Adolescence, a critical period of development
Why critically? Most of us know what it’s like to be a teenager and face the problems of this time. Adolescents are the ones who experience the difficulties of this age in the first place, but parents also risk going through difficult years when their children go through this stage. Adolescence is, par excellence, the age of change, a global transformation that involves all dimensions of our identity. It has the form of the transition from childhood to adulthood and represents the final phase of the process of psychophysical maturation. Currently, special emphasis is placed on adolescence, which is conceived as a kind of suspended time, in which the young person has no other obligations than to experiment in different spheres and to plan his future in search of his own identity. In this article, I propose the main changes that the adolescent faces in this delicate stage of development and some useful clues for understanding those aspects of functioning that are often little known, both by parents and by the adolescents themselves.
Therefore, the period of adolescence corresponds to that phase of development from childhood to young adulthood. Conventionally, it is estimated that adolescence begins around the age of 12 and ends around the age of 18. Compared to the life cycle classifications of a few years ago, adolescence is considered to start earlier and end later due to contextual factors, such as less economic stability and a longer period of time spent on vocational training. In addition, the time of psychophysical maturation varies between men and women. Therefore, adolescence now begins around the age of 10-11 in men and 9-13 in women, while the end of adolescence has slipped to about 20 years (for some even 23-25 years).
The phases of the adolescence period
Adolescence is a long and particularly rich period of change. For this reason, we tend to divide it into three phases, each of which is characterized by specific psycho-physical and social transformations and different developmental tasks.
• Preadolescence (10-14 years) – initial period characterized mainly by physical changes that determine the need to establish a new relationship with one’s body. Everything is focused on building a self-image more in line with the new look. Sexual intimacy of physical intimacy with other people also begins.
• Adolescence (14-17 years) – is the central moment of this developmental phase, in which the social relations between oneself and others are structured. This consists in the emancipation from the family unit and in the development of new relationships with the group of colleagues.
• Late adolescence (17-25 years) – the final stage of maturation. The representative task of this phase refers to the construction of one’s own identity, ie to the relationship with oneself.
Adolescence is known to be complicated and emotionally difficult precisely because of the developmental challenges that the young person is called, through nature and culture, to overcome. At a time when no one still knows very well who he is, much less who he wants to be. Let’s not forget that, at the same time, the environment around the adolescent also changes in order to adapt to his needs. The school, the family and the group of colleagues are pushing for the teenager to become an adult and, as such, an autonomous and independent person. The role of the relationship between the internet and adolescents is also becoming increasingly important.
Puberty begins in adolescence. It corresponds to the beginning of the physical and psychological transformation of the person, which will then end with reaching full sexual maturity. Pubertal development takes place at different times for each of us, because it is biologically programmed and determined before we are born. This development is induced at the hormonal level by the release of a hormone (GnRH) that stimulates the production of gonadotropins, which in turn are responsible for activating hormones that stimulate sexual maturation (luteinizing in men and follicular stimulator in women). It is not yet 100% safe, but most likely the process is triggered by a certain amount of body fat. It turns out that overweight boys mature sexually earlier than normal-weight boys, who in turn develop earlier than underweight boys. Other factors that seem to influence sexual development are sleep, changes in light and heat, and stressful life events. Hormones lead to the development of secondary sexual characteristics, such as hair, enlargement of the breasts or testicles, changes in the voice and the ugly acne of youth. Meanwhile, the body grows taller and more and more like an adult. These elements radically change the appearance of the person, who wakes up overnight that he no longer recognizes his own reflection in the mirror. In fact, the main task of the preadolescent phase is to integrate these new elements into the previous body scheme, in order to make it more consistent with the current appearance.
A very common behavior in adolescents is to constantly observe themselves in the mirror. Self-control is at the center of attention at this stage, teenagers are constantly comparing themselves to their peers, asking for confirmation about their body, and they tend to feel ashamed of certain details or their image in general. Let’s keep in mind that times are changing at a frightening rate and that adolescence 10 years ago is not comparable to what is happening today. Not to mention the one from 20 or 30 years ago! Similarly, future adolescence will have different characteristics than today. All this to highlight how development tasks change depending on the historical period and the reference culture. Today we live in the society of narcissism, in which self-enhancement is at the center of existence. This involves a much higher level of attention to one’s own body and how it appears in the eyes of others. Appearance is also outlined from a sexual point of view, because at this stage the first attempts to share intimacy appear. All this is beyond the will of the individual, who feels compelled to conform to the canons of the narcissistic society of which he is a part (which is also extremely tiring, because it robs him of a lot of time and energy). The adolescent lives in a kind of adolescent egocentrism, as children in childhood, young adults are just as convinced that they are always in the center of everyone’s attention. The feeling of constant insecurity can easily undermine self-esteem and cognitive and psychological well-being, even leading to the appearance of clinical pictures such as eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and uncontrolled eating), somatization (anxiety-induced somatic symptoms) or body dysmorphosis. obsessive-compulsive disorder specific to body image, which acquires a particular nuance in the form of obsessive and often unfounded concern that one’s own body is not muscular and athletic enough). Symptoms related to mood or anxiety are much more common than we imagine, especially in the form of depression and panic attacks.
Another developmental task typical of adolescence is to choose and structure its own value system, partially take over those transmitted by the family of origin and integrate them with others developed independently. To do this, the adolescent relies on new learning models, such as teachers, educators, parish priests, sports coaches, and so on. By observing and imitating figures with a different educational role from their parents, the person finds his or her own way of seeing things and relating to the world. That is why, nowadays, it is no longer possible to impose a rule on the adolescent without justifying it. “Do it because that’s what I say, as your father.” It’s not enough, the teenager needs explanations and especially coherence between what he does and what the adult asks him to do. The situation becomes chaotic for the adolescent, parents play a crucial and absolutely delicate role in this delicate phase of change. It gives them more and more space as they develop their autonomy.Regotiating roles between children and parents is a key element in this process.It is not easy at all, but it is possible!