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Psychological Changes in Adolescence

Adolescence is a term usually used to describe transitional period or a passage from childhood to adulthood and in today’s context seem to be distinguished by 2 distinct stages: the puberty and transition to adulthood.

Today’s adolescence seem to be particularly vulnerable because, in addition to physical and psychological changes that an individual goes through, young people are subjected to rapid changes in society and multicultural influences; not the least because of advancement in technology, demography and demands of both, the knowledge and achievement. This is particularly relevant to more advanced, western societies.

An early thought in psychoanalysis led by Miller 1950 (cited in Briggs 2008) suggested that adolescence is “the age between” characterised by puberty (physical changes), mid adolescence (short period of opposition to authority) and late adolescence (leaving the school and becoming an adult).

However, the changes occurred post that period exposed a gap in experiences, raising a need for further exploration. These influential changes are reflected in the finding that late adolescence and the transition to adulthood extended considerably in regards to previous assumptions (Briggs 2008).

Today’s view contradicts that of Miller and alike in understanding that adolescence stretches into mid to late twenties as opposed to teenage years.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that those who accomplish the transition early, at the end of teenage years, may be disadvantaged and at increased risk of social exclusion (Briggs 2008).

On the other hand, the onset of puberty itself has changed little for the last fifty years.

Contemporary understanding of adolescence also raises the issue of its complexity, sparking the wide debate on accurateness of its earlier description, deepened further by discussion whether there is a need for early intervention. This latter debate divided the community of professionals into two major groups: interventionists and non-interventionists. The interventionists argue that the adolescence is the time of great uncertainty and changes making this group particularly vulnerable; if left unattended, it could influence development itself, educational achievement and the difficulties could persist into the adulthood. The support for interventionists view comes from recent studies that show that most of disorders found in adults, begun in adolescence between the ages of 12 and 24, even though they may not be noticed until the adulthood (Briggs 2008).

On the other side we have non-interventionists who believe that the time of “stress and turmoil” would pass with time and intervention is unnecessary (Briggs 2008).

However, there seem to be general consensus within the psychoanalytic world that the adolescents are vulnerable and exposed to risks of anti-social behaviour, a high risk of offending, substance misuse, eating disorders, depression, suicide and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Although these risk factors are present even within the normal development in adolescence for the minority of adolescents, if “untreated”, it can persist into adulthood.

In adolescence, the changes in physique are also accompanied by increased societal demands for conformity, change of school, increased academic demand and so on; therefore this is the period of uncertainty and anxiety. While the majority of adolescents navigate through these changes successfully, for significant minority this period is turbulent and stressful.

Individual differences in terms of inner resources to deal with these transitional issues lie within the relationship with adults. These relationships are rooted in the early childhood and could act as determinants of successful or unsuccessful transition.

From psychoanalytic point of view, adolescence is the time of powerful changes not only physically, but accompanied by surge of instincts and urges demanding powerful control.

In order to examine these inner processes of change we will look into adolescence through two distinct phases: the puberty and the transition to adulthood.

The puberty is characterised by changes in physical development and growth spurt. Growth spur describes faster growth rate in weight and height, where girls are noted to enter the growth spur around the age of 10, typically reaching its peak at the age of 12, and more steady growth rate at the age of 13. On the other hand, boys begin the growth spur at around the age of 13 and peak at the age of 14, achieving more stabilized growth rate at the age of 16. In addition to becoming taller and heavier, both sexes assume adult like appearance, with girls growing breasts, widening of hips and for boys broadening of shoulders. Facial features also change in such way that the forehead protrudes while the jaw and the nose become more prominent (Shaffer, Kipp 2006).

The puberty is also characterised by sexual maturation, which is quite different in boys and girls. With girls, sexual maturation starts somewhat earlier (before the age of 10) with formation of “breast buds”, followed by the appearance of pubic hair. With entering the growth spur, the breasts grow faster and sexual organs (vagina and uterus) begin to mature taking adult like forms in its readiness for future motherhood. At around age 12 the girl enters menarche, the time of the first menstruation (Shaffer, Kipp 2006).

