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The time of life known in Western culture as adolescence, the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, is associated with the set of physical, emotional, and motivational changes brought on by puberty. While the stage exists in every society, the duration and degree of upheaval it causes for a child of a given culture depend upon the context in which child is raised.
The term adolescence refers to both a chronological stage in the human life cycle and a psychological and behavioral profile understood to uniquely describe a specific category of people. Chronologically, adolescence is the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood. Psychologically and behaviorally, adolescence is a time of life characterized by emotional upheaval, risk taking, rule breaking, increased conflict with parents, uncertainty about self-identity, and heightened interest in romantic attachments and sexual activity. Although all known societies, past and present, distinguish among children, adults, and old people, adolescence is not universally acknowledged as a separate stage in the life cycle of a person. The term adolescence as used to indicate youthfulness seems to have appeared in the English language only at the end of the nineteenth century, and the idea of adolescence as a special developmental stage did not surface formally in Western culture until the twentieth century.
Adolescence as a distinct stage of development also appears to be absent in certain non-Western societies. Among the Cubeo people of the northwestern Amazon in South America, for example, puberty signals the arrival of adulthood, and no distinct adolescent stage is recognized. The Cree Native Americans distinguish only between adults and nonadults; a male child is a “small man” and a female child a “small woman.” Even when a society reserves a special status for the pubescent boy or girl, the chronological age span may not overlap the familiar definition of adolescence. Thus, among the North American Chippewa people, puberty was understood to signal the beginning of a special stage of life, but that stage lasted until a person had grandchildren. Nevertheless, a stage in the life cycle comparable to adolescence is extremely common across time and geography. Virtually all in a sample of 186 cultures around the world recognize some kind of transition period between childhood and adulthood. What most differentiates adolescence across societies is the duration of the adolescent transition and the degree of upheaval experienced by the young person. The almost universal presence of adolescence across time and geography is attributable to certain universal features of human development. Variations that occur in the duration and quality of the adolescent transition are accounted for by differences in the context in which children are raised, which influence how the universal aspects of adolescence are played out in particular cases.
Universal Aspects of Adolescence
As a chronological stage of life, adolescence roughly coincides with puberty. Puberty is a complex set of physiological processes that results in physical, emotional, and motivational changes in a person. These changes include maturation of the reproductive system and associated increased interest in the opposite sex and parenting, along with maturation of secondary sex characteristics such as body size, body shape, and patterns of hair growth. All of these changes are precipitated by the activity of several hormonal systems. Puberty is also associated with maturation of certain brain functions that then affect the motivational and emotional profile of the young person. Brain changes specifically related to puberty underlie some of the psychological and behavioral traits that we associate with adolescence, including increased emotionality, a thirst for adventure and novelty, antisocial behavior, and increased conflict with parents.
Because puberty is a universal feature of the human condition, all teenagers can be expected to manifest to at least some degree the expected physical, motivational, and behavioral outcomes produced by hormonal and brain changes associated with puberty.
Developmental psychologists have also long noted that pubertal changes are likely to create secondary effects that, because they are the result of the universal process of puberty, can also be expected to be universal. The first of these effects concerns how young people undergoing puberty now view themselves. The assumption is that puberty inevitably requires a new self-definition in light of the dramatic physical and motivational changes that the adolescent is experiencing and that this identity revision must result in some amount of internal emotional upheaval. The equally inevitable fact that adolescents are now in a position to demand more power and more privileges can be predicted to create certain universal tensions between teenagers and their elders. With regard to the society at large, the senior generation is likely to resist surrendering its authority to the younger generation. Regardless of time or place, conflict between parents and adolescents can be expected to escalate as teenagers become less dependent on parents and increasingly capable of challenging parental authority.
Although the universal process of puberty may inevitably produce certain outcomes regardless of historical time or place, variations in the environmental context in which the adolescent lives can affect how adolescence is played out. Such variations can increase or decrease the degree to which emotional upheaval and interpersonal tensions will characterize the adolescent experience.
