“At least I know who I was when I woke up this morning. . . I must have changed several times since then.” -Alice in Wonderland
It often seems that parents, when dealing with adolescent children, were never adolescents themselves. (Of course, we like to say, things were very different then. Our children on the other hand may be thinking it’s been so long we’ve simply forgotten!) It may help then to read a primer of sorts on adolescence, to remind us about this incredibly complex time of life, and perhaps to convince us that yes, the confusions, the contradictions, the complications, are all real.
Adolescence is the developmental period lasting from roughly 11-18 years of age during which traits – whether biological, cognitive, behavioral or personality – change from the child-like to the adult-like.
For our purpose, there are three types of development involved. The first, most basic is GROWTH (paglaki), referring to additive, quantitative, physical changes over time. The second is MATURATION (pagdating sa edad). More encompassing than growth, maturation is qualitative, closely related to heredity and involves a progression of occurrences. Finally, there is LEARNING (pagtatanda), which brings about changes in thinking and perception as a result of experience and interaction.
Adolescent development covers four domains. The PHYSICAL involves body and brain changes while the INTELLECTUAL relates to memory, reasoning, language and thinking. The SOCIO-EMOTIONAL domain covers emotional management and dealing with the outside world. Finally, the MORAL domain refers to right and wrong distinctions, responsibility, accountability, and the pursuit of goals. Let’s now look at adolescence by discussing the changes experienced by the pubescent child in each of these domains.
Consider the Little Leaguer who grows six inches over a single summer, with peach fuzz to boot. The growth spurt beginning right before the teen years causes dramatic changes in children. Rapid bone growth makes them taller, denser, heavier. There is remarkable muscular transformation in boys and an increase in body fat for girls. Interestingly, body parts don’t mature at the same rate. Thus it takes a while after a girl’s menarche for her higher estrogen levels to give her body more womanly contours. And we all know gangly teens who are “all arms and legs.”
Beginning as early as age 9 or 10 and as late as 15 or 16, puberty involves the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics, towards sexual maturation. Early maturation more often benefits boys; male early bloomers are generally more independent, self-confident and popular. Conversely, late maturation more often benefits girls; female late bloomers have more time to be ready for the male attention that maturity attracts. Female early bloomers and male late bloomers are more prone to insecurities, depression and behavioral problems.
An adolescent is now able to think about abstract and hypothetical concepts, to consider an issue from another’s viewpoint and to solve problems logically. Ironically, she may also still have difficulty separating her own thoughts and feelings from those of others. They are also likely to engage in egocentric thinking, which in teens, manifests as believing that everyone’s attention is focused on him; or that his thoughts are experienced by no one else.
Body image is a big deal. Concern over appearance is infinitely greater than during childhood or adulthood. Thus, constant mirror checks. Girls are more likely to be dissatisfied with their looks. Boys on the other hand worry early on but grow more pleased over time. The onset of menarche (a girl’s first menstrual period) and spermarche (a boy’s first ejaculation) are also significant. Girls are pleased by this maturity yet irritated by the inconvenience. They tell their mothers first and their friends next. Less is known about boys’ reaction to spermarche. It is likely that they discuss this with friends, if at all, rather than with parents. Overall, once prepared, young people react more positively
Moodiness is an adolescent hallmark. Many a parent can attest to the abrupt shift from giggly to gloomy, from intimate to disinterested, from long-winded stories to gruff monosyllabic responses. Generally, teenagers experience subdued moods in situations controlled by adults, and exhibit great excitability when among peers.
When children enter school age, they grow more aware of social realities. Adolescence ushers in the development of an empathic orientation and compassion. At the same time, the pubescent child becomes more sensitive to labels and more needful of social acceptance. Peer group influence is magnified in a wide array of areas, from fashion and lingo to values and sexual behavior. Thus, a teen will very likely experience conflict between adhering to patterns, standards and values present in her family and adapting those imposed by her outside milieu.
Actually, this conflict is essential to the adolescent task of forming an ego identity that is different from one’s parents. The basic question “Who am I?” although explored initially within the framework of family (therefore what her parents tell her creates part of her life-script) must be individually answered.
For sure, adolescence is intense: growth spurts, abstract and idealistic thought, questioning and experimenting, powerful emotions, urges toward autonomy, constant assessment of parental values. It would be very nice if the physical, intellectual, socio-emotional and moral development were all apace with each other. But that is rarely the case. Intellectual and physical development are fastest, all that’s needed is food, sleep and school. Socio-emotional and moral development lag behind, because they’re more complex. A college freshman feels awkward and uncomfortable meeting classmates of the opposite sex for the first time; a 6-foot basketball hero still plays with transformer robots; and a young lady’s systems may be ready for sexual reproduction, but her emotions are not.
Paraphrasing from Dr Fitzhugh Dodson: Imagine a child with a lot where his house of childhood stands. During adolescence, he needs to tear down this house in order to build the house of his young adulthood. This “tearing down” may make a child suddenly negativistic, defiant, stubborn, sassy and obnoxious in many ways. A battle rages within every adolescent: part of him wants to detach from his parents, yet another part wants to retain all the comfort and security associated with emotional dependence on them.
Many teens are in a hurry to grow up, to get there, thus engaging in adult activities – smoking, drinking, entering into exclusive relationships, being sexually active – just because they consider themselves to be “old enough.” However, rushing themselves can bring on grim consequences, including foreclosure into an unsuitable identity; regret for lost opportunities due to unplanned pregnancy, unfinished schooling or early marriage; even fragmentation of the self.
It has been mentioned that some conflict is necessary to complete the adolescent task of ego formation. Knowing this makes it easier for us parents to understand that some degree of defiance of adult impositions is actually normal during this time. However, combined with the predisposition to experiment which comes with this age period, teens are placed particularly at risk. In late adolescence, a youth stands on the brink of adulthood and full psychological independence from parents. He is not quite there yet, but at this stage, many situations can be handled on the level of one adult to another. This helps increase his psychological quotient or maturity, towards completing his emancipation. Our young adults will therefore benefit from our abiding patience, communication, guidance and love – especially the unconditional kind.
1. Sally Itliong-Maximo, Psychology Department, St. Louis University, Baguio City
2. SOURCEBOOK OF FAMILY THEORY AND RESEARCH, Vern L Bengston, Alan C Acock, David M Klein, Catherine R Allen, Peggye Dilworth-Anderson, editors
3. Boyd, D., & Bee, H. (2005). Lifespan Development. Boston: Pearson/A and B.