For boys, sexual maturation starts later at around age of 11 with an enlargement of testes, followed by appearance of pubic hair and penis enlargement. At around age of 13 the production of spermatozoa occurs and ejaculation follows. By the age of 15 most boys would have achieved sexual maturity, rendering them capable of becoming fathers.

Somewhat later, facial hair grows and voice changes (Shaffer 2006).

It is important to mention that although literature describing puberty varies, in terms of onset, there seem to be general consensus that the earlier growth spur occurs the more dramatic changes become. This seems to be applicable to both sexes.

Adolescent physical development is accompanied by many psychological changes.

Some of the more obvious psychological changes in adolescence are reflected in growing concern for physical appearance. Girls in particular become more concern with “looking pretty” and how other people would respond to them, with a hope that they would be seen as attractive. Girls that develop at different pace to the perceived norm are prone to internalising a negative body image. Their reaction to menarche is mixed; they are often excited and confused, especially if they were not told what to expect.

On the other hand boys are more likely to welcome body weight in hope that they would become tall, hairy and handsome. What they have in common is preoccupation with physical appearance and mixed feelings about sexual maturity ( Shaffer, Kipp 2006).

The sexual maturation and adult like appearance are accompanied by eruption of infantile feelings and a “crisis of separating from childhood ways of relating to parents” (Blos 1967 cited in Briggs 2008). The prospect of possible parenthood causes identification with the same sex parent, the process called oedipal stage. Sexual urges and passions are revived and the desire for the affection of the opposite sex parent results in unconscious competition for that affection. These urges were present in infancy, however, now they are accompanied by the real possibility of achievement, thus becoming a conflict and destabilising (Briggs 2008).

These re-emerging passions and urges demand reconsideration of the relationship with parents and a new dimension of these relationships. Psychoanalytic perspective explain these changes as both, liberating and frightening experience, opening doors to vulnerability and anxiety and developing sense of power. It is also, according to psychoanalytic view, accompanied by identification, separation and loss of childhood relationships (Briggs 2008).

These new states of anxiety, vulnerability and power are significant in adolescent development and require particular attention. From the psychoanalytic perspective the adolescence is turbulent because of these new states, which greatly contradicts more common psychological and social perspective that emphasises smooth process of adolescence (Briggs 2008).

It is suggested that these turbulent aspects are “forgotten and disowned” and then projected onto adolescents by adults who do not wish to remind selves on the turbulence once they encountered (Briggs 2008).

It is also suggested that the period of adolescence is often idealised or alternatively projected as miserable. Jacobs (1990 cited in Briggs 2008) explains this split as two different stages of adolescence where early adolescence is characterised by misery and turbulence, while the late adolescence is marked by the sense of accomplishments and smooth transition.

Briggs demonstrated this idea through the case of Maria, 21 year old self-referred patient.

While Maria passed through the teenage years without much of a struggle and in concordance with her parents, at the age of 21, when she achieved financial independence and established professional life, Maria seemed uncertain of her identity, questioning her capacity to be independent in expressing her own opinion.

In addition to these observations, it is important not to overlook other influences on the development of adolescence, such as changes that occur in the brain. The understanding of adolescent development has altered taking into consideration of deeper knowledge of neurological changes that take place during this time.

According to neuroscience, some of the adolescent behaviour may have its roots in neurological causes. The findings suggest that cognitive abilities needed for mature behaviour are underdeveloped in adolescence. The changes that occur in the brain during the adolescence have effect on regulation, learning and memory. Stressful experiences may have adverse outcomes on brain development, increasing susceptibility to psychopathologies. Advocating enhancement of social and learning environment, the neuroscience suggests that the adverse outcomes could be significantly reduced, even reversed (Briggs 2008).

In summary, the biological perspective deepens our understanding of adolescence in a way that indicates the greater need for an integrated approach linking internal, biological, psychological and environmental aspects of adolescent experience. (Briggs 2008). This is to say that the development of the brain increases ability to control behaviour but, the successful execution of that control needs to be facilitated by environmental factors such as stable and supportive relationship with parents. If the environment is filled with adversities, the stress of adolescence could become pathological and in need of an intervention.

