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Adolescence, Theories of


M Newman , University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, USA


R Newman , Wakefield, RI, USA

ã 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Autonomy: Achieving a state of self-reliance and self- determination; not being dependent on others for emotional regulation or decision-making. Drive: A Freudian term describing an unconscious force compelling some action to dispel the tension created by a biological or intrapsychic need within the organism. Ego: A component of the Freudian psychic system that operates in both the unconscious and conscious realm, charged with gratifying drives without encountering recriminations from the world outside the unconscious self. Equilibrium: A Piagetian term in which cognitive structures that represent reality symbolically “inside one’s head” match the reality they are attempting to describe.

Ethologist: One who studies the relations between human (or animal) organisms and their environments. Id: An unconscious component of the Freudian psychic system that is focused on gratifying all desires and needs of the organism. Social role: A status or position within an organization or society with prescribed patterns of behavior. Superego: An unconscious component of the Freudian psychic system representing the child’s understanding of parental/societal rules and expectations; thus, a person’s “moral compass.” Virtual community: A group of individuals who have relationships strictly through the electronic media, not face- to-face interaction.


Adolescence is both universal and culturally constructed, resulting in diverse views about its defining characteristics. Across cultures, people experience a gradual physical transition from childhood status to adult status including changes in reproductive capacities, physical stature, body shape, strength, endurance, and the maturation of the brain. The period of pubertal development may begin as early as age 9 and continue into the 20s. Cultures vary widely, however, in how young people are treated including the timing of access to certain rights and privileges, entry into specific settings, and expecta- tions for assuming adult roles and responsibilities. Social environments may accelerate the transition into adulthood or delay it. A theory is a logical system of concepts that helps explain observations and contributes to the development of a body of knowledge. Theories of adolescence help to define the bound- aries of the period by pointing to essential features of one or more aspects of adolescent functioning. Some theories provide a framework for distinguishing stages or phases within adoles- cence, offering concepts that differentiate the essential capaci- ties that emerge over the years of pubertal maturation. Theories distinguish adolescence from childhood and early adulthood, placing this period into the context of the lifespan. Theories of adolescence differ in their scope and range of applicability. Some theories, sometimes referred to as grand theories, offer concepts and hypotheses about multiple do- mains, usually over a long period of the lifespan, and are ap- plicable across multiple contexts. Psychosexual theory is an example of a grand theory which encompasses ideas about the dynamics of mental life, sexual and aggressive drives, morality, family dynamics, personality, and psychopathology. The grand theories are often stimuli for more focused, mid-level theories that address a specific domain or process.

In other instances, mid-level theories stand alone as models for explaining particular aspects of behavior. For example, social network theory focuses on the way individuals become affiliated with one another, how allegiances are formed, and the links and influences that occur across members of various groups. This theory has relevance for understanding the social and interpersonal experiences of adolescents and the spread of antisocial or prosocial attitudes and behaviors in peer groups. Finally, some theories are of emerging importance to the study of adolescence. For example, biosocial theory which has emerged from evolutionary theory, incorporates knowledge about brain functioning into social cognition, the interaction of emotion and cognition, and the impact of environmental conditions on the expression of genetic predispositions.

Families of Theories

The following sections provide an introduction to 10 families of theories that have guided scholarship in the field of adoles- cent development. Families are identified by their link to a shared intellectual tradition or theoretical foundation, and their contribution to the understanding of a common set of questions about adolescent development. For each family, we provide an overview of the scope of the theory, that is, a description of the theory’s range of applicability. We also present basic assumptions about the nature of development, and contributions to the field of adolescent development and behavior.

Psychosexual Theories


Psychosexual theory is a grand theory that addresses the develop- ment of mental life and personality, including drives, emotions, memories, fantasies, dreams, logical and irrational thoughts.

Adolescence, Theories of


The theory provides an analysis of the developmental origins of mental life, the role of early experiences in shaping later psycho- logical functioning, the nature of inner conflicts, and the causes of symptoms associated with mental disorders.


Sexual and aggressive drives find unique modes of expression in the individual’s psychological functioning through succes- sive developmental stages. Childhood experiences have a continuing influence on adult thoughts and behavior. All behavior (except that resulting from fatigue) is motivated and has meaning.

Contributions of psychosexual theory for adolescence

Psychosexual theory views adolescence as the beginning of the final stage in the development of mental life and personality. During this period, the person develops sexual interests and seeks to find ways of satisfying sexual impulses in mature, dyadic relationships. The onset of puberty brings about a rea- wakening of Oedipal or Electra conflicts (in which individuals have a close, emotional, somewhat sexualized bond to the other-sex parent and a competitive feeling toward the same-sex parent) and a reworking of earlier childhood identifications. Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of ego and its exec- utive functions in managing the expression of impulses, nego- tiating between the id and the superego, striving to attain goals embedded in the ego ideal, and assessing reality. Building on this conceptualization, several mid-level theories emerged which highlight aspects of ego functioning and the nature of ego development from adolescence into adulthood. Anna Freud outlined new ego capacities that emerge from infancy through adolescence. She highlighted the various threats that id poses to ego at each stage of development, and provided a classification of defense mechanisms that ego uses to protect itself from unruly and unacceptable impulses. She gave special attention to the period of adolescence as a time of increased sexual and aggressive energy which is linked to the biological changes of puberty. At this time, children are likely to be overwhelmed by libidinal energy and ego is more or less fighting for its life. Anger and aggression become more intense, sometimes to the point of getting out of hand. Appetites become enormous. Oral and anal interests resurface, expressed as pleasure in dirt and disorder, exhibitionistic tendencies, brutality, cruelty to animals, and enjoyment of various forms of vulgarity. Adolescents may vacillate in their behavior from loving to mean, compliant to rebellious, or self-centered to altruistic, as ego tries to assert itself in the midst of conflicting and newly energized libidinal forces. Peter Blos expanded the concept of ego and the mechan- isms of defense by theorizing about coping mechanisms that emerge in adolescence as young people find ways of adapting psychologically to the physical transitions of puberty. By the end of adolescence, ego conflicts present at the beginning of puberty are transformed into more manageable aspects of identity construction. Blos noted five major accomplishments of ego development for young people who navigate adoles- cence successfully:

