Early Adolescence: The Point of No Return - Part I

"The point of no return." That sounds a little ominous, but actually it's quite appropriate when we speak about the beginning of adolescence. It's not so much that we are moving into difficult territory, but more that the initiation of adolescence marks the beginning stages of the child's journey into adulthood, which once started, cannot really be halted or reversed. Once a child is beset with the physical changes of puberty, childhood as he or she knew it, and as you knew it, is gone.

Of course we keep our childhood with us throughout life in many ways, but not in the same way as we have it during our early years. There are certain very distinct developments during adolescence that just won't allow us to turn back to the comfort and security of a child's mind, fantasy life, or state of dependency on parents.

So with that said, it's understandable why adolescence is both very exciting, and very scary - and that goes for teens and parents alike! There are new freedoms, new capacities for thinking, a new appearance, and newfound independence. There are also new responsibilities, a loss of childhood security, and adult-like demands that require teens to be much more accountable for their decisions and behavior.

Adolescence is a fairly long developmental period, the onset of which is usually the beginning of puberty at ages 11 to 14, and its completion at approximately age 19 or when the young person enters into adult living. In actuality, adolescence can linger well into one's early adult years, particularly in our culture where there is a growing emphasis on higher education necessitating longer periods of time in college. It is not uncommon these days for young men and women to live at home well into their 20's as they pursue educational goals, or simply because they are not ready to live on their own.

Most adolescent developmental psychologists break adolescence down into three general periods which are early, middle, and late adolescence. Since there is so much information about the developmental tasks of each of these stages, I are going to focus on just early adolescence in this article. I'll start by outlining the general developmental tasks of adolescence, and then give some specifics about what occurs in the first several years as it pertains to puberty, the development of cognition, and the changes in peer group. In "Early Adolescence - Part II" I'll continue our conversation, but will focus on the parent-teen relationship. Be sure to read "Mothers and Sons" and "Fathers and Daughters" which offer additional perspectives on the changing parent-child relationship during adolescence.

Major Tasks of Adolescence

There are two primary tasks of adolescence. These are the development of an individual identity, and the capacity for intimacy.

Identity Formation

The formation of an identity in adolescence entails becoming a person in one's own right. From birth, the adolescent has been collecting various aspects of his or her personality. These include identifications with parents, friends, influential teachers or other adults, peer groups, one's social class, historical traditions, ethnic or religious groupings, gender identifications, and so forth. All of these are integrated during adolescence, and become crystallized into a stable character that serves as one's basic identity throughout adult life. Adolescence is the time for trying on all the various possibilities, and synthesizing and refining them into a sort of coherent whole that will serve as a stable ego from which one operates, and that others can know and recognize as who one is.

Capacity for Intimacy

The capacity for intimacy comes in later adolescence and is marked by the teen's ability to sustain a relationship in which self-fulfillment is balanced with the desire to satisfy another's needs. Such a relationship is characterized by the ability to combine affection, sexuality, and friendship all in one. One can maintain a strong attachment to another without the fear of being absorbed by the other person. Closeness can grow and be fostered even in the face of differences and conflicts.

The process of forming an identity and of being able to engage in intimate relationships gets started in early adolescence, although the initial steps are somewhat unwieldy as development during this time is very uneven and quite different among individuals in the same age group. It is a very awkward and choppy phase that can leave parents' heads spinning. The ball gets rolling with the initiation of puberty.


The two most striking developments during puberty are the changes in physical appearance and increases in sexual drives due to hormonal changes.

Physical Changes

In the several years prior to puberty, there is a significant change in weight and height for both boys and girls. Girls gain some eleven pounds and grow three to four inches per year, while boys gain thirteen to fourteen pounds and grow four to five inches per year. As puberty sets in, the changes in weight and height are accompanied by the changes in hair growth, the development of breasts in girls and maturation of genitals in both sexes, changes in voice, and so forth.

This fast change in appearance and size accompanied by the emergence of adult physical characteristics, especially in regard to sexual development, all serve to create significant fluctuations in the adolescent's self-image. Over just a period of several years, one's body and appearance changes from that of a child to that of an adult. The teen is forced to begin seeing herself in new ways, which necessarily results in new desires and behaviors.

Sexuality and Hormones

Along with the growth and change in almost all aspects of physical appearance, the adolescent is besieged by hormonal changes and fluctuations that bring on an upsurge of sexual drives that cannot be ignored or repressed. These drives can be daunting and produce a new set of problems for the adolescent requiring weighing out the consequences of actions, and planning for one's future. For girls, the beginning of menarche marks a new capacity for pregnancy and childbirth. This development signifies a rite of passage in a sense into the world of womanhood where one has a choice to have or not to have children. For boys, genital maturation coupled with hormonal changes signals the capacity to initiate and participate in the adult activities of reproduction.

