The physical changes of puberty have a distinct onset and end point. The adolescence psychology are more difficult to categorize. One way to look at adolescent emotional development is to think of the psychological tasks that adolescent face on their way to adulthood. It’s useful, too, to think of adolescence as occurring in three stages: early, middle, and late. The main adolescence psychology change from stage to stage, as described in the sections below.
Psychological Tasks of Adolescence
- Coming to terms with their new physical selves
- Developing a new male or female emotional identity
- Resolving the differences between the norms and values of their peers and those of their parents
- Establishing and expressing their own moral convictions
- Developing a sense of self-responsibility
- Demonstrating the potential for financial self-sufficiency
A central problem for adolescents and young adults is to find out what kind of people they will be, what work they will do, what principles they will live by. This is partly a conscious, partly an unconscious process.
In groping to find this identity, adolescents may try out a variety of roles: dreamer, cosmopolitan, cynic, leader of lost causes, ascetic, and so on. Some adolescents seem to find themselves early and directly: others take a long time and many side roads before they find their paths.
Adolescents have to separate themselves emotionally from their parents in order to find out who they are and what they want to be. Yet they are largely made from their parents—not only because they have inherited their genes from them but also because they have been patterning themselves after them all their lives. They must now pry themselves apart. The eventual outcome will be influenced by the extent of their dependency, the intensity of their rebelliousness and rivalry, and the kind of outside world they live in and what it asks of them.
Adolescence psychology – Taking risks
One way adolescents move toward independence is by taking risks. It’s easy for teens to underestimate risks, because they tend to see themselves as invulnerable. They have always been fine and therefore expect they always will be. Appeals to logic often fall on deaf ears; teens live in the real present, no the hypothetical future.
Not all risks are bad. A teen who bicycles across country or spends hour after hour practicing skateboard jumps is gaining skills, building self-esteem, and learning to exercise judgment. As adults, we are able to calculate risks and weigh benefits because as adolescents we learned, through trial and error, how much risk we were willing to take and what the cost of those risks can be.
Risk-taking, however, also has a dark side. The child who experiments with cigarettes just to be cool is likely to end up addicted to nicotine. Alcohol is an accepted part of adult culture, and it is all too easy for teens to drink. Getting drunk is a form of risk-taking—How much can you hold? Can you keep control?—that can easily end in tragedy when an intoxicated teen gets behind the wheel of a car.
Illegal drug use can progress to abuse and addiction in both troubled teens and in adolescents from good homes. Sexual activity is another way teens tempt fate. Nationally, the number of teen pregnancies is dropping, but the number of unwed teen parents in the United States is still higher than in many other wealthy nations.
The challenge for parents is to help teens take risks sensibly. Education on the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and irresponsible sex needs to start before the teen years. It’s good that many elementary and middle schools teach these subjects, but parents need to be involved, too.
You need to be very clear about your values, and teach by example as well as by word. It’s also wise to avoid putting your child in situations where the temptations are too great. Allowing a 16-year-old to stay later working on the school newspaper conveys trust and encourages responsibility. Leaving a 14-year-old home alone for a weekend invites unwise risk-taking.
This is precisely why adolescence psychology needs to be understood and dealt with in the best way.