Development in Adolescence

Adolescence is the transition period from childhood to adulthood, a period that brings sometimes tumultuous physical, social, and emotional changes. Adolescence begins with the onset of puberty and extends to adulthood, usually spanning the years between 12 and 20. Puberty is the period during which the reproductive system matures, a process characterized by a marked increase in sex hormones.

Physical development. Physical development in adolescence includes a growth spurt as the body fills out, voice changes (especially in males), and an increase in sex hormones. Secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts in females and beards in males, appear. Girls' first menstruation ( menarche) usually occurs between the ages of 11 and 14.

Social development. According to Erik Erikson, appropriate social development in adolescence requires solving the major challenge of ego‐identity vs. role diffusion. To resolve this life crisis, adolescents must form an ego‐identity, a strong sense of “who I am and what I stand for,” or they may suffer role diffusion (running from activity to activity), with the increased likelihood of succumbing to peer pressure.


  • Gender differences in behaviors or mental processes continue to develop during adolescence. Research has indicated that experience and learning have a greater impact on such behaviors than do biological factors.

  • Gender identity, the recognition of being male or female, develops by age 3. Once they have established gender identity, children usually try to adapt their behavior and thoughts to accepted gender‐specific roles.

  • A gender role consists of the behaviors associated with one's gender. Gender‐related activities help an individual to establish an identity. Sometimes a person adopts gender‐role stereotypes, beliefs about the “typical” behavior of males and females expected by society.

  • One meaning of the term androgynous is having adopted both behaviors associated with males and those associated with females. Androgynous males can do hard physical labor and yet care for babies; androgynous females can be homemakers and yet fix cars or drive taxis.

Peer pressure. Peer pressure, a term used to denote legitimization of activities by a peer group, has been used to explain many adolescent societal difficulties. Although a peer group rarely forces an adolescent to try new activities, it may legitimize those activities by indulging in them.

Sexual behavior. During the past few decades, the sexual behavior of adolescents has been heavily investigated. While the threat of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) has changed some behaviors, many surveys indicate a dramatic increase in adolescent sexual activity through the twentieth century. The famous Kinsey survey in the 1940s reported that 50% of the men and 20% of the women surveyed reported having engaged in premarital intercourse by age 20. Three surveys in the 1980s found a substantial increase in the activity, with premarital intercourse reported by 68% of college men and 59% percent of college women. Studies have also shown that teenagers are still largely uninformed about contraception.

Problems during adolescence. Adolescent problems are many and often involve the adolescents' relationships with their peer group as well as their search for identity. These problems not only may affect physical survival in adolescents but also may have lifelong physical and psychological effects.

  • Substance abuse is a major health threat. Legal and illegal substances available to adolescents include tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, glue, paint vapors, and pills. In one survey, 30% of the adolescents reported using illicit drugs, such as amphetamine and cocaine. The spread of AIDS infections by use of dirty needles increases the seriousness of this health threat.

  • Eating disorders have increased dramatically among adolescents, particularly females. Anorexia nervosa is a voluntary weight loss of at least 25% of body weight; the extreme thinness may lead to other health problems such as cessation of menstruation. Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by binges, purges with laxatives, and self‐induced vomiting. Some people have alternating patterns of the two problems. A prolonged period of either eating disorder can result in serious health problems.

  • Suicides and attempted suicides have increased among adolescents at alarming rates in recent decades. Research findings suggest that the suicidal adolescent has usually had, since childhood, a history of stress and personal problems. Attempts to resolve the problems, including running away from home and increasing social isolation, may precipitate an attempted suicide. Early professional help is often needed to prevent withdrawal and acting out of problems.