So far we have discussed biological perspective in conjunction with psychoanalytic view, however it was emphasised that social factors could benefit or damage the normal development of adolescence. This concept of influence of the social context on adolescence is called psychosocial perspective.

Some societies mark adolescence with the rite of passage, in western societies this rite of passage does not seem to be either marked or acknowledged. Besides, with extended adolescence the psycho-social context becomes ever more complex.

In today’s society there is disparage between biological and psychological maturation and transition to adulthood. Patton and Viner ( 2007 cited in Briggs 2008) found this disparage particularly present in the developed world of western societies stating:

“the development of reproductive capacity and sexual activity precede role transition into parenthood and marriage by more than a decade” (p11).

This disparage is significant in the way that increases risk and vulnerability of adolescents.

In helping a better understanding of this disparage, psychoanalysis relies on the theory of psychosocial development by Erikson. Erikson provided and extension to original model of 5 stages of development described by Freud in a way that accommodated this latency in adolescence by introducing a concept of psychosocial moratorium. The focal point for Erikson is adolescence and the creation of personal identity. The crisis arising during this phase is identity versus role confusion (Papalia and Wendoks-Okds, 1978; Cardwell, Clark, and Meldrum 2004). He argued that adolescents are going through many physical, cognitive, and social changes, associated with puberty, and often become confused undermining their self- esteem .This in turn can lead to a “psychosocial moratorium”, a temporary suspension of activity. According to this theory, the most important task for adolescents involves achieving “a conscious sense of individual uniqueness”. This means to discover “who am I?”, and in doing so adolescents must make some occupational choices or they will remain confused about the roles they should play as adults (Gross 2005; Papalia and Wendoks-Okds, 1978; Shaffer and Kipp 2006). Erikson goes one-step further to identify four kinds of behaviour linked to identity confusion: Negative Identity (which relates to criminal and anti social behaviour as a sense of control and independence from others); Intimacy (which refers to avoidance “from fear of losing own fragile sense of identity”, often resulting in isolation); The Perspective (which relates to avoidance of planning the future because, doing so means thinking about ramifications of adulthood and evoking anxiety) and Industry (which relates to difficulty in striking a balance, thus results in inability to concentrate) (Cardwell, Clark and Meldrum 2004).

The premise for the reformatting was that adolescents’ identity creation involves crisis and commitment; Crisis occurs through having to re-evaluate previous choices and values, while commitment occurs when the individual takes on a set of roles and beliefs (Cardwell, Clark, and Meldrum 2004) The moratorium could create additional tension and inner conflict which in turn are met by either by repression or foreclosure . Repression simply is the unwilling yet continued deferment that simply creates more anxiety. Anxiety can turn into development of antisocial behaviour, delinquency, inappropriate sexual behaviour or more severe self-destructive behaviour (e.g suicide, self-harm).

Under such a challenge, the experience is one of a “… split of self images, a loss of center, and a dispersion” (Erikson, 1968). These symptoms and the experience of the self as “disrupted” have been described as the “… dark and negative side of identity formation,” and they are viewed as vital to the identity process (Erikson, 1975).

Up until this fifth stage, development depends on what is done to a person.A At this point, development now depends primarily upon what a person does.A An adolescent must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, while negotiating and struggling with social interactions and “fitting in”, and developing a sense of morality and right from wrong.

Some attempt to delay entrance to adulthood and withdraw from responsibilities (moratorium).A Those unsuccessful with this stage tend to experience role confusion and upheaval.A Adolescents begin to develop a strong affiliation and devotion to ideals, causes, and friends.


At this stage, adolescents are in search of an identity that will lead themto adulthood. Adolescents make a strong effort to answer the question “Whoam I?” Erikson notes the healthy resolution of earlier conflicts can nowserve as a foundation for the search for an identity. If the child overcomesearlier conflicts they are prepared to search for identity. Did they develop thebasic sense of trust? Do they have a strong sense of industry to believe inthemselves?

