Adolescence is probably the most controversial of all periods of human development. Since the beginning of this century literally dozens of theories have been suggested to explain this stage of growth, each professing to be based on careful observation and systematic investigation. This article will briefly review the eleven theories which appear to have had the greatest influence on American psychological thought, drawing largely from Theories of Adolescence by R. E. Muuss, 1962. G. Stanley Hall. The first psychologist to make a scientific study of adolescence, Hall based his approach on an expansion of Darwin’s theory of recapitulation. In his view, each individual relives the development of the human race from a primitive, animalistic stage to a civilized way of life. The entire process is guided by internal physiological and genetic forces, with little if any influence from the cultural environment. More specifically, infancy (the first four years of life) corresponds to the animal stage in which sensory-motor skills are developed; childhood (four to eight) represents the early human stage of hunting and fishing, and is characterized by such activities as cowboys and Indians, building of caves and tree houses; youth (eight to twelve) echoes the “humdrum life of savagery,” and is the period in which the child learns the practical skills of reading and writing through drill and practice; while adolescence (puberty to adulthood) is a period of storm and stress corresponding to the turbulent transition from savagery to civilization. Hall depicted the adolescent as oscillating between activity and lethargy, exuberance and apathy, euphoria and despondency, vanity and abasement, brashness and bashfulness, childish selfishness and idealistic altruism, longing for authority and rebellion against authority. The period of adolescence lasts almost ten years, but if it is allowed to take its natural course, and if adults are lenient and permissive, the conflict and turmoil will gradually give way to a state of civilized maturity by the time the age of twenty-two to twenty- five is reached. Sigmund Freud. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, like Hall’s, is based on a series of genetically determined stages which are relatively independent of environmental influence. In his original theory he put far more emphasis on infantile, pregenital sexuality and its effect on personality than on the adolescent years. According to his account, the libido is active at birth, directing itself to the child’s own body during the oral and anal stages that occur in the first two or three years of life, followed by a phallic phase in which it becomes centered in the sex organs as a result of self-manipulation, and an Oedipus phase in which it is directed toward the parent of the opposite sex. These stages are followed by the latency period during which the libido and the “pleasure principle” are subordinated to the “reality principle” and development of the ego. When puberty is reached, the sex impulse again breaks through to produce “subordination of all sexual component-instincts under the primacy of the genital zone” (Freud, 1953). During this phase sexuality is expressed through psychological tension, external stimulation of the erogenous zones of the body, and the physiological need to release sexual products, all of which leads to a high rate of masturbation. All through early adolescence the new awakening of sexuality is accompanied by nervous excitement, genital phobia, and personality turmoil “because of the outstanding power of the lust dynamism and the comparative hopelessness of learning how [to] do anything about it” (Sullivan, 1953). Like Hall, Freud felt that this conflict makes the adolescent especially vulnerable to emotional disturbances. In addition, increased sexual tension revives the incestuous drive of the earlier genital period, and he therefore spoke of a second Oedipal period. However, during the latency period the superego has erected an “incest barrier” which has resulted in repression of incestuous feelings toward the parents, and therefore during the Oedipal period of adolescence these feelings are displaced to mother and father figures— that is, the boy is likely to fall in love with a mature woman and the girl with an older man. Though he devoted little space to adolescence, Freud did cite certain basic tasks to be accomplished during this period. First, the adolescent must further resolve the Oedipal situation by centering attention on his own peers rather than on an older man or woman; sec ond, he must face the problem of “not missing the opposite sex”—that is, he must not form such strong friendship ties to members of his own sex that he runs the risk of inversion (homosexuality); third, he must free himself from dependence on his parents even though this may lead for a time to feelings of resentment, hostility, or outright rejection toward them. All these tasks are subordinate to the main function of the adolescent period, which is “attainment of genital primacy and the definitive completion of the process of non-incestuous object finding” (finding a love object). See PSYCHOSEXUAL DEVELOPMENT. Anna Freud describes the dynamics of adolescent development in more detail than her father. She also assigns greater importance to character formation during puberty, and puts more emphasis on the internal conflicts that take place between the ego and id during this period. In addition, she claims that the revival of the Oedipus complex during puberty reactivates earlier castration fears of boys and penis envy in girls. At this stage the child also defends himself against the anxieties which sexual impulses arouse by resorting to excessive fantasy, aggressive behavior, and asceticism. He may also lapse into pregenital (anal, oral) gratification. Ordinarily these conflicts resolve themselves as the young person goes through adolescence, until the “turmoil of boorishness, aggressiveness, and perverse behavior has vanished like a nightmare.” In some cases, however, pathological trends may develop: (a) the id may dominate the ego, resulting in “a riot of uninhibited gratification of instincts”; (b) the ego may totally dominate the id, and the boy or girl may