1. Judgment, interests, intellect, and other ego functions emerge which are specific to the individual and very stable.

2. The conflict-free area of ego expands, allowing adolescents to find satisfaction in new relationships and experiences.

3. An irreversible sexual identity is formed.

4. The egocentrism of childhood is replaced by a balance between thoughts about oneself and thoughts about others.

5. A boundary between one’s public and private selves is established.

A number of other scholars expanded the theoretical analy- sis of ego development, highlighting the creative and adaptive nature of ego functioning in adolescence and the ego’s role in shaping individuality and identity.

Cognitive Developmental Theories


Cognition is the process of organizing and making meaning of experience. Cognitive developmental theory focuses on how knowing emerges and is transformed into logical, systematic capacities for reasoning and problem solving. Perhaps the most widely known and influential cognitive theorist is Jean Piaget.


Humans strive to achieve equilibrium, a balance of organized structures within motor, sensory, and cognitive domains. When structures are in equilibrium, they provide effective ways of interacting with the environment. Whenever changes in the person or in the environment require a revision of the basic structures, they are thrown into disequilibrium.

Contributions of cognitive developmental theory for adolescence

Cognitive developmental theory hypothesized a unique stage of thinking that emerges in adolescence, formal operational thought. According to Inhelder and Piaget, at this stage a person is able to conceptualize about many variables interact- ing simultaneously. Formal operational reasoning results in the creation of a system of logical principles that can be used for problem solving. Thought becomes reflective, so that ado- lescents can think about their thinking, evaluate logical infer- ences of their thoughts, and form hypotheses about the relationships among observations. Formal operational rea- soning is propositional and probabilistic; the person can hypothesize about possible outcomes and evaluate the likeli- hood of one outcome over another. This is the kind of intelli- gence on which science and philosophy are built. Theoretical work outlining stages of cognition and the pro- cesses that bring about changes in reasoning led others to explore whether this same quality of thought might apply in domains other than scientific reasoning. Two mid-level the- ories emerged, one focusing on moral development led by Lawrence Kohlberg, and one focusing on social cognition, with work by Robert Selman, William Damon, and others. These theories described qualitative shifts in reasoning from childhood to adolescence, hypothesizing about the ability of adolescents to step back from their own point of view, and to take multiple perspectives into account as they evaluate moral and social scenarios. The theoretical characterization of formal operational thought led to extensive empirical investigation. Although research generally finds that adolescents are better able than


Adolescence, Theories of

younger children to solve problems involving multiple vari- ables and problems in which they have to inhibit the impulse to reach an answer before processing all the information, these abilities are not universally well developed in adolescence. They are strongly influenced by culture and schooling, and

they do not emerge as a clearly coordinated ‘package’ of new capacities at a specific time associated with puberty. As a result, recent theorists have focused on specific aspects of reasoning. This work is converging with studies in neuroscience on the maturation of the prefrontal cortex, and focuses on features of executive functioning and meaning making. Work by scholars such as Deanna Kuhn and Paul Klaczynski point to the role of mental representations and the awareness of alternative interpretations in adolescents’ ability to solve specific reasoning problems. Klaczynski identified two comple- mentary processes that improve in adolescence. One results in increased speed of processing, automatic recognition of patterns that have been experienced in the past, and quick, well-rehearsed responses. The other increases a person’s ability to allocate attention and manage the controlled execution of a task. Klaczynski argues that what develops in adolescents is

a greater capacity to inhibit the reliance on first impressions,

stereotypes, and overly simplistic solutions as they review and evaluate information. Kuhn suggests that the trajectory of cog- nitive development in adolescence is especially sensitive to the person’s self-directed engagement with cognitive challenges. The range and diversity of cognitive abilities observed among adolescents are products of the differences in interest, motiva- tion, and values that adolescents invest in specific types of problems and their solutions.

Identity Theories


Erik Erikson introduced psychosocial theory, which addresses

patterned changes in self-understanding, identity formation, social relationships, and worldview across the lifespan.

A major contribution of psychosocial theory is the identifica-

tion of adolescence as the period of life when a person for- mulates a personal identity, a framework of values and commitments that guide major life choices in the transition to adulthood. The construct of personal identity has stimulated many theories that consider the process of identity formation and the relationship of identity to subsequent developmental goals, especially intimacy, academic attainment, career paths, and ideological commitments.


Development is a product of the ongoing interactions between individuals and their social environments. Societies, with their structures, laws, roles, rituals, and sanctions, are organized to guide individual growth toward a particular ideal of mature adulthood. However, every society faces problems in attempt- ing to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. All individuals face some strains as they seek to express their individuality while maintaining the support of their groups and attempting to fit into their society. Attaining maturity involves reduced reliance on the expectations and plans of others. These are replaced by new levels of self- determination and focus on one’s own aspirations and goals.