Managing the Adolescent Identity Redefinition
Many societies historically have responded to the inevitable fact of puberty by instituting initiation ceremonies of some sort that publicly recognize the changing status of maturing youth. For boys such ceremonies may include public circumcision as well as hazing and other psychological and physical challenges. For girls such ceremonies are often associated with menarche, the onset of menstruation. Often a ceremonial rite culminates in an explicit ceremony conferring adult status on the initiate. Initiation ceremonies, then, represent a public recognition that the young person is maturing physically and can be expected to begin to engage in adult behaviors. As such, initiation ceremonies provide community support for the adolescent’s attempts at redefinition of self and publicly confirm that the adolescent is becoming an adult. The upheaval associated with image redefinition in such societies is likely to be relatively mild.
Initiation ceremonies have become less common or have been stripped of much of their original meaning in contemporary cultures, especially in complex heterogeneous societies. When no public recognition of the fact and implications of puberty is given, adolescents are left to struggle through the adolescent identity shift on their own, with the result that the shift may be prolonged and difficult. It is probably not a coincidence that the view of adolescence as a period of storm and stress, as well as the concept of the identity crisis, originated in Western culture, which lacks meaningful initiation ceremonies. In Western culture ceremonies such as the bar mitzvah (the initiatory ceremony recognizing a boy as having reached the age of Jewish religious duty and responsibility) may still be practiced, but these ceremonies no longer guarantee that the young person will now be recognized as a man, the original culmination of the ceremony.
Range of Life Choices
The adolescent experience is also affected by the range of choices open to people who are facing adulthood and need to make decisions about the course that their lives will take. The wider the range of choices, the more difficult it can be to negotiate the task of taking on new roles, and the more the need to choose will be associated with upheaval. Theoretically, important choices that a young person might need to make upon reaching adulthood include whether or not to marry, whom to marry, whether to have children, what career path to follow, what political and religious beliefs to adopt, and where to live. In practice, any or all of these choices may be foreclosed to the person, either by circumstance or by cultural convention. Historically, because of limitations on the availability of potential spouses, absence of effective birth control technology, hardships associated with making a living, and cultural barriers foreclosing free choice of spouse, job, and the like, a young person typically had fewer choices to make regarding how his or her life would look. In contemporary heterogeneous, democratic, affluent societies, the choices that a young person can and indeed must make are numerous, the consequences of making such choices are momentous, and pressure to make a number of decisions about the future simultaneously is often present. Hence, the level of stress experienced during adolescence, and beyond, is expected to be higher in such societies. This difference in the constraints placed by custom and circumstance on individual life choices may explain why, until the close of the Middle Ages, the distinction between child and adult was minimized, not to mention the recognition of adolescence as a separate stage of life.
Continuities between Childhood and Adulthood
A society can either emphasize or de-emphasize the differences between childhood and adulthood in such areas as taking responsibility, participating in sexual activity, being exposed to death, and so on. When a society emphasizes continuities, or in other words de-emphasizes differences, the transition from childhood to adulthood is more likely to be short and smooth. To the extent that expectations for and the practical experience of the adolescent are dramatically different from childhood to adulthood, the transition from the one stage to the other has the potential to be long and difficult. Historically, children were incorporated into adult life at an early age, and the same often holds true in contemporary traditional societies with a subsistence economy. Children in societies of this sort take on responsibility when they are quite young, in degrees consistent with their age and capabilities, and may be making concrete and important contributions to the welfare of their families at a quite early age. Historically, children were exposed regularly to the facts of life, including sex and death, and this exposure is also the case in many traditional cultures around the world. In many cultures teenagers are already living a fully adult life. In 52 percent of a worldwide sample of fifty-eight cultures, boys are already married by nineteen years of age, and in 96 percent of sixty-nine cultures around the world, girls are married before they are twenty. With marriage come all of the responsibilities as well as the privileges of adulthood, and whatever adolescent transition that these young people have experienced is over.
