Many past societies, even those in ancient times, had language that referred to a period between childhood and adulthood—what we call adolescence. In modern society, adolescence has been shaped by broad social and economic changes associated with the rise of industrialization, as well as prolonged time spent in formal education. This specific life stage called adolescence can be observed around the world. However, how it is understood and how it impacts self and others vary considerably depending on the community and society in which it occurs.
While adolescence can be observed around the globe, there is no specific, universally accepted age range that defines the beginning or end of this period for every community or society. In modern society, the typical ages associated with adolescence range from ten to eighteen. However, as educational demands have increased in the face of a rapidly changing integrated world economy, the period associated with adolescence has lengthened and can include ages up through the midtwenties. In the absence of clearly defined age boundaries of adolescence, social factors, such as marriage, help define this period for communities and societies. Thus, the ages of adolescence can vary for different communities and societies.
Despite the fluctuation in the age range of adolescence, the developmental task of the period essentially remains the same: a successful transition to becoming a fully functioning productive member of adult society. The relative success of this transitional period hinges on the interaction of three markers of adolescent development.
Throughout childhood, physical growth is steady and relatively predictable, but with the onset of puberty dramatic changes begin to occur to the body. Rapid acceleration of growth, development of primary and secondary sex characteristics (the former being changes to the reproductive organs themselves and the latter being outward signs of maturity, such as growth of pubic hair), increases in muscle and fat, and increased circulatory and respiratory capacities all occur during puberty. Remarkably, when the adolescent is growing most rapidly, he or she gains in height at a rate equal to that of a toddler. These changes are arguably the one universal aspect of adolescence around the world. However, the impact of these changes is not universal and depends on the context—the environment—in which they occur. For example, some cultures have formal initiation rituals associated with puberty, signifying to the community that the individual is now an adult and receives adult status and responsibilities. In the United States, the responses to pubertal changes are often less pronounced and more private, with few, if any, initiation rituals (responses are often limited to joking or teasing). These varied responses to puberty in different communities help contribute to the adolescent’s self-concept.
Paralleling the biological changes of adolescence, there are significant cognitive changes, that is, changes in ways of thinking, that occur at the same time. Some of the key cognitive changes occurring during adolescence include the ability to think more abstractly and engage in more complex thought processes, and an increased awareness of one’s own thinking processes. For example, adolescents are able to solve the following problem because of increased abstract thinking: If A is less than B and B is less than C, is A less than or greater than C? Most adolescents can solve this problem, but the prepubescent child finds it difficult or impossible to solve. An important by-product of these newly developed abilities is the capacity to understand complex language devices, such as metaphors, satire, and sarcasm.
One of the most influential theories of cognitive development during adolescence came from the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). His theory holds that thinking develops in predictable stages from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. According to Piaget, the “formal operations” stage begins at adolescence at approximately eleven years and is completed at around eighteen years, although the upper age range can vary considerable (from approximately fifteen to twenty-one). In this stage, unlike the previous stage (concrete operations), adolescents develop the capacity to reason about a problem using formal abstract logic— the type necessary to solve the problem given above.
Other important theories of adolescent cognitive development have also been developed. Informationprocessing theories aim to identify changes in adolescents’ thinking, such as increases in long- or short-term memory, that allow them to solve more complex problems. Another theory, social cognitive theory, aims to understand how adolescents learn from other people and from the community (their social environment).
In addition to the biological and cognitive changes occurring during adolescence, important changes also occur between the individual adolescent and society during this period. Some of these include changes in legal, political, economic, and interpersonal status. In the United States, at sixteen a person can legally drive a vehicle, at eighteen one can vote, and many delay career decisions until their mid-twenties. Adolescents in other countries experience similar changes, although the age at which these changes occur varies. For example, in Germany adolescents decide relatively early (between ages fifteen and sixteen) to pursue vocational education or higher education. Significant interpersonal changes also occur. There is an increase in intimacy between friends as well as increased interest in romantic relationships.
As might be expected, the timing and recognition of these social changes vary considerably depending on what particular community or culture the adolescent is in. Some societies clearly separate the boundaries between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, marking the transitions with ceremonies and rites of passage to signify the change in the individual’s status. For example, bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah (male and female, respectively) ceremonies are often held in Jewish communities and signify that the individual has attained adult status. With this event, the individual has conferred on him or her the religious rights and responsibilities associated with adult status. Other societies or cultural groups demarcate the boundaries between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood less clearly, with few, if any, formal events to signify a change.
The biological, cognitive, and social changes associated with adolescence do not occur in isolation; their impact on development interacts with the communities in which adolescents are situated. Research continues to document community assets (for example, community and school support) as crucial ingredients in healthy adolescent development, although not all communities surround adolescents with a similar set or number of assets. Those communities that provide youth with opportunities to contribute to their society and learn important skills (such as goal setting, decision making, and communicating) are better prepared to assist their adolescents in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. In turn, these adolescents often become active and productive members of their communities in adulthood.
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