take refuge in overintellectualism or become completely inhibited and ascetic, not only in regard to sex but also in eating, sleeping, and dressing habits. The basic problem, then, is to maintain a balance between the id, ego, and superego during the adolescent period. Otto Rank. Though psychoanalytic in approach, Rank (1945) was far more concerned with the conscious ego and the creative, productive development of the personality than with unconscious repressions, neurotic trends, and early experiences. In his approach the dominant force is not sexuality but will, with its emphasis on choice and activity. Though this faculty gradually develops during the early years of life, particularly in the Oedipus period, it does not begin to come into its own until early adolescence when young people assert their independence from parents and teachers and also from domination by biological, sexual needs. This striving for independence prevents the adolescent from forming strong emotional attachments, since they would lead him back to a dependency relationship. He therefore tends either toward promiscuity, in which sexual urges are satisfied without sacrificing independence; or toward asceticism, in which involvement of any kind is avoided—and in some cases he vacillates between the two. Personality development, for Rank, is an evolutionary process which may go through three stages during the adolescent period. In the first stage the will is freed from external and internal forces (environmental and biological) that have dominated it. Most individuals do not go beyond this stage, and are content with adjusting to reality and carrying on ordinary responsibilities. In the second stage, the will actively struggles against the “counter-will” (parents, society, sex urges, unrealistic ideas), and the individual is at odds with both the internal and the external worlds. This struggle often leads to excessive self- criticism, feelings of inferiority and other neurotic symptoms—but some people respond to the conflict by leading creative, productive lives. The few who arrive at a successful integration between will and counter-will have reached the third stage and are able to free themselves from conflict and maintain a harmony between the internal and the external world. These individuals, characterized by Rank as geniuses, achieve a full and conscious realization of their potential. See RANK. Erik Erikson. In his “Eight Stages of Man” (Childhood and Society, 1950), Erikson offers an account of personality growth that is reminiscent of Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, but with three outstanding differences: (a) the core of the process is the gradual acquisition of “ego identity,” a strong and healthy sense of personal worth and integrity; (b) at every stage, this process is rooted in social relationships as a whole, and not exclusively in sexual experiences; and (c) even though the general task of acquiring identity is the same for all societies, the specific way it is achieved varies widely from culture to culture. In a word, Erikson has modified the psychoanalytic theory in the light of cultural anthropology. Each of the eight stages, which correspond roughly to Freud’s, has its own positive goals and negative risks: (1) oral sensory stage: trust versus distrust; (2) muscular anal: autonomy versus shame and doubt; (3) locomotor genital: initiative versus guilt; (4) latency: industry versus inferiority; (5) puberty and adolescence: identity versus role diffusion; (6) young adulthood: intimacy versus isolation; (7) adulthood: genera- tivity versus stagnation; (8) maturity: ego integrity versus disgust, despair. In pubescence, the child experiences rapid growth and a “physiological revolution” which threatens his body image and sense of security. As a result he is excessively concerned with the way he appears to other people. In adolescence the primary concern is with the establishment of a dominant ego identity. This involves achieving sexual identity, forming values independent of parents, insistence on independence and privacy, and achievement of vocational identity. In this process the adolescent goes through a period of “role diffusion” in which he identifies with various heroes and leaders, and a period of identification with a gang or clique as a “defense against self-diffusion.” The adolescent’s frequent crushes and love affairs are not seen primarily as an expression of sexuality, but as an attempt to define the ego and prepare the way for the choice of a suitable mate, as well as a means of developing the capacity for a genuine love relationship in which he will be able to devote himself to another person without losing his own identity. Edward Spranger. Spranger’s approach, as expressed in his Psychology of Adolescence (1955) is an attempt to grasp the structure and meaning of adolescence in its totality. This stage of life is not pictured merely as a transition from childhood to physiological maturity, but as a period during which the psyche achieves full maturity and a “dominant value direction.” This direction is the basic determiner of personality. Spranger finds three characteristic patterns or rhythms during this period. In one of them, the adolescent goes through a rebirth in which he experiences the kind of storm, stress and personality change that Hall emphasized; the second is characterized by a slower process of growth, in which the cultural values and ideas of society are gradually acquired; in the third, the young person actively participates in his own growth through conscious attempts at changing and improving himself. One or another of these patterns will usually be dominant in a given individual, but in any case adolescence is viewed as a period in which the psyche becomes organized through discovery of the ego or self, and through gradual formation of a life plan and personal value system. In this process, the young person challenges previously unquestioned ideas, mores and traditions; develops an increased need for social recognition and interpersonal relationships; begins to see how “sexuality” (sensuality) and “pure love” (empathy, devotion) can be merged in marriage; and also experiments with different aspects of his ego in order to answer