Contributions of identity theory for adolescence

The psychosocial crisis of adolescence, personal identity versus identity confusion, highlights the need for individuals to find self-definition and a sense of meaning and purpose as they move into adulthood. The achievement of personal identity requires reworking the self concept, including an integration of past identifications, current talents and abilities, and a vision of oneself moving into the future. Identity formation is widely adopted as a central developmental challenge of adolescence. The concept captures the spirit of a push toward individuality, societal values of self-determination and agency, and expecta- tions that young people will begin to take ownership of their path toward adulthood by making commitments to specific roles and values, and by rejecting others. One of the most widely used frameworks for assessing identity status was devised by James Marcia. Erikson concep- tualized identity as a tension between two states: identity achievement and identity confusion. In contrast, Marcia differ- entiated four states based on two criteria: crisis and commit- ment. Crisis consists of a period of role experimentation and active decision making among alternative choices. Commit- ment consists of demonstrations of personal involvement in occupational choice, religion, political ideology, and interper- sonal relationships. Identity status is assessed as identity achievement, foreclosure, moratorium, or confusion. People who are classified as identity achieved have experienced a period of questioning and exploration, and have made occu- pational and ideological commitments. Those classified as foreclosed have not experienced a period of exploration, but demonstrate strong occupational and ideological commit- ments. Their occupational and ideological beliefs are often close to those of their parents. People classified as being in a state of psychosocial moratorium are involved in ongoing crisis and questioning. They have postponed their commit- ments, but are comfortable with experiencing a period of open exploration. Those classified as identity confused are unable to make commitments, and experience anxiety and distress about their uncertainty. This framework of identity formation and identity status has led to mid-level theories about specific aspects of identity, including gender identity, career identity, ethnic identity, and multicultural identity. In each of these areas, scholars have recognized the dynamic interaction between personal qualities and the social roles, opportunities, and demands that may exist at the time. Theorists such as Michael Berzonsky and Wim Meeus have provided micro theories to explore differences in how young people process identity-relevant information. For example, some adolescents are very close-minded, rejecting experiences that disconfirm their strongly held beliefs. Others are open to diverse experiences, seeking new ideas and information to widen their view of what might be possible in life. These theories focus on daily experiences that provide information which may confirm or modify the sense of identity.

Evolutionary And Biosocial Theories Scope

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how diverse and increasingly more complex life-forms come to exist.

Adolescence, Theories of



Natural laws that apply to plant and animal life also apply to humans.

Contributions of evolutionary theory for adolescence

A major implication of evolutionary theory for adolescence is that the future of a species depends on the capacity of indivi- duals to find a mate, reproduce, and rear their young. Factors that contribute to the health of individuals as they reach repro- ductive age, characteristics of environments that promote or discourage mate selection, and capacities of sexually mature partners to protect and rear their offspring are highlighted. Since adolescence is the period when mature sexual and repro- ductive capacities flourish, and when attitudes toward marriage and childbearing crystallize, the quality of life for adolescents has essential implications for the future of the species. Ethologists ask about behavioral systems that serve adaptive functions. Among those, one of the most robust is the ability of infants to signal distress in order to engage caregiving behaviors, and the ability of caregivers to comfort, soothe, and protect their infants from harm. Attachment theory explores these abilities, suggesting that as result of sensitive, responsive caregiving, infants form mental representations of self and other, and an expectation about whether or not they can rely on their caregivers to provide safety and comfort. When caregiving is indifferent, harsh, or unpredicatable, infants form an insecure, anxious, or disorganized mental representation of their caregivers. These mental representations generalize to other significant close rela- tionships, especially friendships, romantic relationships in ado- lescence, and parenting as adults. According to attachment theory, there is the possibility of continuity or revision of the attachment relationship in adolescence. Attachment to parents in later adolescence and adulthood has been characterized as reflecting one of three orientations:

1. autonomous, which is reflective of an open, confident nar- rative about parent–child relationships;

2. dismissive, which is reflective of minimizing the parent– child relationship, accompanied by an inability to recall many details of the relationship; or

3. preoccupied, which is reflective of continuing anger toward parents and a confused, vague, or passive narrative.

Older adolescents who have a secure relationship with their parents can begin to explore the ideological, occupational, and interpersonal alternatives that provide the content for their own identities. Those who are still emotionally dependent on their parents and require constant reassurance of their affection show a greater tendency to experience identity confusion. Contemporary applications of evolutionary theory focus on the integration of biological and social forces to create a biosocial analysis of development. The concept of pheno- type reflects this integration– the expression of genetic struc- ture in a specific environment. The work of Jay Belsky and Lawrence Steinberg provide examples of this biosocial approach. Studies that combine biological mechanisms such as endocrinology, immunology, or genetics and behavior have contributed to our understanding of the establishment of gendered behavior, sexual interest, strategies of mate selection, and the relationship of harsh or rejecting parenting and the onset of puberty.

Family Theories


Family theories focus on the dynamic interactions among family members, describing changes in typical patterns of parent–child relationships, and the characteristics of fa mily interactions that enhance or disrupt development. From an evolutionary perspective, families have evolved as the soc ial context to support human development. Human infants have few innate reflexes, but they have a wealth of sensory and motor capacities to engage in social interactions, and an en or- mous capacity to learn. Families have evolved as contexts within which infants and children are protected from harm, nurtured, educated, and socialized into their cultures.


Development in families is reciprocal. The changing abilit ies, roles, and needs of each family member influence the devel- opment of other members of the family group, and the family’s level of functioning has consequences for develop - ment of each individual member.

