development of effective stress management skills, and fail to develop the confidence needed to tackle challenging situations or circumstances. The presence or absence of social support helps to explain why two youth from the same unsafe community, with similarly abusive family backgrounds, can turn out so differently. Inevitably, the successful one of the pair had strong social support from a church member, a community youth group leader, a coach, a teacher, a grandparent, or even a neighbor.

Similarly, youth who must question their security and personal safety are also less likely to successfully manage their stress because survival becomes their primary concern. Youth who regularly experience or witness violence (e.g., domestic violence, abuse, bullying, gang violence) in their home, school, or community do not feel safe and secure. When survival becomes the primary concern, short-term needs are the primary consideration and long-term consequences become irrelevant. Choices are made based on what is most likely to ensure survival in the short-term, not what is most likely to result in long-term benefits. Likewise, if youth have no guidelines or rules and do not know what is expected of them they are more likely to make poor choices and to experience negative consequences as a result. Other youth may know what is expected of them, but do not believe their success or failure matters to anyone. These youth tend to give-up easily when faced with tough situations. Therefore, they never gain the experience needed to successfully manage stress, and lack confidence in their ability to cope with challenging situations.

Culture can also negatively influence youths' ability to effectively cope with stress. If the prevailing culture promotes "Always look out for #1- ME," youth do not learn to rely on social support as a resource during difficult times. Similarly, if the prevailing method of handling negative emotions is through physical means such as fighting, or the response to stress is to use alcohol and other drugs, youth will usually learn to handle their own stress in the same way.