Friday, November 12, 2010


Some analytical considerations

Scientists approach the understanding of adolescence from different theoretical perspectives or points of view. As a result there are many theories of adolescent development. However, each theoretical perspective is based on particular assumptions to explain adolescent development. No one single theoretical perspective covers all aspects of adolescence. By examining particular contributions from several theoretical perspectives, one may be able to arrive at a more comprehensive and well-balanced understanding of adolescent behavior [Atwater, 1992].


Assume that adolescence begins with the biological changes accompanying puberty. It is from this assumption that earlier views of adolescence assumed a direct link between biological factors and psychological development.
The perspective was pioneered by G. Stanley Hall. Hall’s theory is probably the earliest formal theory of adolescence- and as such he is dubbed the father of ‘a scientific study of adolescence’.

Influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Hall [1904] argued that each person’s psychological development recapitulates [or recaptures] both the biological and cultural evolution of the human species. The notion that ‘ontogeny [i.e. individual development] is a brief and rapid recapitulation of phylogeny [i.e. the evolutionary development of the human race]’. In essence ontogeny reflects development from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. On the other hand phylogeny reflects the evolution of man from early man through the traditional primitive man to the modern man.

Hall saw adolescence as a time of ‘storm and stress’- or ‘sturm and drang’ which mirrors the volatile history of the human race over the last 2000 years [Gross, 2001]. Hall’s ideas were published in the two volumes set ‘Adolescence’ in 1904. The storm and stress label was borrowed from the German writings of Goethe and Schiller, who wrote novels full of idealism, commitment to goals, revolution, passion and feeling. Hall sensed there was a parallel between the themes of the German authors and the psychological development of adolescents.

According to Hall, the adolescent period of storm and stress is full of contradictions and wide swings in mood and emotion. Thoughts, feelings, and actions oscillate between humility and conceit, goodness and temptation, and happiness and sadness. One moment, the adolescent may be nasty to a peer, yet in the next moment be extremely nice to her. At one time he may want to be left alone, but shortly thereafter desire to cling to somebody.
In sum, G. Stanley Hall views adolescence as a turbulent time charged with conflict [Ross, 1972]- a perspective labeled the storm and stress view of adolescence.

Hall’s analysis of the adolescent years also led him to believe that the time to begin strenuously educating such faculties as civility, scientific thinking, and morality is after the age of 15. However, Hall’s developmental vision of education rested mainly on highly speculative theory rather than empirical data. While Hall believed systematic methods should be developed to study adolescents, his research efforts usually resorted to the creation of rather weak and unconvincing questionnaires. Even though the quality of his research was suspect, Hall is a giant in the history of understanding adolescent development.

It was he who began the theorizing, the systematizing, and the questioning that went beyond mere speculation and philosophy. Indeed, we owe the scientific beginnings of the study of adolescent development to Hall.

The concept of adolescence as a period of storm   and stress however raises several questions:

·        First, is adolescence particularly stressful, or conspicuously more so than other age periods?

·        Second, if it were conceded that adolescence is stressful, then how stressful is it?

·        Third, is such stress attributable to physical changes that occur, or to society’s failure to adapt to adolescents’ needs?

·        Finally, what special measures, if any should be taken to prevent or alleviate such stress?

Hall portrayed changes as so marked and so catastrophic, as to be upsetting.
Since Hall’s time, most writers on adolescence have expressed similar views. For example, Stone and Church [1989] call adolescence a vulnerable period. According to these psychologists, adolescence is characterized by persistent feelings of exaggerated rebelliousness, emotional volatility, feelings that everybody is against one, and intense idealism. Fortunately, Stone and Church do conclude that most adolescents have developed ‘a tough core of security, and an anchorage in reality, that permits them to withstand and thrive in the stresses of this period,’

Gessell advocates that adolescence as a period is characterized by ‘negativism, introversion and rebellion.’ Lewin advocates that adolescence is typified by marginality, ideological instability, extremism, expansion and increased differentiation of the ‘life space’. Anna Freud (1968) advocates that adolescence is typified by ‘psychological disequilibrium’ resulting from sexual maturity and arousal of ego-defense mechanisms [e.g. intellectualism, asceticism]. She also viewed adolescence as a state of flux, alternating between periods of high enthusiasm and utter despair between energy and lethargy, between altruism and self-centeredness. For Otto Rank a ‘striving for independence’, for Kretschmer and his followers an increase in ‘schizoid’ characteristics and for Remplan ‘a second period of negativism, followed by ego experimentation and the formation of new self-concept’.