Contributions of family theories for adolescence

Introduced by Evelyn Duvall and Ruben Hill in the 1940s, family development theory offered a conceptualization of families changing in a systematic pattern from family forma- tion to widowhood. In the most well-known version of family development theory, two stages are of particular relevance for adolescence, when children enter adolescence, and when the children are leaving the family, called the launching stage. In the first of these stages, parents need to find ways to help adolescent children establish their separate identities. Adolescents are thought to be able to contribute in new ways to the tasks of the family, and at the same time, parents are challenged to accommodate adolescents’ desires for more space, resources, and personal freedom. Maintaining open communication during this period may be difficult due to the increased activity of adolescents coupled with the involve- ment of parents in the labor market. The second stage is the first phase of family contraction. As children leave home, families adapt by changing patterns of communication and reallocating resources. Relationships between children and their parents may become more ambiguous, and parents may be less clear about how to support their children who are striving to achieve a new level of self-sufficiency. The concept of differentiation, which emerged from Murray Bowen’s conceptualization of family systems theory, is asso- ciated with psychosocial maturity and a healthy emergence of individuality in adolescence. Within the family context, iden- tity exploration is facilitated by an open exchange of ideas and a certain level of challenge. Adolescents require opportunities to express their separateness within the boundaries of the family. This takes place as parents encourage their children to express new ideas and differing points of view without making them feel guilty when they disagree. Ideally, individuality is achieved in a context of mutual caring and emotional support. Olsen’s circumplex model of family systems emphasizes the importance of a balance among three dimensions: cohesion, flexibility, and communication for preserving adaptive function- ing in families. Adolescence presents new challenges in each of


Adolescence, Theories of

these domains as adolescents’ efforts to establish an expanded voice in decision making and new levels of autonomy may dis-

rupt earlier patterns of family interactions, boundaries, and rules. Differentiation requires an age-appropriate balance between autonomy and connection. Laurence Steinberg has conceptua- lized the nature and development of autonomy. Autonomy is the ability to regulate one’s behavior and to select and guide one’s own decisions and actions without undue control from or dependence on one’s parents. In optimal parent–child relation- ships, within the context of emerging autonomy, the sense of connection is still preserved. Built on a history of nurture and care, parents and children strive to preserve a continuing close, supportive relationship into adulthood. However, those bonds are reworked in later adolescence and early adulthood through

a process of self-definition. Adolescents who achieve autonomy

can recognize and accept both the similarities and the differ- ences between themselves and their parents, while still feeling love, understanding, and connection with them. Adolescents who experience high levels of parental control and frequent exposure to parental conflict are likely to have difficulties in achieving a comfortable sense of autonomy. Parenting practices are theorized to have a substantial impact on adolescents’ behavior, including academic achievement, peer relationships, capacity for self-regulation, and emerging identity. The theoretical construct of parenting styles has been describedin various ways by Baumrind, Hoffman, Darling and Steinberg, and Maccoby and Martin. Theories of parenting typically consider the ways that parents coordinate warmth and control, closeness and flexibility, reciprocity and bidirectional communication, and power. Parenting styles have been characterized as authoritarian (high control, low warmth), authoritative (high control, high warmth), permissive (low control, high warmth), and neglectful (low control, low warmth). Other theories of parenting use the term ‘democratic parenting’ to refer to the willingness to involve children in decision making while still communicating clear and high standards for behavior. Parenting styles that combine emo- tional warmth, high standards, and open communication are thought to be optimal for supporting emotional maturation and emerging identity in adolescence. Recent theories by Meeus, van Doorn, and Branje focus on the context of the adults’ marital relationship as it impacts the parent–child relationship and the effectiveness of parenting practices. High levels of marital conflict and unresolved tensions in the marital dyad are trans- mitted to the adolescent–parent relationship and undermine the effectiveness of authoritative parenting.

Interpersonal Theories Scope

Interpersonal theories highlight the social nature of humans and the central role of belonging, connection, and social or group

identity for well-being in adolescence. George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley provided a framework for thinking about the social construction of the self which takes shape as other people respond to our gestures and actions. With increasing maturity, one begins to anticipate the reactions of others, thereby forming

a social self, a set of expectations about how one’s behavior will

evoke reactions in others. Family is considered the primary group in which face-to-face interactions are especially salient and have the greatest impact on shaping self-concept.


Interpersonal behavior has an evolutionary basis. Humans are social animals whose survival depends on integration into social groups. Thus, humans have strong needs for a sense of connection and belonging to social groups. Humans collabo- rate and communicate in complex ways to achieve shared goals. Humans have needs to be understood. The goal of communication is the coordination of understanding between two or more people around shared meaning. Communication is made possible when people engage in interactions that involve mutually shared symbols. Anxiety results from pro- blems in interpersonal relationships. When people do not have shared symbols to express their emotions, fantasies, or thoughts, their mental lives become isolated.

Contributions of interpersonal theories for adolescence

In adolescence, the need for group belonging expands beyond the family to include other kinds of group affiliation. Two lines of theory have emerged within the interpersonal perspective, one focusing on the nature of close, dyadic friendships includ- ing popularity, loneliness, peer rejection, and best friends, and the other focusing on the nature of peer group structure, group affiliation, and peer group influences. Harry Stack Sullivan, who influenced the former line of theory, identified adolescence as a time when the capacity for intimacy is emerging. He described three phases of adolescence:

1. preadolescence when children form close personal best friend relationships, typically with same-sex friends;

2. early adolescence when teens extend their friendships to include members of the other sex and begin to explore sexualized interactions; and

3. late adolescence, when a person discovers how to integrate sexual feelings and intimacy in a close relationship.

