Developing Adolescents: A Reference for Professionals

Introduction

Media portrayals of adolescents often seem to emphasize the problems that can be a part of adolescence. Gang violence, school shootings, alcohol-related accidents, drug abuse, and suicides involving teens are all too frequently reflected in newspaper headlines and movie plots. In the professional literature, too, adolescence is frequently portrayed as a negative stage of life—a period of storm and stress to be survived or endured (Arnett, 1999). So, it may not be surprising that a 1999 survey of the general public by Public Agenda reported that for 71% of those polled, negative terms, such as “rude,” “wild,” and “irresponsible,” first came to mind when they were asked what they thought about American teenagers (Public Agenda, 1999). Many other negative attitudes were also expressed by those surveyed. At the same time, however, the survey found that 89% of the respondents believed that “almost all teenagers can get back on track” with the right kind of guidance and attention. In fact, most adults agree about the kinds of things that are important for adults to do with young people—encourage success in school, set boundaries, teach shared values, teach respect for cultural differences, guide decision making, give financial guidance, and so on (Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2001). However, fewer actually act on these beliefs to give young people the kind of support they need.

Despite the negative portrayals that sometimes seem so prevalent—and the negative attitudes about adolescents that they support—the picture of adolescents today is largely a very positive one. Most adolescents in fact succeed in school, are attached to their families and their communities, and emerge from their teen years without experiencing serious problems such as substance abuse or involvement with violence. With all of the attention given to negative images of adolescents, however, the positive aspects of adolescents can be overlooked. Professionals can play an important role in shifting perceptions of adolescents to the positive. The truth is that adolescents, despite occasional or numerous protests, need adults and want them to be part of their lives, recognizing that they can nurture, teach, guide, and protect them on the journey to adulthood. Directing the courage and creativity of normal adolescents into healthy pursuits is part of what successfully counseling, teaching, or mentoring an adolescent is all about.

Much has been written, both in the lay press and the scientific literature, about adolescents’ mental health problems—such as depression, suicide, and drug abuse—and about the serious problems that some adolescents experience. The purpose of Developing Adolescents, however, is not to describe these problems or the therapeutic strategies to address them, but to address them in the context of adolescent development, with a focus on preventing these problems and enhancing positive outcomes even under adverse circumstances. Efforts are made to move to a new way of understanding and working with adolescents in the context of larger systems (Lerner & Galambos, 1998); although working with adolescents and families is critical, systemic change is sometimes needed to safeguard adolescent health. Also at the heart of Developing Adolescents is the theme that today’s adolescent needs one thing that adults seem to have the least surplus of—time. It takes time to listen and relate to an adolescent. In a report by the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, teens rated “not having enough time together” with their parents as one of their top problems. This report also indicates that adolescents whose parents are more involved in their lives (as measured by the frequency of eating meals together regularly, a simple measure of parental involvement) have significantly lower rates of “problem behaviors” such as smoking, alcohol or marijuana use, lying to parents, fighting, initiation of sexual activity, and suicidal thoughts and attempts (U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, 2000).

A crosscutting theme, regardless of one’s professional role, is the need to communicate effectively with youth. Adolescents will not simply “open up” to adults on demand. Effective communication requires that an emotional bond form, however briefly, between the professional and the adolescent. Professionals must find a way to relate comfortably to adolescents, and be flexible enough to accommodate the wide range of adolescents they are likely to encounter. And, professionals must recognize that developing effective communication with the adolescents with whom they work requires effort on their part. It may take a number of sessions of nonjudgmental listening to establish the trust needed for a particular adolescent to share with an adult what he or she is thinking and feeling. It may take even longer before an adolescent feels comfortable asking an adult for help with an important decision. Discussing options for using birth control with a physician or telling a school psychologist or social worker that one is feeling depressed or sad generally requires both time and trust.

Professionals may find that the strategies they use to provide information and offer services to adults just don’t work as well with adolescents. Young people need adults who will listen to them—understand and appreciate their perspective—and then coach or motivate them to use information or services offered in the interest of their own health (Hamburg, 1997). Simply presenting information on the negative consequences of high-risk behaviors is not enough. Having an understanding of normal adolescent development can help professionals be effective communicators with young people.

Recognizing Diversity
It is critical that professionals educate themselves about the different cultural and ethnic groups with whom they work in order to provide competent services and to relate effectively one-on-one with adolescents. The population of adolescents in the United States is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, with 37% of adolescents ages 10 to 19 today being Hispanic or members of non-White racial groups (see table on page 5). This population diversity is projected to increase in the decades ahead.

A growing number of households in the United States include individuals who were born in other countries. Immigrants enter the United States for diverse reasons; some may be escaping a war-torn country, just as others are in the country to pursue an advanced education. They vary in their English proficiency and educational levels and in their cultural practices and beliefs. The number of foreign-born in the United States grew 44% between 1990 and the 2000. People born in other countries now constitute 10% of the U.S. population, the highest rate since the 1930 census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002).5 Half of those from other countries are from Latin American countries—overall, about 15% of adolescents ages 10 to 19 are of Hispanic or Latino origin (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001a).

Unfortunately, many of the studies of adolescents reported in the scientific literature have looked only at White middle-class adolescents (Lerner & Galambos, 1998; Ohye and Daniel, 1999). Thus, research on most areas of normal adolescent development for minority youth is still lacking; so caution should be used in generalizing the more global findings reported here to all adolescents.

Organization of Developing Adolescents: A Reference for Professionals
The physical changes that herald adolescence—the development of breasts and first menstrual periods for girls, the deepened voices and broadened shoulders for boys—are the most visible and striking markers of this stage. However, these physical changes represent just a fraction of the developmental processes that adolescents experience. Their developing brains bring new cognitive skills that enhance their ability to reason and to think abstractly. They develop emotionally, establishing a new sense of who they are and who they want to become. Their social development involves relating in new ways
both to peers and adults. And, they begin to experiment with new behaviors as they transition from childhood to adulthood. In Developing Adolescents, we thus discuss adolescent development with reference to physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral development. Each section presents basic information about what is known about that aspect of adolescent development and suggests roles professionals can play to help support adolescents.

Of course, no adolescent can truly be understood in separate parts—an adolescent is a “package deal.” Change in one area of development typically leads to, or occurs in conjunction with, changes in other areas. Furthermore, no adolescent can be fully understood outside the context of his or her family, neighborhood, school, workplace, or community or without considering such factors as gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or chronic illness, and religious beliefs. Thus, these issues are also touched on throughout.

Developing Adolescents: A Reference for Professionals is not intended to solve all of the mysteries of relating to adolescents, but it will provide scientifically sound, up-to-date information on what is known about today’s youth. Hopefully, this will make it just a bit easier and more comfortable for professionals to relate to adolescents in the context of their particular professions.