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Theories & Approaches

All Theories & Approaches

Adolescent Development: An Overview

While adolescent development does not occur on a perfect continuum, it is convenient to talk about adolescent maturation in stages. We will refer to three stages of adolescence in this column:

  • early adolescence: ages 9-13
  • middle adolescence: ages 14-16, and
  • late adolescence: ages 17-19

Table 1, modified from Get Organized: A Guide to Preventing Teen Pregnancy (1999), outlines the key features of each of these three stages of adolescent development.

Table 1: Key Features of the Three Stages of Adolescent Development

Aspect of
Early Adolescence
Ages 10-13
Middle Adolescence
Ages 14-16
Late Adolescence
Ages 17-19
  • Significant physical/ sexual maturation

  • Intense concern with body image
  • Continuing physical/ sexual changes

  • Less concern with body image
  • Physical/ sexual changes complete

  • Greater acceptance of physical appearance
  • Concrete thinking
  • Growth of capacity to think abstractly
  • Capacity for abstract thought in place
  • Growing independence in decision-making
  • Development pf sense of identity

  • Exploration of ability to attract partners begins
  • Sense of identity established
  • Increasing influence of peers

  • Feeling attracted to others begins
  • Enormous influence of peers/school environment

  • Increase in sexual interest
  • Family influence more in balance with peer influence

  • Serious intimate relationships begin to develop

  • Transition to work, college, independent living
  • Experimenting with new ways of behaving begins
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Capacity for realistic risk assessment


Developmental Tasks

Adolescents face the major task of creating stable identities and becoming complete and productive adults (Perkins, Adolescence: Developmental Tasks, 2001). They take on this task in small steps along the way as they adapt to the changes they experience. These steps are themselves significant challenges and are listed in Table 2, adapted from Perkins (2001), Stroufe (1988), and american Psychological Association (2002):

Table 2: Reaching Adolescent Developmental Goals

Developmental Goal Reaching the Goal: Facts and Tips
Achieve new level of closeness and trust with peers.

Adolescents learn through experimentation to interact with others in more adult ways.

Gain independence from parents and develop new status within the family.

Change is smoother if adolescents and their parents agree on some level of independence that increases over time. Example: Setting curfew times that increase as the adolescent matures and demonstrates responsible behavior.

Develop a sense of personal identity.

New cognitive abilities give adolescents the chance to reflect on who they are and what makes them unique. Adults can help adolescents in this quest by:

  • Engaging them with non-threatening questions, such as: Who do you admire? What do you like to do in your free time? What do you consider to be your strenghts? What have you done in your life that you feel proud of?

  • Casually showing rational decision-making strategies, such as discussing how someone you know defined a problem, generated options, anticipated outcomes, and made a decision.

  • Discussing ethical and moral problems that are in the news.

Move toward autonomy in the larger world.

Adolescents need to begin to explore what will be their place in the world. Adults can help them to gain insightful experience by encouraging them to:

  • Take on more responsibility in schoolwork and school-related activities.

  • Get involved in community activities.

  • Hold part-time or summer jobs.

  • Develop future goals.

  • Examine career/educational options.


Four Major Questions Facing Adolescents

The growth of one's intellect from concrete to abstract thinking makes adolescence an intense time of self-discovery. In their quest to define themselves and their relationship to the world, adolescents begin to ask themselves four basic abstract questions (Perkins, "Adolescence: The Four Questions," 2001):

  • Who am I? (pertaining to his or her sexuality and social roles)

  • Am I normal? (Do I fit in with a certain crowd?)

  • Am I competent? (Am I good at something that is valued by peers and parents?)

  • Am I lovable and loving? (can someone besides Mom and Dad love me?)

Adults who work with adolescents need to recognize that these questions are quite central to the concerns of adolescents and should give them a chance to explore their own beliefs and find their own answers to these questions. Guidelines for assisting adolescents in their quest to answer each of these questions follow in Table 3 (Perkins, 2001).


Table 3: Four Major Questions Facing Adolescents — Guidelines for Adults

Question Guidelines for Adults
Who am I?
  • Give them the freedom to explore their world. Only then can adolescents begin to answer this question.
Am I normal?

  • Give them room to be like their peers. Fitting in with peers helps adolescents feel "normal."

  • Monitor youth activities by using the four "W" questions:
    • Where are you going?

    • With whom are you going?

    • What are you doing?

    • When will you be home?
Am I competent?
  • Assist adolescents with their problems and challenges but do not solve them.

  • Ask questions instead of telling, such "What are some things you could do?"

  • Guide but do not direct.
Am I lovable and loving?

Adolescents develop best when they have supportive families and community life that include:

  • Warmth and mutual respect.

  • Serious and lasting interest of parents and other adults.

  • Adult attention to the changes they are experiencing.

  • Clear standards regarding discipline and close supervision.

  • Communication of high expectations for achievement and ethical behavior.

  • Democratic ways of dealing with conflict.


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