Adolescence, these years from puberty to adulthood, may be roughly divided into three stages: early adolescence, generally ages eleven to fourteen; middle adolescence, ages fifteen to seventeen; and late adolescence, ages eighteen to twenty-one. In addition to physiological growth, seven key intellectual, psychological and social developmental tasks are squeezed into these years. The fundamental purpose of these tasks is to form one’s own identity and to prepare for adulthood.
Puberty is defined as the biological changes of adolescence. By mid-adolescence, if not sooner, most youngsters’ physiological growth is complete; they are at or close to their adult height and weight, and are now physically capable of having babies.
Most boys and girls enter adolescence still perceiving the world around them in concrete terms: Things are either right or wrong, awesome or awful. They rarely set their sights beyond the present, which explains younger teens’ inability to consider the long-term consequences of their actions.
By late adolescence, many youngsters have come to appreciate subtleties of situations and ideas, and to project into the future. Their capacity to solve complex problems and to sense what others are thinking has sharpened considerably. But because they are still relatively inexperienced in life, even older teens apply these newfound skills erratically and therefore may act without thinking.
If teenagers can be said to have a reason for being (besides sleeping in on weekends and cleaning out the refrigerator), it would have to be asserting their independence. This demands that they distance themselves from Mom and Dad. The march toward autonomy can take myriad forms: less overt affection, more time spent with friends, contentious behavior, pushing the limits—the list goes on and on. Yet adolescents frequently feel conflicted about leaving the safety and security of home. They may yo-yo back and forth between craving your attention, only to spin away again.
Until now, a child’s life has revolved mainly around the family. Adolescence has the effect of a stone dropped in water, as her social circle ripples outward to include friendships with members of the same sex, the opposite sex, different social and ethnic groups, and other adults, like a favorite teacher or coach. Eventually teenagers develop the capacity for falling in love and forming romantic relationships.
Not all teenagers enter and exit adolescence at the same age or display these same behaviors. What’s more, throughout much of adolescence, a youngster can be farther along in some areas of development than in others. For example, a fifteen-year-old girl may physically resemble a young adult but she may still act very much like a child since it isn’t until late adolescence that intellectual, emotional and social development begin to catch up with physical development.
Is it any wonder that teenagers sometimes feel confused and conflicted, especially given the limbo that society imposes on them for six to ten years, or longer? Prior to World War II, only about one in four youngsters finished high school. It was commonplace for young people still in their teens to be working full-time and married with children. Today close to three in four youngsters receive high-school diplomas, with two in five graduates going on to college. “As more and more teens have extended their education,” says Dr. Joseph Rauh, a specialist in adolescent medicine since the 1950s, “the age range of adolescence has been stretched into the twenties.”
Reflect back on your own teenage years, and perhaps you’ll recall the frustration of longing to strike out on your own—but still being financially dependent on Mom and Dad. Or striving to be your own person—yet at the same time wanting desperately to fit in among your peers.
Adolescence can be a confusing time for parents, too. For one thing, they must contend with their children’s often paradoxical behavior. How is it that the same son given to arias about saving the rain forest has to be nagged repeatedly to sort the recycling? Or that in the course of an hour your daughter can accuse you of treating her “like a baby,” then act wounded that you would expect her to clear the table after dinner?
But beyond learning to anticipate the shifting currents of adolescent emotion, mothers and fathers may be struggling with some conflicting emotions of their own. The pride you feel as you watch your youngster become independent can be countered by a sense of displacement. As much as you may accept intellectually that withdrawing from one’s parents is an integral part of growing up, it hurts when the child who used to beg to join you on errands now rarely consents to being seen in public with you, and then only if the destination is a minimum of one area code away.
It’s comforting to know that feeling a sense of loss is a normal response—one that is probably shared by half the moms and dads standing next to you at soccer practice. For pediatricians, offering guidance and advice to parents makes up a considerable and rewarding part of each day.