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National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Forum on Adolescence; Kipke MD, editor. Adolescent Development and the Biology of Puberty: Summary of a Workshop on New Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999.

Cover of Adolescent Development and the Biology of Puberty

Adolescent Development and the Biology of Puberty: Summary of a Workshop on New Research.

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Changes in the Study of Adolescent Development

Over the last two decades, the research base in the field of adolescent development has undergone a growth spurt. Knowledge has expanded significantly. New studies have allowed more complex views of the multiple dimensions of adolescence, fresh insights into the process and timing of puberty, and new perspectives on the behaviors associated with the second decade of life. At the same time, the field's underlying theoretical assumptions have changed and matured.

Researchers of human development have consistently observed that the second decade of life is a time of dramatic change: a period of rapid physical growth, endocrine (hormone) changes, cognitive development and increasing analytic capability; emotional growth, a time of self-exploration and increasing independence, and active participation in a more complex social universe. For much of this century, scientists and scholars studying adolescence tended to assume that the changes associated with adolescence were almost entirely dictated by biological influences. It has been viewed as a time of storm and stress, best contained or passed through as quickly as possible. Adolescence, a 1904 book by G. Stanley Hall, typified this standpoint. It was Hall who popularized the notion that adolescence is inevitably a time of psychological and emotional turmoil (Hall, 1904). Half a century later, psychoanalytic writers including Anna Freud accepted and augmented Hall's emphasis on turmoil (Petersen, 1988). Even today, "raging hormones" continue to be a popular explanation for the lability, aggression, and sexual activity associated with adolescence (Litt, 1995). Intense conflict between adolescents and their parents is often considered an unavoidable consequence of adolescence (Petersen, 1988). However, this assumption is not supported by scientific evidence. The assumption that turmoil and conflict are inevitable consequences of the teenage years may even have prevented some adolescents from receiving the support and services they needed.

Research is now creating a more realistic view of adolescence. Adolescence continues to be seen as a period of time encompassing difficult developmental challenges, but there is wider recognition that biology is only one factor that affects young people's development, adjustment, and behavior. In fact, there is mounting evidence that parents, members of the community, service providers, and social institutions can both promote healthy development among adolescents and intervene effectively when problems arise.

The study of adolescence is now becoming an increasingly sophisticated science. Thanks to powerful new research tools and other scientific and technological advances, today's theories of adolescent development are more likely to be supported by scientific evidence than in the past. Indeed, there has been sufficient research to allow a reassessment of the nature of adolescent development. At the same time, there is greater recognition that neither puberty nor adolescence can be understood without considering the social and cultural contexts in which young people grow and develop, including the familial and societal values, social and economic conditions, and institutions that they experience. This research has contributed the following to our understanding of adolescence:

The adolescent years need not be troubled years.

There is now greater recognition that young people can move through the adolescent years without experiencing great trauma or getting into serious trouble; most young people do. Although adolescence can certainly be a challenging span of years, individuals negotiate it with varying degrees of difficulty, just as they do other periods of life. Moreover, when problems do arise during adolescence they should not be considered as "normal"—i.e., that the adolescent will grow out of it—nor should they be ignored (Petersen, 1988).

Only a segment of the adolescent population is at high risk for experiencing serious problems.

