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Seeds of Light Foundation


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The word "adolescence" comes from the Latin word adolescere, meaning "to grow into maturity." The beginning of adolescence is marked by the onset of puberty, the period of sexual maturation. This biological event transforms a child into a physical adult, and carries with it important psychological and social consequences. The need to establish an independent identity becomes a major concern of the individual. For the first time, the adolescent confronts some of the demands of the adult world - the need to train for future work and to develop intimate relationships with peers of the opposite sex. In this section we will discuss the physical, psychological, and social aspects of this period of life.


Physical Maturation.

Long before the emotional and social conflicts that are associated with adolescence erupt, hormonal changes begin to have their effects on a young person's body. The hormonal changes trigger the maturation of the reproductive organs and the development of secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair in males and breasts in females. While the timing of these changes varies considerably with the individual, puberty usually begins between the ages of ten and twelve in girls and twelve and fourteen in boys (Muuss, 1975).


Social Maturity.

The sexual maturation heralded by puberty transforms the child physically into an adult. But whether or not the child is as- signed the social status of adulthood after puberty depends on the culture in which the child lives. In our society the child who has passed through puberty is not yet considered an adult. He or she is still dependent on the parents and frequently lives at home for several more years. In Western societies adolescence is a transitional period between childhood and adulthood that lasts until the individual is at least seventeen or eighteen years of age. In some societies, however, children who have obtained reproductive maturity are considered working members of the adult community and may start their own families. For them there is no adolescence, no transitional period between childhood and adulthood (Knepler, 1969; Muuss, 1975). Clearly, unlike infancy and childhood, adolescence is more a creation of certain societies than a distinct period of physical development.


Establishing an Identity.

Although most of them would never admit it, young teenagers are still quite dependent on their parents for security, guidance, and support. Ten years later, however, in their early twenties, they are generally able to provide for their own needs. Along with the outward signs of independence, such as making their own decisions and becoming financially responsible, most young adults have also gained a sense of themselves as separate, autonomous people. The establishment of this separate identity is the major developmental task of adolescence.

A person who manages this transition successfully is ready to meet the challenges of adulthood. One who fails to do so is severely handicapped as a young adult. According to Erik Erikson (1950), who introduced the concepts of identity and the identity crisis, the physical, sexual, and social demands on the adolescent often produce internal conflict. To resolve this conflict the identity crisis successfully, Erikson emphasizes, adolescents must develop an inner sense of continuity between what they were in the past and what they will become. This is what is meant by identity: an individual's sense of personal sameness and continuity. According to Erikson, adolescents often attempt to determine who they are by trying out different roles temporarily. Thus, one adolescent may try her hand at acting, throw herself into the study of philosophy. and become involved in politics. By experimenting with a variety of possible choices, adolescents acquire some idea of the lifestyle associated with each role they try on, yet do not commit themselves irrevocably to any one. Erikson notes that these experiments with different identities are much more possible in some societies than others.

While an American teenager has a prolonged period of adolescence during which to experiment, young people in societies that have either no period of adolescence or a very short one are forced into permanent adult roles soon after puberty. In the United States, many youths do not develop a stable idcntity until the college years, or even later. Interviews with college students suggest that every young person is likely to be at one of four levels in the achievement of an independent identity (Marcia, 1966). At one extreme are those who have experienced a period of conflict and indecision concerning their values and choice of career, but who have successfully resolved that crisis and are now strongly committed to an occupation and an ideology. These are the people who have reached identity achievement. At the other extreme are the drifters those who are both completely uncommitted and apparently completely unconcerned.

Somewhere between the extremes are two other types: those in the midst of resolving an identity crisis and those so strongly committed to their parents' values and choice of a career for them that it is difficult to tell where the parents end and the young person begins. In a survey of students interviewed first as freshmen and later as seniors, 2% of the freshmen had established a firm sense of both occupational and ideological identity when they entered college, and 19% had done so by the end of their college careers (Waterman, Geary, and Wa- terman, 1974).


Identity Crisis.

"Identity crisis" has become a common expression in our society. So has the assumption that it is normal for all adolescents to go through a very stormy time in achieving an identity. However, it is important to note that turmoil and conflict are not inevitable hallmarks of adolescent development. Many high school and college students cope quite well with the developmental tasks of adolescence and make the passage through these years without major turmoil (King, 1973).


Getting Stuck at this Level.

If an individual gets stuck at this level then a personality will arise that is always in search of identity. This personality will not allow the soul to evolve past this level, and the life-long adolscent personality and all the expected adolscent traits will dominate the individual and frustrate their lives.

It is so easy for any individual to get stuck at any stage and become dominated by the arising strong personality to such an extent that the individual becomes identified with this personality, which is not the individual soul, but is the false, conditioned personality.


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