Despite the significance that Hall’s view on the study of adolescence had in his day yet many of his ideas have not stood the test of time and not all writers agree that normal adolescence is a period of storm and stress. In his research, Bandura (1964) found that most young people with whom he had contact in the USA were not anxiety ridden and stressful. Bandura felt that the assumption of a tumultuous adolescence was a gross overstatement of fact. He argued that if a society labels its adolescents as ‘teen-agers’, and expects them to be rebellious, unpredictable, sloppy, and wild in their behaviour, and if this picture is repeatedly reinforced by the mass media, such cultural expectations may very well force adolescents into the role of the rebel. In this way, a false expectation may serve to instigate and maintain certain role behaviors, in turn, and then reinforce the originally false belief (Bandura, 1964, p. 24). Bandura’s (1964) main point was that when society presumes adolescence to be a period of radical tension, it runs the risk of creating what he called a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.
The current views on adolescence in addition to that adopt a mediator effects approach. This approach recognizes that the impact of puberty on overall development is mediated by other variables. In other words the experience of adolescence is heavily influenced by one’s social and cultural environment [Atwater, 1992].


Social learning theory consists of rather diverse thoughts that range from Clark Hull’s drive reduction theory, to Skinner’s reinforcement theory to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Social learning theory’s effort in combining such diverse points of view has been described as the merging of the clinically rich psychoanalytic concepts with the scientifically rigorous behaviorists constructs. Clearly, social learning theory is multidimensional/eclectic in that it draws on concepts, hypothesis, and methodology from a variety of different psychological sources.

While social learning theory develops its own theoretical constructs, of which modeling and observation are the most important, it draws freely on constructs of behaviorist learning theory, especially reinforcement.
But even Skinner’s concept of direct reinforcement is expanded to include important social dimensions- vicarious reinforcement and self-reinforcement. Thus the concerns of social learning theorists go far beyond those of the narrow connection between a stimulus and a response and include the contributions of the mother-child [and child-mother] relationships to personality development.  This bidirectioal influence [parents to child, but also from child to parents]is a cornerstone of social learning theory.

The bidirectionality of social influences, especially that of children themselves being active contributors to their own development, has, under the influence of social learning theory, become a core concept in ecological and contextual theories of development. It apart from that also incorporates the importance of models, the role of cognitive processes, and the imitation of models in the learning process.  In addition, the relationship of the individual to the social group and the mutual influences are of unique importance:

‘Individual and group behavior are as inextricably intertwined, both as to cause and effect, that an adequate behavior theory must combine both in a single internally congruent system’ [Sears, 1951].

In short, the realm of investigation, for the social learning theorist is the whole spectrum of socialization processes. These encompass imitation, modeling, instruction, reward and punishment; by which children learn and to which children contribute, often through indirect teaching. The significance of the socializing agents as ‘ a source of patterns of behavior’ has often been neglected in other theories, even though observational and empirical evidence indicate that this social aspect of the learning process is fundamental to socialization and personality development.

Albert Bandura, a leading social learning theorist has pioneered the view that cognition [act of knowing], bearing [social conduct] and environment play a primary role in human behavior. Bandura has observed that much of adolescent behavior comes from observational learning, in which adolescents observe and imitate the behavior of their parents, other adults and peers. Furthermore, adolescent learning and behavior are significantly affected by cognitive variables such as competences, encoding strategies, expectances, personal values and self-regulatory systems [self-monitoring and motivation]. Piaget’s cognitive development theory and the information processing view are two main cognitive theories. Piaget defines adolescence as a stage of transition from the use of concrete operation to the application of formal operation in reasoning. This clearly distinguishes it from puberty which is the period in adolescence which is characterized by physiological changes that end childhood and bring the young person to adult size, shape and sex potential. Robert Havigurst combines the individual’s readiness for learning with certain social demands in defining the eight developmental tasks of adolescence.


Pioneered by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis- he regarded childhood as the most formative periods of human development. In other words, he believed that the dynamics of personality depend largely on how the sexual instinct [ID] and the ego and superego have been shaped during the formative years of childhood. In the three dimensional or tripartite model of the mind the ID which is biological is the subconscious [that part of the mind of which one is not aware but which can influence one’s behaviour] part of the personality or in other words it upholds or represents the pleasure principle.

It contains irrational instinctual appetites and impulses. It emphasizes on the immediate gratification of needs for example the sexual impulses and hunger. The EGO which is psychosocial is the reality principle trying and endeavoring to control the ID into reality. Functions to adapt the individual to reality, delays, inhibits, restrains and controls ID demands. The SUPER EGO which is social in nature is the home of norms and ethical values of society and tries to bridge the gap between the ID and EGO. It represents the social-moral component in the personality-represents the ideal rather than the real and strives for perfection. The SUPER EGO has two components- conscience and ego-ideal. The conscience reacts to moral transgression by an individual through feelings of guilty.

The ego-ideal produces pride and satisfaction if the individual’s behavior conforms to acceptable standards. It is hypothesized that the weakening of the ego as a result of ID demands and the subsequent inability of the Superego to bridge the gap between the ID and Ego has often been cited as the major cause of psychological instability. The Freudian theoretical perspective emphasized that the intensified sex drive and resulting sexual conflicts arouse a lot of anxiety in adolescents. This anxiety in turn produces a variety of defense mechanisms such as repression, intellectualization, and asceticism for coping with stress in adolescence.