Over the past 50 years, studies conducted in North America and Europe have documented that only about a quarter of the adolescent population is at high risk for, or more vulnerable to, a wide range of psychosocial problems (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1995). These adolescents are not believed to be at increased risk because of biological or hormonal changes associated with puberty, but rather from a complex interaction among biological, environmental, and social factors. Indeed, as discussed by Anne Petersen, there is mounting evidence that most biological changes interact with a wide range of contextual, psychological, social, and environmental factors that affect behavior (Buchanan et al., 1992; Susman, 1997, see also Brooks-Gunn et al., 1994). Researchers are also concluding that behaviors associated with adolescence, including some high risk behaviors, are influenced by the social milieu (Brooks-Gunn and Reiter, 1990). Studies show that, in contrast to children and adults, the most common causes of mortality among adolescents are associated with social, environmental, and behavioral factors rather than genetic, congenital, or biological diseases. Indeed, many of today's adolescents are using alcohol and other drugs, engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse, and are both victims and perpetrators of violence, which puts them at increased risk for a wide range of developmental and health-related problems, including morbidity and mortality. It is important to note that the leading causes of morbidity and mortality among adolescents are entirely preventable. Although relatively small, a significant number of adolescents also experience morbidity and mortality associated with genetic and congenital disorders (such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy), cancer, and infectious diseases that affect their development, behavior, and well-being.

Adolescent behavior is influenced by complex interactions between the biological and social contexts.

In the past, researchers tended to conduct research designed to examine the impact of hormones on adolescent behavior. While this work continues, there is now an appreciation for the complex reciprocal relationship and interaction between biological and social environments, and the interaction between these environments and adolescent behavior (Graber et al., 1997).

Current understanding of adolescent development remains limited.

Although the study of adolescence is becoming more sophisticated in nature, researchers also recognize that the current knowledge base on adolescent development and behavior is quite limited. The research conducted to date has predominately been descriptive in nature, relied on cross-sectional data, and been unidimensional in focus. Indeed, few research studies have successfully considered the multiple factors that collectively influence adolescent development. As discussed by Iris Litt, there is now a growing appreciation that new research is needed, including research that employs longitudinal designs; characterizes developmental changes associated with the onset of puberty well before the age of 8; and seeks to characterize growth and development across the life span—i.e., from infancy to adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, and the senior years. Studying these developmental stages in isolation from one another provides only a partial and incomplete picture.

Researchers from diverse fields, including the biological, behavioral, and social sciences, have developed new techniques to study adolescent development.

Use of more rigorous research methods has improved the reliability and validity of the measurement techniques used, and consequently the ability to document the multifaceted dimensions of growth and maturation during adolescence. For example, the development of radioimmunoassay methodology in the late 1960s, and the considerable refinement of that process over the decades, have made it possible to study the hormones that control reproductive maturation. The development of neuroimaging technology in the 1970s created exciting new opportunities for studying brain development; these techniques include more sensitive, easy-to-use hormone assay technology and new brain imaging technologies, allowing insight into brain development and function. Moreover, longitudinal studies are increasingly being designed to characterize the interaction among genetic, biological, familial, environmental, social, and behavioral factors (both risk and protective in nature) among children and adolescents. For example, a valuable new source of data that has the potential to significantly advance the knowledge base of physiological and behavioral development among adolescents is the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (called Add Health). From the collection of longitudinal data, it will be possible to examine how the timing and tempo of puberty influences social and cognitive development among teenagers. This dataset will also permit analyses to examine how family-, school-and individual-level risk and protective factors are associated with adolescent health and morbidity (e.g., emotional health, violence, substance use, sexuality).

An Increasing Number of Disciplines are Beginning to Conduct Research on Adolescent Development.

Understanding adolescent development requires answers to a number of difficult questions: how do adolescents develop physically, how do their relationships with parents and friends change, how are young people as a group viewed and treated by society, how does adolescence in our society differ from adolescence in other cultures, and how has adolescence and adolescent development changed over the past few decades. A complete understanding of adolescence, and the potential to answer these questions depends on an integrated approach, and involvement of a wide range of disciplines, including but not limited to endocrinology, psychology, sociology, psychiatry, genetics, anthropology, neuroscience, history, and economics. While each discipline offers its own view point regarding adolescence and adolescent development, the field will not be able to successfully answer these questions without integrating the contributions of different disciplines into a coherent and comprehensive viewpoint. Fortunately, studies of puberty are increasingly drawing on and therefore benefiting from the knowledge base of these diverse fields.

Copyright 1999 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK224702