Work by Denise Kandel, Duane Burhmester, Willard Hartup, Thomas Berndt, Steven Asher, and Andrew Collins among many others have contributed to this line of theory about close rela- tionships to develop a detailed picture of changing capacities for close friendships, increasing importance of friends in middle childhood and adolescence, the emergence of romantic rela- tionships, and stability and change that characterize friendship relationships throughout adolescence. Dexter Dunphy, who provided a framework for the second direction, described two patterns of peer group boundaries:

cliques (small groups of about six members who enjoy frequent face-to-face interactions) and crowds (looser asso- ciations among several cliques). Cliques provide the imme- diate context for interpersonal interactions. Recent theories by Herman Schwendinger, Bradford Brown, and others view crowds in a different way, as prototypes for social identities. Crowds are usually recognized by a few predominant charac- teristics, such as their orientation toward academics, involve- ment in athletics, use of drugs, or involvement in deviant behavior. Crowds are more reputational than cliques, reflecting students’ values and attitudes, preferred activities, and school and nonschool engagement. Phil and Barbara Newman’s analy- sis of group identity versus alienation as the psychosocial crisis of early adolescence expanded on the salience of group identi- fications during this period of life. Group identity is a develop- mental precursor to personal identity. Chronic conflict about

Adolescence, Theories of


one’s integration into meaningful groups and associated feelings of alienation can lead to lifelong difficulties in areas of personal health, work, and the formation of intimate family bonds. An emerging focus is the use of network theory to examine the process through which adolescents become connected to one another. Some scholars have used this approach to link peer networks to adolescent drug use. This theory examines the likelihood that people will form networks, the stability of these networks, and patterns of influence within and among net- works. Social network theory can be used to describe patterns of social support, social identity, peer influence, contagion of beliefs or risky behaviors, patterns of exchange of resources, or the flow of information. Social network theory provides a way of conceptualizing the value and meaning of virtual commu- nities for adolescents such as those formed in the Internet, as well as ways that adolescents are linked across communities and countries.

Ecological Theories


Ecological theories focus on the interaction of persons and environments with particular attention to how the features of environments require unique adaptations, both physical and psychological.


The father of ecological theory as it applies to human behavior was Kurt Lewin who argued that all behavior must be under- stood in light of the field or context in which the behavior takes place.

Contributions of ecological theory for adolescence

Lewin saw the process of developmental change as a continu- ous modification of regions, needs, and forces that encourage or inhibit behavior. He viewed adolescence as an example of how field theory might be used to interpret complex life events. His primary analogy for adolescence was the image of the ‘marginal man’ straddling the boundary between two regions, childhood and adulthood. This marginality includes being scornful of the group one desires to leave and uncertain about or even rejected by the group one wishes to join. Three events occur during adolescence that explain many of the phenomena characteristic of the life stage.

1. During a period of movement from one region to another, the total lifespace is enlarged, bringing the young person into contact with more information about the environment and, presumably, about oneself.

2. A widening lifespace results in greater uncertainty about the nature of each new region.

3. Biological changes associated with puberty alter inner- personal regions and perceptual-motor regions of the lifespace.

Rapid expansion of regions and uncertainty about both personal and environmental structures of the lifespace result in an emotional tension during adolescence. Characteristics of adolescent behavior including emotional instability, value conflicts, hostility toward group members, and radical changes in ideology are results of the dramatic changes and persistent instability in the adolescent’s lifespace.

Lewin’s field theory inspired two related but distinct theoretical elaborations: ecological theory, as formulated by Roger Barker, and ecological systems theory, as formulated by Urie Bronfenbrenner. Whereas Lewin concerned himself with the psychological representation of the environment, Barker studied the objective, measurable environment within which the person behaves. Barker and his colleagues studied how adolescents use and are influenced by the settings they encounter. One of the most influential studies to emerge from this perspective compared behavior settings in large enrollment and small enrollment high schools. Students at small schools felt greater pressure to participate in the life of the school. Students at large schools were more likely to become specialists in specific activities, whereas students at small schools were more likely to develop general, well-rounded participation and competences. These findings supported the theoretical proposition that development in adolescence is, in part, a product of the normative expectations and opportunities for participation in behavior settings of one’s community. Urie Bronfenbrenner expanded ecological theory to encom- pass the wider interlocking system of systems in which human behavior takes place. The study of development requires an analysis of changes that occur within systems, as well as changes that take place as a result of interactions among sys- tems. Some changes are patterned, developmental transforma- tions, such as change in a child’s capacity for coordinated movement and voluntary, goal-directed action. Other changes are societal, such as a community decision to restructure a school system from an elementary (Grades K–6), junior high (Grades 7–9), and high school (Grades 10–12) system to an elementary (Grades K–5), middle school (Grades 6–8), and high school (Grades 9–12) system. Some changes reflect the decline or improvement of resources in a setting. The concept of person–environment fit, a theoretical outgrowth of the ecological systems perspective, has been elaborated by Jacquelynne Eccles, who focused on the appro- priateness of middle school environments in relation to the developmental needs of adolescents. She examined middle school at the classroom, school, and district levels, pointing out discrepancies between the desired directions for growth in early adolescence and the educational structure and oppor- tunities typically provided for students in these schools. This approach highlights challenges to adaptation that occur when environments are poorly designed for the developmen- tal competences of individuals who are required to function in them.