Clarity of Expectations
Related to the range of choices open to the adolescent is the clarity with which expectations regarding the behavior of the adolescent are laid out by the older generation. In many societies stages in the life cycle are associated with age grades. Each age grade is composed of people of a specified age range. A given age grade is associated with a detailed set of responsibilities and prerogatives. Explicit procedures guarantee graduation from one age grade to the next. When age grades are present in a society, adolescents usually belong to their own age grade. This fact means that adolescents know what is expected of them. It also means that adolescents understand how and when the transition out of adolescence and into adulthood will happen.
Clarity of expectations, with regard to what the adolescent must and must not do and with regard to how and when adult status will be granted, makes for a smoother and less tumultuous adolescent experience. In societies with no such clarity of expectations, adolescents, left on their own to construct their own adolescence and make their own entry into adulthood, tend to have a more unsettled adolescent experience. Societies that leave adolescents to fend for themselves may have no choice, at least as regards some features of adolescents’ life. For instance, where the range of choices open to adolescents is wide, and where a society is constantly changing over time, the older generation cannot predict what adolescents need to know or do to prepare for adulthood. The trade-off for adolescent stress is opportunity in adulthood.
Historical Variations in the Timing of Puberty
The major physical and psychological changes associated with puberty occur during the second decade of human life regardless of historical time or place. But within these temporal boundaries, the environment in which a child is raised can affect the details of the onset and timing of puberty. Thus, since about the 1870s, the age of onset of puberty has been decreasing by approximately four months each decade in some western European nations. This trend also began to appear in other countries across the world in the mid-twentieth century. The decline in the age of onset of puberty through recent historical time, known as the “secular trend,” has been accompanied by a more rapid pace of pubertal change. Age of menarche and attainment of adult status reflect this pattern. Thus, in urban populations, where the secular trend is most evident, menarche occurs on average at the age of twelve, whereas in Papua New Guinea, where the secular trend is not in evidence, menarche does not occur until a girl is eighteen years old. The secular trend affects growth patterns in a similar way. In the United States, where the age of onset of puberty has been decreasing steadily for decades, girls reach their adult height at an average of thirteen, whereas U.S. boys reach their adult height at an average of fifteen and a half. By contrast, among the Kikuyu people of eastern Africa, where puberty begins later, girls attain their adult height during their late teens on average and boys during their early twenties. Differences in the age of onset and duration of puberty coincide with differences in the standard of living of a population. In particular, decreases in a child’s level of exposure to disease, increased quality of nutrition, and improved health of the mother during pregnancy seem to be causes of the secular trend.
The secular trend has important implications for the adolescent experience for a number of reasons. Obviously earlier onset of puberty will mean earlier expression of the psychological and behavioral traits associated with adolescence. Less obviously, when onset of puberty is accelerated as rapidly as it is by the secular trend, a society’s expectations about its young people may not be keeping up with biological reality. If young people who are physically, sexually, and psychologically precocious in comparison with the same age cohort of just a generation ago are treated as if they were children, both the young people and the society will experience disruptions.
The secular trend has another far-reaching effect on the adolescent and the community. Hormonal and brain changes associated with puberty account for some, but not all, of the maturation of a person during and after the teen years. Cognitive skills such as the ability to plan, to control impulses, and to appreciate the long-term consequences of one’s actions also become more sophisticated with age but develop independently of the hormonal and brain changes associated with puberty per se. Thus, there is dissociation between the maturation of physiological and motivational changes common to puberty and the development of cognitive skills that allows for thoughtful, disciplined, forward-looking planning. Acceleration of puberty does not lead to earlier maturation of cognitive skills, which, therefore, lag further and further behind with the earlier and earlier onset and faster and faster rate of puberty. Before the secular trend, the tendency of sexually mature adolescents to act on impulse, take risks, break rules, and seek novelty was more likely to be offset by an increasing capacity to think clearly about the meaning and consequences of their actions. With the appearance of the secular trend, adolescents are able and willing to behave in ways that can have harmful, even tragic, consequences but do not always have the cognitive resources to inhibit such behavior. Historically, we seem to be witnessing a growing disconnect between what actions adolescents want to take and can take and how adolescents reason about those actions.
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