Elements for a positive outcome: The adolescent must make a conscious search for identity. This is built onthe outcome and resolution to conflict in earlier stages.

Elements for a negative outcome: If the adolescent can not make deliberate decisions and choices, especiallyabout vocation, sexual orientation, and life in general, role confusion becomesa threat.

Examples: Adolescents attempt to establish their own identities and see themselves asseparate from their parents.

Age: Adolescence –12 to 18 years Conflict: Identity vs. Role Confusion Important Event: Peer relationships

The most important question asked at this stage is “who am I?” The major event at this stage is peer relationships. This encompasses the middle school, high school, and even college years where one is trying to figure out where there niche is. What type of person are they? Even though their parents believe in abortionaˆ¦do they? What do they want as a career? Do they believe in Godaˆ¦do they want to use that to attach labels to themselves as religious or atheist?

Erik Erikson was one of these outcasts. He agreed with Freud that development proceeds through a series of critical stages. But he believed the stages were psychosocial, not psychosexual. Erikson also argued that life’s developmental stages encompass the whole life span According to Erikson, a crisis is equivalent to a turning point in life, where there is the opportunity to progress or regress. At these turning points, a person can either resolve conflicts or fail to adequately resolve the developmental task.

Delving further into these differences, Erikson contended that each stage of life has its own psychosocial task. Young children wrestle with issues of trust, then autonomy, then initiative. School-age children develop competence, the sense that they are able and productive human beings. In adolescence, the task is to synthesize past, present, and future possibilities into a clearer sense of self. Adolescents wonder: “Who am I as an individual? What do I want to do with my life? What values should I live by? What do I believe in?” Erikson calls this quest to more deeply define a sense of self the adolescent’s “search for identity.”

To refine their sense of identity, adolescents usually try out different “selves” in different situations – perhaps acting out one self at home, another with friends and still another at school and work. If two of these situations overlap – like when a teenager brings a friend home from school – the discomfort can be considerable. The teen may ask, “Which self is the real me? Which self should I be?” Often, this role confusion gets resolved by the gradual reshaping of a self-definition that unifies the various selves into a consistent and comfortable sense of who one is – an identity.

But not always, Erikson believes that some adolescents forge their identity early, simply by taking on their parents’ values and expectations. Others may adopt a negative identity that defines itself in opposition to parents and society but in conformity with a particular peer group, complete perhaps with the shaved head or multi-colored coif. Still others never quite seem to find themselves or to develop strong commitments. For most, the struggle for identity continues past the teen years and reappears at turning points during adult life.

During the first social stage, trust versus mistrust, an infant’s basic task is to develop a sense of trust in self, others, and the world. The infant needs to count on others and develop a sense of acceptance and security. This sense of trust is learned by being caressed and cared for. From Erikson’s viewpoint, if the significant others in an infant’s life provide the necessary love, the infant develops a sense of trust. When love is absent, the result is a general sense of mistrust in others. Clearly, infants who feel accepted are in a more favorable position to successfully meet future developmental crises than are those who do not receive adequate nurturing. However, Erikson postulates that since development is a ongoing lifelong process, personality is not fixed at any given time. Events, circumstances, and social relationships are dynamic and changing. Thus, even a child who emerged from the first stage of life with a strong sense of trust may become mistrustful and cynical if betrayed in later social relationships. Hence, personality is not viewed as fixed by the fifth year of life, as Freud believed, but remains fluid throughout the life span.