Social Role and Life Course Theories Scope

Social roles serve as a bridge between individuals and their society. Every society has a range of roles, and individuals learn about the expectations associated with them. As people enter new roles, they modify their behavior to conform to role expectations. Each role is usually linked to one or more related or reciprocal roles such as student and teacher, or parent and child. Life course theory focuses on the integration and sequencing of roles and role transitions over time in historical context.


Adolescence, Theories of


All cultures offer new roles that await individuals as they move from one stage of life to another. Development can be under- stood as a process of role gain and role loss over the life course.

Contributions of social role and life course theory for adolescence

Some roles are directly associated with age, such as the role of a high school student. Other roles may be accessible only to those of a certain age who demonstrate other relevant skills, traits, or personal preferences. In many elementary schools, for example, fifth-grade students serve in the role of crossing guards to help younger children cross the streets near the school. Families, organizations, and communities have implicit theo- ries of development that determine what role positions open up for individuals in adolescence. Graduating from high school, getting a job, voting, or joining the military are examples of role transitions that bring new expectations during adolescence. The stress of adolescence can be explained in part by expectations for teens to be involved in many time-intensive, highly structured roles at the same time. From the life course perspective, the person’s identity is formed by the roles one enacts and by the timing of entry into or exit from salient roles in relation to one’s peers and community. Glen Elder studied the impact of the Great Depression on children. He found that those who were ado- lescents during the depression coped more effectively than those who were young children. Under conditions of parental unemployment and economic hardship, adolescents were able to contribute to their family by earning a bit of money or taking on responsibilities for younger children while their parents looked for work. In contrast, young children felt more helpless in the face of their family’s economic strain. In the transition into adulthood, adolescents in families with fewer economic resources are more likely to make early transi- tions into roles such as worker and parent, transitions that carry with them a sense of being older than their peers. Each person’s life course can be thought of as a pattern of adaptations to the configuration of cultural expectations, resources, and barriers experienced during a particular time. For example, Ingrid Schoon has focused on the transition from dependent childhood to productive adulthood in a changing sociohistorical context, and the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. The impact of timing on role transitions has been a long-term interest in the study of the onset of puberty. Studies have focused on pubertal timing, especially early and late maturing. Early pubertal timing foreshortens the develop- mental phase of middle childhood and accelerates the young person’s entry into social roles and related expectations that are usually delayed until an older chronological age.

Cultural Theories


Culture refers to systems of meanings and patterns of behaviors shared by a group of people and transmitted from one genera- tion to the next. Physical culture encompasses the objects, technologies, structures, tools, and other artifacts of a group. Social culture consists of norms, roles, beliefs, values, rites, and customs.


Culture guides development through encounters with certain objects, roles, and settings, and also through the meanings linked to actions. There is a bidirectional influence between individuals and their cultures: individual development is shaped by culture, but individuals also create and modify cultures. Whereas the capacity to create culture is universal, generalizations about human development are limited by their cultural context.

Contributions of cultural theories for adolescence

The extent to which development is viewed as distinct stages of life depends on the degree to which socialization within a culture is characterized by continuity or discontinuity. Con- tinuity is found when a child is given information and respon- sibilities that apply directly to his or her adult behavior. For example, Margaret Mead observed that in Samoan society, girls of 6 or 7 years of age commonly took care of their younger siblings. As they grew older, their involvement in caregiving increased; however, the behaviors that were expected of them were not substantially changed. When there is continuity, development is a gradual, fluid transfor- mation, in which adult competencies are built directly on childhood accomplishments. Discontinuity is found when children are either barred from activities that are open only to adults or is expected to ‘unlearn’ information or behaviors that are accepted in children but considered inappropriate for adults. The change from expectations of virginity before mar- riage to expectations of sexual responsiveness after marriage is an example of discontinuity. Culture interacts with biological development in determin- ing whether development is perceived as stage-like and how each period of life is experienced. This concept is illustrated by the ways in which different cultures mark an adolescent girl’s first menstruation. In some societies, people fear menstruation and treat girls as if they were dangerous to others. In other societies, girls are viewed as having powerful magic that will affect their own future and that of the tribe so they are treated with new reverence. In still others, the perceived shamefulness of sex requires that menstruation be kept as secret as possible. Cultures thus determine how a biological change is marked by others and how it is experienced by the person. The internali- zation of certain cultural values and beliefs can serve as impe- diments to achievement through mechanisms such as stereotype threat, as demonstrated in the work of John Ogbu or Claude Steele, or as buffers against stress, as illustrated in the writings of Bame Nsamenang about the convergence of tradi- tional and modern approaches to education in Africa. The dimensions of individualism and collectivism provide another cultural lens for understanding adolescent develop- ment. Adolescence is a particularly salient time for the devel- opment of ideology. Cultural socialization toward a more individualistic or collectivistic worldview is likely to be trans- formed from adherence to the values of parents and other community leaders into an internalized sense of personal beliefs and life goals. The formation of personal identity, including crystallization of a sense of oneself in the future, is shaped by the incorporation of an individualistic or collec- tivistic sense of adult responsibility and maturity. This has implications for a young person’s orientation to work, family,

Adolescence, Theories of


citizenship, and moral obligations. Cigdem Kagitcibasi sug- gests that individualism and collectivism at the cultural level reflect needs for autonomy and relatedness at the individual level. Despite pressures from urbanization toward a more autonomous self-construal, the well-being of individuals requires an effective balance of these two sets of needs.