Impact of Puberty

Now, if you think about your own twelve or thirteen year old child and imagine all of these changes and their impact on him, you can see that they can be quite overwhelming. Moreover, the early adolescent is highly invested narcissistically which simply means the focus of attention is on oneself - her appearance, how others view her, and how she feels.

There is a tremendous amount of comparison that goes on during puberty having to do with who develops at what rate, and who develops the fastest. A girl who seems to grow a foot taller than everyone in her class well before the group catches up, may feel extremely self-conscious. On the other hand, a young man who does not grow hair under his arms until much later than his friends may have a significant drop in self-esteem.

Young teens spend much of their time thinking about their own appearance, and then comparing themselves to others. Such comparisons can be extremely painful, and it is helpful if parents can be aware of just how important such concerns are to the teen during this time.

Parenting Prescription

(1) Some sympathy and assurance that your teen will either catch up with the others soon enough, or that the others will catch up with them (whichever the case may be), can be helpful and soothing.

(2) Secondly, tolerance for your teen's heavy focus on concerns about appearance show that you understand what they are feeling.

(3) Third, allowing frank discussion about sexuality can relieve teens just by recognizing that these new feelings are normal and that they can be dealt with without necessarily acting on them. Help your teen solidify his values, and come up with strategies for coping with sexuality. An important note here is to keep in mind that your young male teen will not want to have such discussions with his mother, but with his father or a male figure. The same goes for the young female who will prefer her mother or other adult female for these conversations.

Cognitive Developments

Early adolescence marks the beginning of a whole new phase in the capacity to think and process information. At about age twelve (give or take), the young teen moves into what Piaget has called the period of formal operations, which continues to be refined and developed throughout adolescence. Very simply, this refers to the ability to think abstractly, or to think hypothetically. This allows teens to test out different ideas based on logic and rationality - to come up with a hypothesis and think through all the possible consequences before making a decision as to whether it is true or false.

This development is marked by more sophisticated problem-solving and future planning. Of course the young teen overestimates the value of his ideas and solutions to problems, especially in the early phases of adolescence. What is important is that with this new cognitive ability, teens can begin to examine for themselves what they have learned, what values they have internalized, and who they are in relation to their family. The questions become "Who am I?" "Where do I fit in?" "What will I become in the future?"

One now has alternatives in working on the task of building an identity. It is fortunate that this development in cognition occurs along with the emotionalism of puberty, because it gives the teen a strong tool to combat impulsivity, intense feelings, and reactions to new social pressures in the peer group.

Parenting Prescription

Use every opportunity to enhance your teen's ability to solve problems logically. This can be done through multiple conversations about everyday decisions and events. You can also discuss social problems, or simply peer relationships. Early adolescents are very concerned with issues of justice and fairness. Help them explore their values, how they view right versus wrong, and how they think others should act in relationships. This will help to strengthen and expand this new cognitive capacity that is most important for adult living.

Peer Relationships

The peer group is extremely important to the early adolescent. This is due to the developmental task known as separation-individuation, which requires the young teen to separate from his or her parents (psychically), and then to go about building an individual identity. This process doesn't happen all at once. First there is the process of separation, which is followed later by the process of individuation (building an identity).

The peer group is like a way-station between separation and individuation. The early peer group is comprised of smaller groups of friends (two to three), of the same sex primarily. These young teens are very self-involved out of necessity, and tend to pick friends that mirror themselves. These friendships are self-serving, and are apt to change very quickly. Today's best friend is gone a month down the road. These are not the long-lasting friendships of the eighteen or nineteen year old adolescent.

Early peer relationships are also marked by a high degree of competition and rivalry. Young adolescents work hard at being better than peers in sports, in school, or whatever the activity of the moment is. They brag, exaggerate their talents and skills, and even can seem cruel in their lack of empathy for others. If you've ever listened to a group of thirteen-year-old girls talking about other girls, you know exactly what I mean. Fortunately, this is a temporary phase.

Parenting Prescription

Listen attentively to the details of these changing peer relationships as your teen talks about them. Insert that new capacity for hypothetical thinking gently into conversations, particularly when it comes to having empathy for others. Your young teen is very narcissistic and self-involved, but she also has the capacity to empathize with others if encouraged. It's your job to provide that encouragement, while sympathizing to a degree with the psychological and emotional wounds your teen sustains to her tenuous self. This is a rough period for teens and parents. We will continue this discussion in Part II, and will focus more on the changes in the relationship between parents and their teens during this phase.

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