Between the ages of one and three (Freud’s anal stage), children are developing a growing sense of control over their lives. They can now walk, run, climb, and get into all sorts of mischief. A sense of autonomy develops as they learn new skills and achieve a feeling of control over their environment. Thus Erikson’s titles this stage Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt. During this period, some parents, out of concern or impatience with their children’s progress may intervene and do things that the children should be doing by themselves. Other parents may demand a level of competence of which their children are not yet physically and/or emotionally capable. In either case, these children begin to doubt their own abilities and feel ashamed when they fail to live up to parental expectations. Children who fail to master the tasks of establishing some control over themselves and coping with the world around them develop a sense of shame and feelings of doubt about their capabilities

During the next stage, Initiative versus Guilt, which takes place during the preschool years (ages 4 to 6 – Freud’s phallic stage), children seek to find out how much they can do. According to Erikson, the basic task of preschool years is to establish a sense of competence and initiative. Preschool children begin to initiate many of their own activities as they become physically and psychologically ready to engage in pursuits of their own choosing. If they are allowed realistic freedom to choose their own activities and make some of their own decisions, they tend to develop a positive orientation characterized by confidence to initiate actions and follow through on them. On the other hand, if they are unduly restricted, or if their choices are ridiculed, they tend to experience a sense of guilt and ultimately withdraw from taking an active and initiating stance.

By the age of six, the child should enter elementary school. It is during this age that the stage of Industry versus Inferiority occurs. During the ensuing five years, the most important events in the child’s life revolve around setting and accomplishing goals related to school situations. When children are successful in mastering the many behaviors expected of them during these years, they develop feelings of competency and a sense of industry. They may express such feelings as: “I can do anything if I just work hard enough.” Children who encounter failure during the early grades may experience severe handicaps later on. A child with learning problems may begin to feel like a worthless person. Such feelings may drastically affect his or her relationships with peers, which are also vital at this time.

During the adolescent years, teens experience Identity versus Role Confusion. Typically, adolescents feel they are on center stage and everyone is looking at them. They are often highly critical of themselves and feel that others are equally critical. Their thoughts often turn inward. They look at themselves and question whether or not they measure up to their peers. They also begin thinking about lifelong goals and careers, wondering whether they will make it in the world of the adult. Their ruthless self-appraisal is often beneficial. It results in the development of values, social attitudes, and standards. This inward focus appears to be necessary for the development of a firm sense of self and of broader roles in the social order.

During the stage of Intimacy versus Isolation, adolescence is now behind the individual and the early adult years loom ahead. Energies are focused on building careers, establishing lasting social ties, and achieving then maintaining intimate relationships. Marriage or cohabitation creates new demands on the individual – sharing, compromising, and relinquishing social mobility to some degree. Also, many young adults begin having children and raising families. Those who were unsuccessful in resolving their identity crises may find themselves isolated from mainstream society and unable to maintain healthy intimate relationships.

It basically identifies the developmental interaction between maturational advances and the social expectations made upon the child

Ego “identity is never ‘established’ as an ‘achievement,’” as something static or unchangeable, but is a “forever to-be-revised sense of reality of the Self within social reality” (Erikson, 1968: 24, 211). Although the identity crisis is most pronounced during adolescence and gives that age its stage name, identity issues remain a lifelong concern. A redefinition of one’s ego-identity emerges quite commonly when major role changes occur, such as when college freshmen leave home and have to make their own decisions, often for the first time. Other issues that tend to renew identity concerns are: one’s first job, marriage, parenthood, the death of one’s parents, divorce, unemployment, serious illness, widowhood, and retirement.

The ability to cope with these later identity issues that result from major changes in one’s role in life may well depend on the degree of success with which one bas mastered the adolescent identity crisis.

Adolescence bas been characterized by Erikson (1950) as the period in the human life cycle during which the individual must establish a sense of personal identity and avoid the dangers of rote diffusion and identity confusion. Identity achievement t implies that the individual assesses strengths and weaknesses and determines how he or she wants to deal with them. The adolescent must find an answer to the identity questions: “Where did 1 come from?” “Who am I?” “What do 1 want to become?”Identity, or a sense of sameness and continuity, must be searched for. Identity is not readily given to the individual by society, nor does it appear as a maturational phenomenon when the time comes, as do secondary sex characteristics.

