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Physical and Cognitive Development in Adolescence


Guidepost 1: What is adolescence, when does it begin and end, and what opportunities and risks does it entail?

  • Adolescence, in modern industrial societies, is the transition from childhood to adulthood. It lasts from age 11 or 12 until the late teens or early twenties.
  • Legal, sociological, and psychological definitions of entrance into adulthood vary.
  • Adolescence is full of opportunities for physical, cognitive, and psychosocial growth, but also of risks to healthy development. Risky behavior patterns, such as drinking alcohol, drug abuse, sexual and gang activity, and use of firearms, tend to be established early in adolescence. About 4 out of 5 young people experience no major problems.



Guidepost 2: What physical changes do adolescents experience, and how do these changes affect them psychologically?

  • Puberty is triggered by hormonal changes, which may affect moods and behavior. Puberty takes about four years, typically begins earlier in girls than in boys, and ends when a person can reproduce. A secular trend toward earlier attainment of adult height and sexual maturity began about 100 years ago, probably because of improvements in living standards.
  • During puberty, both boys and girls undergo an adolescent growth spurt. Primary sex characteristics (the reproductive organs) enlarge and mature, and secondary sex characteristics appear.
  • The principal signs of sexual maturity are production of sperm (for males) and menstruation (for females). Spermarche typically occurs at age 13. Menarche occurs, on average, between the ages of 12 and 13 in the United States.
  • Psychological effects of early or late maturation depend on how adolescents and others interpret the accompanying changes.

Guidepost 3: What are some common health problems in adolescence, and how can they be prevented?

  • For the most part, the adolescent years are relatively healthy. Health problems often are associated with poverty or a risk-taking lifestyle. Adolescents are less likely than younger children to get regular medical care.
  • Many adolescents, especially girls, do not engage in regular, vigorous physical activity.
  • Many adolescents do not get enough sleep, in part because the high school schedule is out of sync with their natural body rhythms.
  • Concern with body image often leads to obsessive dieting.
  • Three common eating disorders in adolescence are obesity, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa. All can have serious long-term effects. Anorexia and bulimia affect mostly girls. Outcomes for bulimia tend to be better than for anorexia.
  • Adolescent substance abuse and dependence have lessened in recent years; still, drug use often begins as children move into middle school.
  • Marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco are the most popular drugs with adolescents and can lead to the use of hard drugs.
  • The prevalence of depression increases in adolescence, especially among girls.
  • Leading causes of death among adolescents include motor vehicle accidents, firearm use, and suicide.



Guidepost 4: How do adolescents' thinking and use of language differ from younger children's?

  • People in Piaget's stage of formal operations can engage in hypothetical-deductive reasoning. They can think in terms of possibilities, deal flexibly with problems, and test hypotheses.
  • Brain maturation and environmental stimulation play important parts in attaining this stage. Schooling and culture also play a role.
  • Not all people become capable of formal operations; and those who are capable do not always use it.
  • Piaget's theory does not take into account accumulation of knowledge and expertise and the growth of metacognition. Piaget also paid little attention to individual differences, between-task variations, and the role of the situation.
  • Vocabulary and other aspects of language development, especially those related to abstract thought, Adolescents enjoy wordplay and create their own "dialect."
  • According to Elkind, immature thought patterns can result from adolescents' inexperience with formal thinking. These thought patterns include idealism and criticalness, argumentativeness, indecisiveness, apparent hypocrisy, self-consciousness, and an assumption of specialness and invulnerability. Research has cast doubt on the special prevalence of the latter two patterns during adolescence.

Guidepost 5: On what basis do adolescents make moral judgments?

  • According to Kohlberg, moral reasoning is based on a developing sense of justice and growing cognitive abilities. Kohlberg proposed that moral development progresses from external control to internalized societal standards to personal, principled moral codes.
  • Kohlberg's theory has been criticized on several grounds, including failure to credit the roles of emotion, socialization, and parental guidance. The applicability of Kohlberg's system to women and girls and to people in nonwestern cultures has been questioned.

Guidepost 6: What influences affect school success, and why do some students drop out?

  • Self-efficacy beliefs, academic motivation, socioeconomic status, parental involvement, parenting styles, ethnicity, peer influences, and quality of schooling affect adolescents' educational achievement. Poor families whose children do well in school tend to have more social capital than poor families whose children do not do well.
  • Although most Americans graduate from high school, the dropout rate is higher among poor, Hispanic, and African American students and among those not living with both parents. Active engagement in studies is an important factor in keeping adolescents in school.

Guidepost 7: What factors affect educational and vocational planning and preparation?

  • Educational and vocational aspirations are influenced by several factors, including students' and parents' self-efficacy beliefs and parents' values and aspirations. Gender stereotypes still have an influence, but less so than in the past.
  • About 37 percent of high school graduates do not immediately go on to college. These students can benefit from vocational training.
  • Part-time work seems to have both positive and negative effects on educational, social, and occupational development.

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