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Theories & Approaches

All Theories & Approaches

Adolescent Development: Developmental Theories

Theorists and researchers agree that notable development occurs during adolescence in a number of areas. However, there are differing viewpoints about some aspects of adolescence (De Anda, 1995), including:

  • whether development is continuous or discontinuous with the preceding and following stages in the life cycle.

  • whether the period of adolescence is one of turmoil and stress or is relatively uneventful.

  • whether it is critical for adolescents to accomplish specific developmental tasks during this time.

  • whether internal or environmental factors have a more significant influence on the experiences and outcomes of adolescent development.

We will look at three different theories of development, noting some of their similarities and differences: Freud's Psychosexual Stages, Erikson's Psychosocial Stages, and Piaget's Periods of Development.

Freud's Psychosexual Stages

Psychoanalytic theories of human development began in the 1900's with the work of Sigmund Freud. More modern theories of development have now replaced those of Freud. Yet it is still important to be familiar with the basics of Freud's work, as many modern views of human development still have their roots in Freudian theory.

Freud developed a general theory of psychological development from infancy to adulthood. He believed that the mind of an infant consists only of primitive drives and instincts, such as the need for food and physical comfort, which he called the "id."

During the first few years of life, the self, or "ego" develops. The function of the ego is to find safe and appropriate ways for the id to be expressed. Through the ego, a child finds ways to get what he or she needs within the boundaries of what is acceptable to the parents. After the initial struggle between the id and ego, the child learns to delay gratification in response to external demands, particularly those of parents.

In the late preschool years, the child develops a conscience, which Freud called the "superego." The child has now internalized the parents' values. He or she feels guilty for misbehaving and will try to behave even when adults are not around.

Freud believed that a single motive governs human behavior — the desire to satisfy biological needs and thereby discharge tension. He defined stages of development in terms of the organs he thought were used to discharge tension at that age. From birth to adulthood, a child develops through these stages in sequence: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Failure to experience gratification for basic drives during a given stage could cause an individual to become "fixated" in that stage, stuck forever in that particular psychological mode.

Freud believed that adolescence is fraught with internal struggle. He viewed the pre-adolescent "latency" period as a time when the child develops a balance between the ego and id. Upon entering the "genital" phase of adolescence, the child is bombarded with instinctual impulses that disrupt this balance. The ego is torn between the strong impulses of the id and the restrictions of the superego. This conflict makes adolescence a time of tremendous stress and turmoil.


Erikson's Psychosocial Stages

While based on Freud's psychosexual concept of development, Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory takes a broader view of the factors that impact human development. He places importance on the social and cultural components of an individual's developmental experiences.

Erikson proposes a series of developmental tasks that all people face and resolve in some way. Previous developmental outcomes set the stage for upcoming issues, but an individual does not become "stuck" in a phase, as Freud believed. Instead, the old issue is reworked in the context of current tasks. A comparison of Freud and Erikson is outlined in Table 4, excerpted from Stroufe & Cooper (1988) with minor modifications.

Table 4: A Comparison of Freud's Psychosexual Stages with Erikson's Broader Psychosocial Stages

Age Freud's Psychosexual Stages Erikson's Psychosocial Stages Erikson's Developmental Issues
Birth to 1 Year


Basic trust vs. mistrust

Infants learn to trust others to satisfy their needs and therefore develop self-worth. Infants receiving inconsistent care may grow to mistrust the people in their world.

1 to 3 Years


Autonomy vs. shame and doubt

Children learn to be self-sufficient by mastering tasks such as feeding and dressing themselves. Children who do not develop autonomy may doubt their abilities and their capacity to act on the world. As a result, they may develop feelings of shame.

3 to 6 Years


Initiative vs. guilt

Children initiate pretend play with peers and accept responsibilities such as helping with household chores. Sometimes these activities create conflicts with others, which create guilt. Children can resolve these crises by learning to balance initiative against the demands of others.

7 to 11 Years


Industry vs. Inferiority

Children must master increasingly difficult skills, particularly social interaction with peers and academic performance. Children whose industry enables them to succeed in these areas develop a sense of mastery and self-assurance. Those who do not feel inferior and may shun new activities.

12 to 18 Years


Identity vs. role confusion

Adolescents build on all earlier experiences to develop a sense of self-identity. Failure to reach this goal may cause confusion in sexual identity, the choice of an occupation, and the roles they perform as adults.

Like Freud, Erikson viewed adolescence as a time of turmoil and stress. He thought that the turmoil resulted from an identity crisis rather than a struggle between the id and ego. He saw adolescence as a necessary and productive period — as a time of life when one works to form one's own identity.


Piaget's Periods of Development

Piaget described development in terms of sequential changes in how children think. He proposed that children grow through three periods of development, each distinguished by a different way of thinking. Piaget's periods of development are summarized in Table 5, excerpted from Stroufe & cooper (1988):

Table 5: Piaget's Periods of Development

Age Period of Development Cognitive Structures
Birth to 2 Years Sensorimotor

Infants understand the world through perception and action. Abilities expand throughout this period, so that by age two, toddlers can purposefully combine their actions.

2 to 11 Years

Concrete Preoperational Subperiod

Children master independently acquired skills. Children are able to form mental representations of objects and imagine actions related to them. Thought is egocentric.

7 to 11 Years Concrete Operational Subperiod

Children are capable of logical thinking. Their imaginations are constrained by reality, and they can perform logical operations on concrete objects.

12 Years Through Adulthood Formal Operational

Children develop the ability to reason abstractly.


According to Piaget, cognitive development through adolescence involves:

  • movement from concrete to abstract thinking, and

  • a decrease in egocentric thought.

Prior to adolescence, the thinking of a child is concrete. The acquisition of formal reasoning skills allows older adolescents (about age 15) to think about many possible outcomes of a situation that do not exist now. They can construct possibilities and assess probabilities. Imagine, for instance, that you pose the hypothetical situation of an adolescent pregnancy. An adolescent with formal reasoning skills (with appropriate guidance) could try to think through the full implications of parenting a newborn.

The transition from concrete to completed formal operational thinking occurs in stages between the ages of 11-14. According to Piaget and other cognitive theorists, the predominance of egocentric thought during this period leads to some particular views and behaviors, including:

  • self-consciousness

  • the imaginary audience: feeling as though one's actions and appearance is being constantly scrutinized

  • the personal fable: viewing one's thoughts and feelings as unique experiences, and

  • feelings of invulnerability, leading to risk-taking behavior.

By sharing experiences with peers, adolescents learn that many of their thoughts and feelings are shared by almost everyone. This realization helps them to feel less unique — or less "abnormal" — and more like others. The egocentric thinking of early adolescence thus diminishes by about the age of 15 or 16.


Next: Aspects of Adolescent Development>>