the puzzling question, “Who am I?” If all goes well, the adolescent develops a mature, harmonious ego with a unified philosophy of life centered about a major value which determines his type of personality. Spranger identifies the following eight personality types: (1) the person who is preoccupied with physical health, vitality and need for power; (2) the esthetic-enthusiastic type with a characteristic adolescent attitude toward life; (3) the theoretically oriented thinker who ponders about the meaning of existence; (4) the active person, interested in progress and success (the typical American, according to Spranger); (5) the adventurous type who yearns for fame; (5) the social, altruistic person, rare among adolescents, since adolescents tend to be egocentric; (7) the ethical enthusiast who defends rigorous principles; (8) the religious type, often found among adolescents. (Compare Spranger’s six “Types of Men” which furnish the basis for the Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Study of Values. See this topic.) Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. These anthropologists have contributed heavily to an understanding of adolescence through their recognition of the influence of cultural factors on development, and their descriptions of variations in adolescent behavior from society to society. Their views counterbalance the emphasis on biological constitution in Hall and Freud, and challenge the assumption that the adolescent in Western culture is characteristic of “human nature” as a whole. They point out that while development always proceeds from a state of infantile dependence to relative independence, the way this occurs differs widely from culture to culture. In American society, there is a sharp discontinuity between child and adult—for example, many children are spared household duties or other forms of work, and questions on sex are often discouraged, slurred over, or answered falsely. In Samoa, on the other hand, growth follows a continuous pattern, sexual activities are open and uninhibited, and what we consider perversions are characterized as “simply play.” Similarly the Samoans make no sharp distinctions, as we do, between irresponsible youth and responsible adults, between submissiveness in childhood and dominance in maturity, or between work and play. The boys start to hunt and fish and the girls start to take care of the children as early as six or seven years of age. As a result, no basic change takes place during the adolescent period, there is no special conflict between generations, and young people are not suddenly required to assume responsibilities for which they are unprepared. For these reasons, storm and stress behavior is virtually unknown. The views of the anthropologists, with their emphasis on cultural determinism, raise the question as to whether adolescence is a biological or a psychosocial phenomenon. In their earlier writings, Benedict and Mead do not actually deny the influence of biological factors; they are simply more concerned with cultural influences. Even when they discuss biological changes, they approach them from a cultural point of view— for example, they show that in primitive societies one tribe may regard menstruation as a danger and another as a blessing. However, in her later writings, especially in Male and Female (1949), Mead is less extreme in her emphasis on cultural relativism, and recognizes “basic regularities” such as the latency period and the trauma of menstruation as a transition to adulthood found in all cultures. In any case, however, she holds that cultural conditioning, usually in the form of child-rearing practices, determines whether development is a continuous affair, as in primitive societies, or a discontinuous set of stages, as it is in our own culture. Kurt Lewin. In accordance with Lewin’s field theory, the individual adolescent is to be understood in terms of the unique interactions between biological, sociological, environmental, and psychological factors that make up his “life space.” The adolescent years are characterized by rapid changes in the structure of this space, or field, due to the young person’s increased ability to distinguish between reality and “irreality” (fantasy, wishes, etc.), his thirst for new experiences and wider social contacts, and his urge to assert his independence. Of all these factors, Lewin believes that changes in group membership are most characteristic of this period: the adolescent is in a state of “social locomotion” between child groups and adult groups, and the boundaries of his life space are therefore uncertain. Typical reactions to this uncertainty and lack of “structure” are withdrawal, sensitivity, inhibition, aggressiveness, and radicalism. Changes in the inner life space (the adolescent’s self-image) are as drastic as those in the outer life space, and lead to doubt, instability and plasticity of personality. If this situation is prolonged, as it is in much of our society, the adolescent remains a “marginal man” for some time, tom between conflicting ideologies, values and styles of living. In other cultures this period may be much shorter and less turbulent— and even in our own culture some adolescents experience more conflict than others. The emphasis should therefore be on the individual’s specific situation, not on statistical generalizations. Following Lewin’s lead, Robert G. Barker explains the American adolescent’s major characteristics, as he sees them—instability, vacillating behavior, suggestibility and peer-group conformity—in terms of the problem of dealing with his marginal situation and with the sharp differentiation between adult and child groups in our society. In addition, he stresses the further “somatopsycho- logical” problem of adolescents who are physically adult but emotionally childlike, as well as the problems of adolescents who have difficulty adjusting different goals to each other, such as making friends and getting an education. See FIELD THEORY. Allison Davis and Robert Havighurst. Davis views socialization as the crucial issue in adolescent development, defining it as a process of integrating the values, beliefs, and ways of the particular culture into the personality. The major motivating