Dynamic Systems Theories Scope

Systems theories describe characteristics of systems and the relationships among the component parts found within the system. In any system, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Whether it is a cell, an organ, an individual, a family, or a corporation, a system is composed of interdependent elements that share some common goals, interrelated functions, bound- aries, and an identity.


Systems change in the direction of adjusting to or incorporat- ing more of the environment into themselves in order to prevent disorganization as a result of environmental fluctua- tions. The components and the whole are always in tension. What one understands and observes depends on where one stands in a complex set of interrelationships.

Contributions of dynamic systems theories for adolescence

All living entities are both parts and wholes. An adolescent is a part of a family, a classroom or workgroup, a friendship group, and a society. An adolescent is also a whole – a coordi- nated, complex system composed of physical, cognitive, emo- tional, social, and self subsystems. Part of the story of development is told in an analysis of the adaptive regulation and organization of those subsystems. Simultaneously, the story is told in the way larger systems fluctuate and impinge on individuals, forcing adaptive regulation and reorganization as a means of achieving stability at higher levels of system organization. Richard Lerner, who has advanced the study of adolescence through developmental systems theory, emphasizes the ongo- ing interaction and integration of the person across many levels from the genetic to the behavioral level, within the nested contexts of the person, family, community, and culture. Plasticity, the capacity for change, is at the heart of this approach. Both individuals and their contexts have potential for change, and for fostering or constraining change across boundaries. The magnitude of change that is possible varies across individuals and contexts, as well as within individuals over the lifespan. The person in the setting is the focus of analysis. The boundary between the person and the environ- ment is fuzzy; as an open system, a person is continuously influenced by information and resources from the environ- ment and, at the same time, creates or modifies the envi- ronment to preserve system functioning. Isabela Granic and Gerald Patterson applied the dynamic systems theory perspective to an understanding of the etiology of antisocial behavior, providing new ideas about the estab- lishment of antisocial behavior patterns. First, they explored the process through which daily interactions contribute to the emergence of more complex systems of behavior. They used

the idea of attractors to characterize several types of stable patterns of parent–child interaction, and introduced the idea of cascading constraints. This term refers to the fact that once behaviors are organized as attractors, these attractors become structured and resist change. Therefore, they serve to constrain future behaviors. This idea captures the reality that an attractor is both the result of interactions that occur before the behavior has stabilized and the cause of behaviors that occur once the attractor has been formed. Positive youth development is a strength-based perspective emerging from the convergence of several theoretical ideas:

resilience, positive psychology, ecological theory, and develop- mental systems theory. Resilience is a term used to characterize individuals who exhibit positive outcomes in the face of threats to development such as prolonged, severe poverty, or a parent with a serious mental illness. Faced with these or other diffi- culties, resilient individuals show low levels of psychological symptoms and function effectively in the basic developmental tasks expected for their stage of life. Over time, they create lives that integrate their own personal strengths with the resources and opportunities of their community, meeting the com- munity’s expectations for maturity. Although the experience of resilience is highly individual, reflecting unique patterns of life challenges and coping strategies, the notion of resilience underscores a widely shared human capacity to recover from adversity. Theorists have identified a small number of factors that support resilience including relationships with high func- tioning, supportive adults in the family; intelligence; self- control; high self-esteem; and a strong desire to have a positive impact on their environment. Positive psychology, advanced through the writings of Martin Seligman, views individuals as active agents who can enhance their lives and achieve new levels of happiness and fulfillment through the decisions they make. Hope and opti- mism are highlighted as ego strengths that counteract the negative impact of discouraging thoughts and experiences. Hopefulness is associated with higher goals, higher levels of confidence that the goal will be reached, and greater persistence in the face of barriers to goal attainment, thus leading to higher overall levels of performance. Because hopefulness combines a desire to achieve new goals and a belief that one will be able to find successful paths toward those goals, it is essential for behavior change. The application of positive psychology to adolescence has been advanced by William Damon who focused on the development of ‘noble purpose.’ Damon has identified ways that young people show evidence of positive development by making meaningful and sustained commit- ments to projects that benefit the larger community. Peter Benson extended the application of resilience and positive psychology to an analysis of the relationship of opti- mal development to both internal and external assets. Internal assets are physical, intellectual, emotional, and social capaci- ties. External assets are supports, expectations, and opportu- nities that are likely to enhance development. The premise of the assets perspective is that communities can enhance youth development by providing programs that include opportu- nities for youth to acquire or strengthen their assets. Positive development occurs when the strengths of youth are aligned with resources for growth in key contexts, especially home, school, and community.


Adolescence, Theories of

Why So Many Theories?

The diversity of theories presented above reflects the multifac- eted nature of adolescence as well as different ideas about factors that account for growth and the direction of maturity. Growth at puberty and the associated changes in physical stature and reproductive capacity are accompanied by impor- tant changes in cognitive capacities, interpersonal competence, and emotional life. In most societies, the adolescent years typically bring changes in social roles, access to new settings, and expectations for new levels of self-sufficiency, social engagement, and self-control. Adolescence is at once a time of intrapsychic and interpersonal transformation. Theories of adolescence have played a key role in highlight- ing the complexity of this period of life, especially clarifying advances in reasoning, emotional expression, and the com- plexity of social roles and interpersonal relationships. Theory has led the way in focusing attention on the capacity of ado- lescents to direct the course of their development through the formation of a personal identity. Yet, no theory of develop- ment addresses all these domains. The prominence of theories changes over time, influenced by other sectors in the study of development and other related disciplines. New evidence from cognitive neuroscience, genetic research, and the biological bases of behavior are informing the way we think about emotion and cognition, and the impor- tance of social contexts for supporting cognition. The diversity of youth, including racial, ethnic, and cultural variations as well as international studies of youth, casts a new light on normative expectations about pathways from childhood to adulthood. The diversity of settings has also received new attention through the study of families, peer groups, schools, and communities, resulting in a new appreciation for the challenges adolescents face as they traverse multiple environments.