Central to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the assumption that human beings have a powerful drive that must be satisfied. As biological creatures, there is a drive in individuals to satisfy or serve these motives, yet society dictates that many of these urges are undesirable and must be retained or controlled. Freud further added that people are unaware that the biological instincts are the driving force behind behaviors. Similarly, Anna Freud, while retaining her father’s developmental approach emphasized an additional view. She believed that adolescence is a special period of turbulence because of the sexual conflicts brought in by puberty.

Erickson who also subscribes to the psychoanalytic theories of adolescent development emphasized on eight developmental stages. Santrock emphasized on the past, the developmental course of the environment, unconscious mind and emphasis on conflict. The main weaknesses of the theoretical perspective are too much emphasis on sexuality and the unconscious mind as well as the negative view of human nature.

Defense mechanisms

Are automatic, unconscious strategies for reducing anxiety.

Regression-------return to behavior of an earlier age during stressful times, to try to recapture security.

Denial---------refusal to accept feelings and experiences that cause anxiety.

Repression-----------blocking from consciousness those feelings and experiences that cause anxiety.

Sublimation-------------channeling disturbing sexual or aggressive impulses into ‘acceptable’ activities such as study, work, sports and hobbies.

Projection-----------attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts and motives to another person.

Reaction formation-------------say the opposite of what one really feels.

Intellectualization------------------participating in abstract intellectual discussion to avoid unpleasant, anxiety producing feelings.

Asceticism---------------engagement in more positive academic activities such as study to repress negative impulses.


Pioneered by Margaret Mead in a cultural anthropological standpoint, she implored as to whether adolescence is a biologically determined period of storm and stress as advocated by Hall or simply a reaction to social and cultural conditions. In a bid to resolve the controversy Mead conducted research in Pago Pago- Samoa in the West Indies in 1925. The goal of research was to determine whether adolescent turmoil was a universal product of puberty, and hence biologically determined, or could be modified by culture. In the research she conducted, it was conclusively established that the disturbances which vex our adolescents are ontological or culturally specific and not universal. In essence they are a product of civilization [Muuss, 1996].

It has been cited frequently as evidenced that;
·        The turmoil
·        The sexual frustration
·        The storm and stress

Associated with growing up in the United States and considered universal by many of the major developmental psychologists of that time is far from being an inevitable, universal condition, and actually resulted from particular expectations, cultural settings, social environment, and childrearing practices.

Mead’s description of life in Samoa [1928/1950] a life characterized by;

·        Carefree
·        Unpressured
·        Harmonious interpersonal interactions
·        A lack of deep feeling being the very framework of all their attitudes towards life
·        Without jealousy and stress
·        Love and hate, jealousy and revenge, sorrow and bereavement, being a matter of weeks

In a nutshell, Mead described the transition to adulthood as smooth and unencumbered- not affected by conflict. Mead’s perspective was challenged by an Australian anthropologist, Derek Freeman, in his book titled ‘Margaret Mead and Samoans: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth’ published in 1983.  Freeman spent a total of six years in Western Samoa in the 1940s and the 1960s doing his research among the Samoans.

According to Freeman’s [1983] findings, the Samoans were more violent, sexually repressed, and fearful than what Mead had reported. Freeman argued that Mead had been overly concerned with emphasizing the role of culture, rather than biology, in human behavior. Any explanation in biological terms of the presence of storm and stress in American adolescents was totally excluded. The conclusion to which Mead was led by her depiction of Samoa as a negative instance was thus of an extreme order.
Instead of arriving at an estimate of the relative strength of biological puberty and cultural patterns, Mead dismissed biology, or nature, as being of no significance whatsoever in accounting for the presence of storm and stress in American adolescence, and claimed the determinism of culture, or nurture, to be absolute [Freeman, 1983, p. 78]. It should be pointed out; however, that Freeman did not conduct his research with the same population that Mead had used in her studies.

In their book, ‘Adolescent Psychology: A Developmental View’, Sprinthall and Collins [1988] defended Mead’s work by pointing out that her work gave only a partial picture of Samoan life and her view that ‘cultural norms and expectations help to determine the nature of adolescence has been widely supported by studies in a variety of cultures, and Mead’s work is still recognized as an important early statement of this idea’ [p.13]. Ruth Benedict in trying to answer the question: what are the cultural differences that make adolescence a more or less generally difficult experience for young persons in western society:

‘Concluded that the major determinant of the difficulty of adolescence was the extent to which socialization for adulthood was discontinuous in a society.’

By discontinuous Benedict referred to ‘the necessity for an individual to learn a different set of behaviors, roles and attitudes for adulthood from the set learned in childhood’. Lloyd (1985) simplified Benedict’s description by pointing out that the Samoan society was a perfect example of a continuous culture and the Western society could be viewed as a discontinuous culture.


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