force toward mature, responsible, culturally acceptable behavior is “socialized anxiety” resulting from threats of punishment and withdrawal of love during childhood. The goals of socialization, however, differ not only from culture to culture but from class to class. He finds middle-class adolescents more socially anxious than lower- class adolescents, since the former are more concerned with success, status, and morality, and more sensitive toward social pressure. Lower-class adolescents are freer in expression of sex and aggression, less concerned about being “good,” and more interested in immediate pleasure than in long-range goals and rewards that are available primarily to middle-class individuals. Havighurst also sees socialization as a central issue, but places less emphasis on social anxiety and more on “developmental tasks” prescribed by both individual need and the demands of society. Successful mastery of the tasks at each stage results in good adjustment and adequate preparation for the harder tasks ahead. Here again there are class and cultural variations, and some tasks have a more biological basis while others have a more sociological basis. For adolescence, defined as the period from about twelve to eighteen, the developmental tasks are: (1) acceptance of one’s physique and sex role; (2) new relations with agemates of both sexes; (3) emotional independence from parents and other adults; (4) selection and preparation for an occupation, to assure economic independence; (5) development of intellectual skills and concepts necessary for attaining independence; (6) achievement of socially responsible behavior; (7) preparation for marriage and family life; and (8) conscious adoption of values in keeping with the contemporary world. See DEVELOPMENTAL TASKS. Arnold Gesell. Strongly influenced by Hall’s biological and evolutionary theory, Gesell’s emphasis was on an orderly sequence of growth determined by an “innate biological force.” Maturation therefore initiates and governs the developmental process, while environmental influences (termed “acculturation”) serve only to stimulate, modify and support it. Gesell makes the point, for example, that practice and exercise can take effect only if the “neural structures” are ripe and ready. The sequence of growth, however, is not described in terms of these structures, but in terms of characteristic behavior patterns on which he bases a flexible theory of age norms. Gesell warns parents not to take these tables of norms too literally, and to “bear in mind the difference between an average and a baby.” Nevertheless he is open to criticism for basing his developmental scales on a selected population in one section of the country—New Haven children in the high- average to superior ability range—and for considering them “more or less characteristic of the human species.” He conceived the developmental process as oscillating along a spiral course toward maturity—that is, the child advances for a time, then regresses to earlier forms of behavior while he becomes inwardly prepared for further gains. These “ups and downs” are found in adolescence as well as in earlier stages. The adolescent period is viewed as a transition from childhood to adulthood in which the central task of the young person is to find himself. The following “maturity profiles” represent, for Gesell, the characteristic patterns during the years from ten to sixteen, when the most important changes are believed to take place: The ten-year-old is in a state of “developmental balance,” accepts life with ease and confidence, enjoys family activities, recognizes authority, denies any interest in the opposite sex, and engages in group activities with members of his own sex. The eleven-year-old is in the foothills of adolescence where the terrain appears strange; his organism is in a state of change and his typical reactions are moodiness, impulsiveness, negativism, argumentativeness, and rebellion against parents. The twelve-year-old swings away from emotional turmoil and becomes reasonable, tolerant and sociable; at the same time he strives for greater independence from home and wants to be treated as a grown-up. He is strongly influenced by his peer group in dress and interests, carries out self-chosen acts with enthusiasm, and likes to play kissing games at parties. The thirteen-year-old turns inward and becomes withdrawn, reflective, self- critical, sensitive to outside criticism, and critical of parents. He has fewer friends than at twelve, choosing them more carefully on the basis of common interests. He experiences rapid changes in body structure and chemistry, affecting posture, voice, facial expression, and producing tensions, fluctuations of mood and awareness of growing up. The fourteen-year-old again reverses the field and becomes extraversive, energetic, expansive, better integrated and more self-assured. He is friendly, interested in other people and particularly in their personalities; also interested in his own personality and identifies with a series of heroes and fictional characters, remarking again and again “That’s me all over.” The fifteen-year-old cannot be reduced to a formula because of wide individual differences—but in general there is a strong trend toward a spirit of independence accompanied by tensions and conflicts with others; a demand for freedom from external control at school and home; increasing self-awareness, perfectionism, and self-criticism, with the beginnings of greater self- control; possibly rebellious behavior and delinquency, and an urge to leave school and home. The sixteen-year-old, in mid-adolescence, is characterized as a “pre-adult,” since he has usually achieved self-de-. pendence, self-awareness, balanced social adjustment and good emotional control. He tends to be cheerful, friendly, outgoing, self-confident, and oriented toward the future. Boy-girl relationships are often still on a nonromantic basis, though many girls are beginning to think of marriage. The Gesell studies do not go beyond this age.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "ADOLESCENCE (Theories)," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed September 29, 2022).


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