Identity must be acquired through sustained individual effort. Unwillingness to work actively on one’s identity formation carries with it the danger of role diffusion, which may result in alienation and a sense of isolation and confusion. The search for an identity involves the establishment of a meaningfu1 self-concept

in which past, present, and future are brought together to form a unified whole. Consequently, the task is more difficult in a historical period in which the anchorage of family and community tradition bas been lost and the future is unpredictable. ln a period of rapid social change, the aIder generation is no longer able to provide adequate role models for the younger generation. Mead (1970) describes in detail the changing relationship of adolescents to parents as societies move from post- to co- and pre figurative cultures (see Chapter 6). Keniston (1965) bas even suggested that in a rapidly changing society, the search for an identity is replacing the socialization process, since the latter implies that there actually exist stable, uniform, socially defined scales and values into which the adolescent can be guided.

The aider generation no longer provides effective role models to the younger generation in the process of searching for a personal identity. If the elders do provide them, adolescents may either reject them as personally inappropriate, or follow them-in what will later be discussed as a “foreclosed fashion”-that is, seeking to fulfil their parents’ aspirations for them, without appreciating the search for an identity as a personal opportunity. Thus, the importance of the peer group in helping the individual to answer the identity question, “Who am I?” cannot be emphasized enough. The answer to this question depends on social feedback from others who provide the adolescent with their perception and their evaluation of him or ber. Identity is based on psychosocial reciprocity. Therefore, adolescents “are sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are and with the question of how to connect to earlier cultivated cales and skills with the ideal prototype of the clay” (Erikson, 1959: 89). Adolescents’ preoccupation with the thinking of others is the basis of Elkind’s (1967) theory of egocentrism. Since an identity can be found only in interaction with significant others, a process Erikson refers to as psychosocial reciprocity, the adolescent often goes through a period of a great need for peer group recognition and almost compulsive peer group involvement.

Conforming to the expectations of peers helps adolescents find out how certain cales fit them, but peer group conformity can also createa new kind of dependencys, o that the individual accepts the values of others tao easily without really addressing the identity issue ofhow weIl they do fit him or ber. The peer group, the clique, and the gang, even the lover, aid the individual in the search for a personal identity since they provide bath a cole model and very personal social feedback. The seemingly endless telephone conversations during adolescencea nd later, the bull sessioni n college, can serveg enuine psychological purposes by providing this kind of personal information. As long as the adolescent depends on role models and feedback, the in-group feeling that the peer group provides will remain quite strong. AIso, behaviors of conformity to the expectations of the peer group reflect the learned skill of not making oneself an easy target of “catty remarks” or to avoid being “mocked out.” The ensuing clannishnessa and intolerance of “differences”-including petty aspects of language, gesture, hair style, and dress-are explained by Erikson as the “necessacy defenses” against the dangers of self-diffusion that remain prevalent as long as the identity bas not yet been achieved. Particularly during the time when the body image changes so rapidly, when genital maturation stimulates sexualf antasiesa, nd when intimacy with the opposite sexa ppearsa s a possibility with simultaneouslyp ositive and negative valencest,h e adolescent relies on peers for advice, comfort, companionship, and uses peers as a personal sounding board. Eventually, adolescents must free themselves from this new dependency on peers-which bas just replaced their dependency on parents-in order to find themselves, that is, to attain a mature identity. Such an identity, once found, gives the young adult “a sense of ‘knowing where one is going’ and an inner assuredness anticipated recognition from those who count” (Erikson, 1959: 118). Pubescence, according to Erikson, is characterized by the rapidity of body growth, genital maturity, and sexual awareness. Because these changes are qualitatively quite different from those experienced during childhood, an element of discontinuity from previous development may emerge during early adolescence. youth is not only confronted with an internal “physiological revolution” that interferes with the easy establishment of a new body image, but also confronted with a “psychological crisis” that revolves around issues of identity and self-definition. Erikson maintains today that the study of identity bas become more important than was the study of sexuality in Freud’s rime. For the searching adolescent, identity-the establishment and reestablishment of sameness with previous experiences and a conscious attempt to make the future a part of one’s personal life plan-seems to be subordinated to sexuality. Adolescents must establish ego-identity and learn to accept body changes as well as new libidinal feelings. Identity exploration depends at least in part on these psycho physiological factors. I


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