Adolescent Development

Adolescence is commonly portrayed as a time of great turmoil for both the majority of adolescents and the people around them.  Adolescence is a time of rapid and pervasive changes including fundamental changes in cognitive development; changes in relationships with parents, peers, and adults; school and work transitions; and identity transitions including changes in self-definition and self-regulation (Schulenberg, Maggs, & Hurrelmann, 1997; Simpson, 2001). The Harvard School of Public Health’s Project on the Parenting of Adolescents identifies what they call “the ten tasks of adolescence” (Simpson, 2001).


1. Adjust to sexually maturing bodies

2. Develop and apply abstract thinking skills

3. Develop and apply a more complex level of perspective taking

4. Develop and apply new coping skills in such areas as decision-making, problem- solving, and conflict-resolution

5. Identify meaningful moral standards, values, and belief systems

6. Understand and express more complex emotional experiences

7. Form friendships that are mutually close and supportive

8. Establish key aspects of identity

9. Meet the demands of increasingly mature roles and responsibilities

10. Renegotiate relationships with adults in parenting roles


Put another way, Ava Siegler (1998) talks about the five basic fears of adolescence:  fear of the unknown (due to the rapid changes they are experiencing), fear of being alone (needing to be accepted, to be part of the right group), fear about the body (and the way in which it is changing), fear of the voice of conscience (learning what is acceptable and unacceptable), and fear about the self (replacing their childhood self with a new adolescent self). 

Adolescents do not encounter or resolve these tasks in any particular order nor do they accomplish them all at once.  Most of these developmental tasks evolve gradually, episodically, separately, and in combination, with pauses and regressions along the way. All of these factors can make life for adolescents and the people around them very challenging. 

While these developmental transitions are going on, adolescents and young adults are also making many consequential life decisions concerning educational attainment, occupational choices, relationship and family formation, and lifestyle options, making this a formative period in regard to health and well-being across the life span.

Many physical, mental health, and social problems of adulthood have their origin in habits and problem-solving and coping skills that are formed during adolescence (Kaminer, 2004). Many of these adolescent’s problems are due to family, social, and mental health issues that predate adolescence (Baer & Peterson, 2002). 

The research shows that the majority of adolescents experience transient problems which they are able to more or less resolve, but for some adolescents, the newness, immediacy and simultaneity of these changes in their cognitive, emotional, and social development may contribute to decreased health and well-being (Dennis, Godley, & Titus, 2004; Schulenberg, Maggs, Steinman, & Zucker, 2001). 

These adolescents become more deeply affected and are unable to grow out of their problems without assistance.  The challenge in working with adolescents is how to influence their negotiation of these developmental transitions so that physical, psychological, and social health-enhancing characteristics are strengthened and health-compromising characteristics are diminished.


Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior

For many adolescents, risk-taking behaviors emerge as a component of normal development (Smith & Anderson, 2001). Research shows that as many as 30% of adolescents regularly engage in multiple high-risk behaviors, and 35% more experiment with such behaviors at various times (Bell & Bell, 1993; Schonert-Reichl, 2003).

Adolescents' own risk-taking behavior is one of the greatest threats to their social, physical, and psychological development. The prevalence of school failures, traffic accidents, homicides, suicides, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and AOD use problems testifies to the fact that adolescents can be a troubling time for many individuals and their families. 

It can be difficult to distinguish between normal transitional risk-taking behaviors that are non-problematic, even developmentally enhancing, and those same behaviors that, by their frequency, intensity, and consequences, are problematic expressions - both now and possibly in the future.       

The age when a child first starts to show signs of problem behavior is very significant. Researchers have identified two primary developmental pathways to problem behaviors in adolescents:  1) the early-starter pathway,” consists of children who show an early history of problem behavior, they often live in a disorganized environment, and they escalate to more serious forms of antisocial behavior, including delinquency, drug use, and violence in early adolescence; and 2) the “late-starter pathway” consists of youth with marginal adaptation to school and the peer group who emerge as problematic in early to middle adolescence. 

The link between antisocial behavior in middle childhood and the emergence of new problem behavior in adolescence is quite strong. Age of onset for behavior problems is very relevant primarily because of the increasing likelihood of academic and social skills deficits of youth with a history of problem behavior, peer support for problem behavior, and the family’s level of engagement in parenting. Intervention strategies must consider the needs of both groups linking prevention and treatment (Dishion & Kavanagh, 2003).