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Child Development Theory: Adolescence
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Summary and Conclusion

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

Adolescence is an amazing period of growth spanning the ages of 12-24 years old. Youth enter this developmental stage with the body and mind of a child, and then exit 10-12 years later, with the body and mind of an adult. This article examined the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, moral, and sexual dimensions of adolescent development. While these individual areas of development were discussed separately by necessity, it was emphasized there is a strong inter-relationship among these various aspects of development. Furthermore, it was emphasized that there is a great deal of individual variation within the normal developmental process. Individual youth may reach developmental milestones at ages that are different from averages presented in this article, and yet these youth would still be considered "normal." Caregivers were advised to consult a health care professional if they have concerns about their child's developmental progress in any of these areas.

Physically, adolescents grow to reach their adult height, and their bodies begin to resemble adult bodies in size, shape, and body composition. Moreover, they become capable of sexual reproduction.

Cognitively, adolescent thinking skills rapidly advance as they enter Piaget's stage of formal operations. Youth are now able to think in abstract terms so that they can conceptualize theoretical ideas, moving beyond the limitations of concrete information. Youth begin analyze problems in a more logical and scientific manner. This ability to think abstractly and analytically simultaneously promotes their social, emotional, and moral development. As their brain continues to develop, youths' capacity for memorization expands as the brain develops more sophisticated methods of organizing information, allowing for more rapid and accurate information storage and subsequent retrieval. However, the brain's frontal lobe is not fully developed until the very end of adolescence. The frontal lobe of the brain enables humans to inhibit primitive sexual or emotional impulses by using rationale thought to override these impulses. The incomplete development of the frontal lobe means that adolescents will continue to struggle to make wise and thoughtful decisions in the presence of powerful emotional, social, or sexual pressures.

Emotionally, adolescents encounter many new experiences that challenge their ability to cope with a broad array of intense emotions. Youth must learn how to handle stressful situations that trigger powerful emotions without harming or hurting themselves, or other people. Once youth have learned to identify their emotions, and the source of their emotional reactions, they must then learn healthy ways to cope with situations that cause strong emotional reactions. When this learning is completed, youth will have developed emotional efficacy; a landmark skill that enables them to be successful in their future careers, and to enjoy meaningful relationships with others.

Emotional maturity is closely tied to the knowledge of oneself, and one's values. This self-identity develops and solidifies during adolescence. Erik Erikson and James Marcia both proposed theories of identity development and these theories were reviewed. Despite theoretical differences, both theorists agree some youth will develop a clear set of values and beliefs through experimentation with different identities, and an examination of their values. Other youth will not advance this far. These youth will either continue to question their values; or, they may not examine their values at all. Some youth are so disadvantaged they do not have opportunities to explore values beyond mere survival.

Socially, as youths' need for independence increases, their primary social support shifts away from their families, and toward their peers. Because of the increased importance of peer relationships, youth are especially sensitive to peer pressure (meaning, to conform to the standards of the peer group). By late adolescence youth will ordinarily re-establish close relationships with their families, provided these relationships were positive to begin with. Youth also create more meaningful and productive relationships with other people outside their circle of family and friends; e.g., bosses, coaches, teachers, co-workers, and other acquaintances. Romantic relationships begin to flourish during this developmental phase. In early adolescence these connections may be of a more flirtatious nature, and may bloom and fade rather quickly. However, by late adolescence, many of these relationships become more stable, mature, and emotionally intimate.

Moral development naturally progresses as mental and emotional maturity improves. Youths' understanding of right and wrong becomes more sophisticated and nuanced. Both Piaget's and Kohlberg's theories of moral development were reviewed, but Kohlberg's theory has been more strongly supported by the research. According to Kohlberg's theory, some youth will eventually base their moral decisions on a set of ethical principles that surpass existing laws or rules. Other youth will remain primarily concerned with rules, laws, and fairness.

Sexual development was described as a complex merger of physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and moral development. During this time youth solidify their gender identity as masculine, feminine, or transgendered. Youth will also become aware of their sexual orientation which refers to a pattern of attraction to others, not sexual behavior. Youth will begin to realize they are primarily attracted to the opposite gender (straight), the same gender (gay or lesbian), both genders (bisexual), or still uncertain (questioning). During early adolescence most teens become curious about sex, but any sexual behavior is usually limited to masturbation. However, by middle to late adolescence, many teens begin to experiment with various sexual behaviors via masturbation, partners, or both. Because of the brain's incomplete development youth are at risk for making poor or risky decisions regarding their sexuality. Ultimately youth must determine what type of sexual behavior is acceptable to them, and under what circumstances. These decisions are best made in advance of the need to make them.

In conclusion, adolescent youth experience monumental changes in every single aspect of their lives as they make the transition from childhood into adulthood. The purpose of this article was to provide parents and other caregivers the foundational information needed to recognize and to appreciate the normal developmental progression of adolescents. Therefore, this article was primarily descriptive in nature. However, the process of adolescent development can become quite challenging and sometime overwhelming for both youth and their families. The next article in this series will build upon this foundation to provide parents and other caregivers concrete advice and practical solutions to common problems that arise during adolescence. Armed with this information, caregivers will feel more confident and successful as they guide their child through these often confusing and difficult years.