How is adolescence defined

Psychology

Buddhi Maharjan 👤 3 Personality and Human Development / Page 3.4 Adolescence On this page: 1 of 1 attempted (100%) | 1 of 1 correct (100%)

Adolescence

How is adolescence defined, and how do physical changes affect developing teens?

Many psychologists once believed that childhood sets our traits. Today’s developmental psychologists see development as lifelong. As this life-span perspective emerged, psychologists began to look at how maturation and experience shape us not only in infancy and childhood, but also in adolescence and beyond. Adolescence—the years spent morphing from child to adult—starts with the physical beginnings of sexual maturity and ends with the social achievement of independent adult status. In some cultures, where teens are self-supporting, this means that adolescence hardly exists.

G. Stanley Hall (1904), one of the first psychologists to describe adolescence, believed that the tension between biological maturity and social dependence creates a period of “storm and stress.” Indeed, after age 30, many who grow up in independence-fostering Western cultures look back on their teenage years as a time they would not want to relive, a time when their peers’ social approval was imperative, their sense of direction in life was in flux, and their feeling of alienation from their parents was deepest (Arnett, 1999; Macfarlane, 1964).

But for many, adolescence is a time of vitality without the cares of adulthood, a time of rewarding friendships, heightened idealism, and a growing sense of life’s exciting possibilities.

Physical Development

Adolescence begins with puberty, the time when we mature sexually. Puberty follows a surge of hormones, which may intensify moods and which trigger a series of bodily changes.

Early Versus Late Maturing

Just as in the earlier life stages, the sequence of physical changes in puberty (for example, breast buds and visible pubic hair before menarche—the first menstrual

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period) is far more predictable than their timing. Some girls start their growth spurt at 9, some boys as late as age 16. Though such variations have little effect on height at maturity, they may have psychological consequences: It is not only when we mature that counts, but how people react to our physical development.

For boys, early maturation has mixed effects. Boys who are stronger and more athletic during their early teen years tend to be more popular, self-assured, and independent, though also more at risk for alcohol use, delinquency, and premature sexual activity (Conley & Rudolph, 2009; Copeland et al., 2010; Lynne et al., 2007). For girls, early maturation can be a challenge (Mendle et al., 2007). If a young girl’s body and hormone-fed feelings are out of sync with her emotional maturity and her friends’ physical development and experiences, she may begin associating with older adolescents or may suffer teasing or sexual harassment (Ge & Natsuaki, 2009). She may also be somewhat more vulnerable to an anxiety disorder (Weingarden & Renshaw, 2012).

The Teenage Brain

An adolescent’s brain is also a work in progress. Until puberty, brain cells increase their connections, like trees growing more roots and branches. Then, during adolescence, comes a selective pruning of unused neurons and connections (Blakemore, 2008). What we don’t use, we lose.

The point to remember Teens find rewards more exciting than adults do. So they seek thrills and rewards, without a fully developed brake pedal controlling their impulses.

As teens mature, their frontal lobes also continue to develop. The growth of myelin, the fatty tissue that forms around axons and speeds neurotransmission, enables better communication with other brain regions (Kuhn, 2006; Silveri et al., 2006). These developments bring improved judgment, impulse control, and long-term planning.

Maturation of the frontal lobes nevertheless lags behind that of the emotional limbic system. Puberty’s hormonal surge and limbic system development help explain teens’ occasional impulsiveness, risky behaviors, and emotional storms—slamming doors and turning up the music (Casey et al., 2008, 2013). No wonder younger teens (whose unfinished frontal lobes aren’t yet fully equipped for making long-term plans and curbing impulses) may succumb to the tobacco corporations, which most adult smokers could tell them they will later regret. Teens actually don’t underestimate the risks of smoking—or fast driving or unprotected sex. They just, when reasoning from their gut, weigh the immediate benefits more heavily (Reyna & Farley, 2006; Steinberg, 2007, 2010). Teens find rewards more exciting than adults do. So they seek thrills and rewards, without a fully developed brake pedal controlling their impulses (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Impulse Control Lags Reward Seeking

National surveys of more than 7000 American 12- to 24-year-olds reveal that sensation seeking peaks in the mid-teens, with impulse control developing more slowly as frontal lobes mature. (National Longitudinal Study of Youth and Children and Young Adults

survey data presented by Steinberg, 2013.)

So, when Junior drives recklessly and struggles academically, should his parents reassure themselves that “he can’t help it; his frontal cortex isn’t yet fully grown”? They can take hope: Brain changes underlie teens’ new self-consciousness about what others are thinking and their valuing of risky rewards (Barkley-Levenson & Galván, 2014; Somerville et al., 2013). And the brain with which Junior begins his teens differs from the brain with which he will end his teens. Unless he slows his brain development with heavy drinking—leaving him prone to impulsivity and addiction—his frontal lobes will continue maturing until about age 25 (Crews et al., 2007; Giedd, 2015). They will also become better connected with the limbic system, enabling better emotion regulation (Steinberg, 2012).

In 2004, the American Psychological Association (APA) joined seven other medical and mental health associations in filing U.S. Supreme Court briefs arguing against the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds. The briefs documented the teen brain’s immaturity “in areas that bear upon adolescent decision making.” Brain scans of young teens reveal that frontal lobe immaturity is most evident among juvenile offenders and drug users

(Shannon et al., 2011; Whelan et al., 2012). Thus, teens are “less guilty by reason of adolescence,” suggested psychologist Laurence Steinberg and law professor Elizabeth Scott (2003; Steinberg et al., 2009). In 2005, by a 5-to-4 margin, the Court concurred, declaring juvenile death penalties unconstitutional. In 2012, the APA offered similar arguments against sentencing juveniles to life without parole (Banville, 2012; Steinberg, 2013). Once again, the Court, by a narrow 5-to-4 vote, concurred.

Multiple-Choice Question

People develop improved judgment, impulse control, and the ability to plan for the future during their teens and early twenties, largely as a result of which of the following?

a surge of hormones beginning in puberty development of the frontal lobes of the brain development of the parietal lobes of the brain growth in the number of neurons and their connections

Correct. Along with the myelin growth that speeds up our brain’s communications, the development of our frontal lobes leads to a marked improvement in things like judgment and long-term foresight.

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