Evolving Need for New Theoretical Approaches That Address Emerging Knowledge and the Questions That Such Knowledge Inspire

New evidence and observations result in the expansion, revision, or rejection of aspects of earlier theories. Earl ier theories that placed a strong emphasis on either biological maturation or environmental control are being replaced by theories that take a more probabilistic view of development as the changing person encounters multiple environments that are also changing. As we review the focus and emphasis of current theories, several areas require new theoretical perspectives.

1. There is a need for more consideration of the bidirectional influence of adolescents and their parents, especially how parenting an adolescent may contribute to the emergence of a more generative capacity among adults and how adoles- cents who observe their parents enacting various life roles are influenced toward their own identity strivings.

2. Changes in the nature of later adolescence and the increas- ingly ambiguous trajectory into adulthood have implica- tions for identity theory, family theory, and the notion of positive youth development. As cultural pathways toward

adulthood change, we need new ways of conceptualizing psychosocial maturity in adolescence.

3. Relatively little theory is available to guide thinking about the nature of care and caregiving among adolescents, yet we know that in many cultures and in many families in the United States, adolescents provide important care for youn- ger siblings and for aging grandparents.

4. The challenge to dynamic systems theory is to understand the reciprocal regulation of the person and the environ- ment over time. How is the person shaped and defined by the contexts in which he or she functions? How does the person influence these contexts to foster more optimal environments for growth? The theory needs to be elabo- rated to consider the active role of adolescents in choosing settings, modifying the settings in which they engage, and determining the intensity of involvement in these settings/activities.

5. There has been a separation between theories that focus on logical thought or reasoning and theories that focus on other aspects of mental life, especially drives, emotions, and motivation. New research in neuroscience suggests that cognition and emotion work together in complex ways to evaluate situations and plan actions. New theories are needed to conceptualize the way that emotion and reason converge during adolescence to guide decision making. Current theories offer inadequate consideration of feelings of guilt, shame, pride, and joy in life as they influence mental life.

6. The evolutionary emphasis on the social nature of human beings leads to new attention to underlying needs to belong, motivation for connection, and the impact of social exclusion in adolescence. Theory is needed to guide think- ing about how strivings toward belonging and strivings toward personal identity influence each other during adolescence.

7. As society changes, adolescents are on the forefront of adaptation to new technologies, family contexts, economic opportunities, and educational resources. Given the neural plasticity that is ongoing during adolescence, we assume that adolescents are adapting new cognitive structures that allow them to cope with the changing environment. Scholars need to pay closer attention to adolescents’ ways of thinking, their patterns of behavior, and the nature of their relationships in order to gain greater insight about likely pathways into adulthood for the next generation. This will require an interdisciplinary, qualitative approach that will inform new theory.

See also: Attachment; Cognitive Development; Cultural Influences on Adolescent Development; Globalization and Adolescence; The History of the Study of Adolescence; Stages of Adolescence; Transitions into Adolescence; Transitions to Adulthood.

Further Reading

Brown B and Dietz EL (2009) Informal peer groups in middle childhood and adolescence. In: Rubin KH, Bukowski WM, and Laursen B (eds.) Handbook of Peer Interaction, Relationships, and Groups . New York: Guilford.

Adolescence, Theories of


Collins WA and Steinberg L (2006) Adolescent development in interpersonal context. In: Damon W and Eisenberg N (eds.) Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 4:

Socioemotional Processes , pp. 1003–1067. New York: Wiley. Eccles JS and Roeser RW (2009) Schools, academic motivation, and stage-environment fit. In: Lerner RM and Steinberg L (eds.) Handbook of Adolescent Psychology , 3rd edn., pp. 404–434. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Granic I, Dishion TJ, and Hollenstein T (2005) The family ecology of adolescence:

A dynamic systems perspective on normative development. In: Adams G and Berzonsky M (eds.) Blackwell Handbook of Adolescence. New York: Blackwell. Kroger J (2007) Identity Development: Adolescence Through Adulthood , 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Kuhn D (2008) Formal operations from a 21st century perspective. Human Development 51: 48–55. Masten AS (2001) Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist 56: 227–238. Newman BM and Newman PR (2007) Theories of Human Development . New York:

Psychology Press. Repetti RL, Taylor SE, and Seeman TE (2002) Risky families: Family social environments and the mental and physical health of offspring. Psychological Bulletin 128: 330–366.

Romer D and Walker EF (2007) Adolescent Psychopathology and the Developing Brain . New York: Oxford University Press. Silbereisen RK and Lerner RM (eds.) (2007) Approaches to Positive Youth Development . London: Sage. Smith SR, Hamon RR, Ingoldsby BB, and Miller JE (2009) Exploring Family Theories. New York: Oxford University Press.

Relevant Websites – Adolescence – grand theories of adolescent development, biological changes associated with puberty – social changes associated with adolescence in Western industrialized countries. ¼doc&id ¼ 7924&cn ¼28 – Major child development theories and theorists. – Theories of development. – Theories of development.